11/08/2010 2:13PM

My 20 Minutes with Zenyatta


Standing on a balcony overlooking historic Churchill Downs, binoculars in hand, I spent 20 minutes with Zenyatta. 

I usually keep the same visual routine for every race.   I watch the horses in the paddock, and keep my eyes on them as they warm up and approach the starting gate.  When the bell sounds, I train my binoculars on the runner that I've backed and keep them focused on that horse, no matter where he is, or how badly beaten, all the way to the finish. 

It is afterwards that I’ll watch the replay, and take my trip notes on the rest of the runners in the race. 

My routine changed for this year's Breeders' Cup Classic.  No matter what happened, or where she finished, I was going to stay frozen on Zenyatta. 

The atmosphere was electric at Churchill Downs as dusk set onto Louisville.  As Zenyatta began her walk to the paddock, the multitude began to buzz.  Each time she did her patented "strut," the crowd - her crowd - laughed, clapped, and was thoroughly entertained.  Clearly, Zenyatta understood that this was a show as much as a racing event. 

As Zenyatta walked through the tunnel onto the racetrack, perhaps for the last time, she had one last trick up her sleeve.  The big mare did a little two-step for her admirers, tripping the light fantastic until she set hoof on the main oval.  The crowd's response was deafening.  The star had arrived.

Zenyatta wasn't warmed up very vigorously by her jockey, Mike Smith.  While most of the horses in the Classic galloped or jogged to the midway point on the backstretch, Zenyatta calmly walked to the five-sixteenths pole.  There she remained, going in circles, for the final eight minutes before the curtain dropped. 

Once the starting gate opened, it was apparent that this was to be Zenyatta's biggest challenge.  As usual, she broke a half-length slowly, but then was checked from in between rivals.  Soon she was at the rear of the field, far off the leaders, a dark bay or brown island unto herself.  In fact, she had never been this far behind at any stage of her previous 19 races. 

As the field straightened down the backstretch, I felt the familiar dread that most Zenyatta supporters experience during her races.  My God, she's not going to fire.  She's going to run last.  A man standing behind me stated that she was finished.  True Zenyatta fans are also blessed with fervent faith.  It's not over, yet.  Still far behind at the half-mile pole, Smith was committed to the rail.  If he swung wide entering the far turn, he would have been fanned impossibly wide.  That wouldn't have been the recipe for victory this evening. 

So, Smith stayed in.  And Zenyatta was stopped every so slightly as the field bunched up at the five-sixteenths pole.  Then, the seam opened, Smith angled the Cadillac to the outside, and all of a sudden, we had a horse race. 

The crowd exploded as Zenyatta was set down for the drive, still a few lengths in arrears of Blame.  She kept giving her all under those Twin Spires.  For the first time in her life, it was not enough.  Zenyatta arrived on the scene too late.  She was second best. 

I've been to Belmont many times when there's been a Triple Crown on the line.  All throughout the day, the excitement is palpable.  When the claimant has been denied, the air goes out of the balloon, the people silently go home, and the disappointment soon fades. 

That wasn't the case at Churchill Downs on Saturday.  Some fans wept.  Some felt angry.  Some wanted to blame the jockey, the trip, the track, and the pace. 

I couldn't understand their negativity.  One racing fan asked me, "Doesn't it hurt you that she got beat?  Aren't you upset?" 

"Quite the contrary," I replied.  "We just saw one of the greatest races, one of the greatest spectacles, in all of sport.  Plus, Zenyatta gained more in this one race than she did in her previous nineteen.  To all of her doubters, she proved what her fans knew her to be.  A top, top horse.  A champion."

I don't think the Zenyatta fan understood.  Most folks are result players.  They see the Wins or Losses.  Very, very rarely, do moral victories stand in racing.  This was one of those occasions.  After nineteen wins in a row, there was still doubt about Zenyatta's true ability.  After one loss, the doubt was erased. 

Let's not forget Blame in all of this.  The Arch colt, now retired to Claiborne Farm, was one of the gamest runners in recent memory.  Professional, hard-hitting, and gutsy, Blame likes a good fight.  It could be argued that any other runner would have faltered when Zenyatta charged at them.  Blame was emboldened.  Not even during the gallop-out did Blame allow Zenyatta to pass. 

DRF. com Handicapper Mike Beer and I were at Belmont for the Jockey Club Gold Cup.  Two things stuck with us after the race.

1.  Haynesfield was very good.

2.  Blame never gave up.

Despite hooking a field with no pace and a sharp front-runner, Blame kept chugging in the stretch.  His "try" couldn't be measured in figures or numbers, but it made an impression. 
Blame doesn't quit.


A cloudy Friday began with controversy as Javier Castellano, aboard Prince Will I Am, dangerously impeded Martin Garcia and Romp on the far turn of the Marathon.  The resulting chain reaction caused Calvin Borel, on A. U. Miner, to check and lose all momentum.  Borel went after Castellano after the race.  "I had so much horse," said Castellano.  "I had pressure outside me.  I went for a hole and they said I took his lane." 

As one that supported A.U. Miner at the windows, watched him check, and then saw him come with a good run on the far outside to finish fourth (placed third via disqualification), I could only wonder "what if" he hadn't been stopped cold.  It's possible A.U. Miner would have won the whole thing.  As it was, Eldaafer completed a solid season for trainer Diane Alvarado by finishing first at 10-1 odds. 

To the blogger that insisted he would wear the "Dunce Cap," if my top selection in the Juvenile Fillies, Awesome Feather, emerged with her unbeaten streak intact, you may send that picture to Dan Illman C/O FormBlog..."

Over the weekend, one of our bloggers asked me why I didn't select Winter Memories in the top four for the Juvenile Fillies Turf.  Not to be rude, but I'm still trying to find out what the big deal is with the well-bred baby.  She was very good in her first two starts and projects to have a nice season next year, but did she deserve to go off at 11-10 based on the cold dope?  Todd Pletcher and Garrett Gomez began their sweep of the juvenile races on turf with More Than Real, a filly that finished second in a fast running of the Grade 3 Natalma in her final prep.  The Europeans disappointed.  My selections even more so.

One of the big angles on the two-day Breeders' Cup card was the "Horse For Course."  Besides Blame (now 5-4-0-1 at Churchill Downs), other winners with previous good form at Churchill included Dubai Majesty (Filly and Mare Sprint, now 7-4-0-1 over the track), Unrivaled Belle (Ladies Classic, 2-2-0-0), and Chamberlain Bridge (Turf Sprint, 5-4-1-0). 
The babies were pretty impressive this year.  Pluck ran his final quarter-mile in 22.54 (according to Formulator Web) to win the Juvenile Turf.  Uncle Mo was simply tremendous in living up to the hype in the Juvenile.  He blasted away from a game Boys At Tosconova to win by 4 1/4 lengths. 
And then there was Goldikova.  Somewhat lost in the Zenyatta hype, the European wonder mare made it three straight Breeders' Cup Miles with her usual late burst.  Paco Boy was conservatively handled by Ryan Moore, wasn't asked for his best until upper stretch, and rallied stoutly for fourth.  Gio Ponti ran very well to be second.

I couldn't believe that Big Drama was allowed such an easy lead in the Sprint.  But, he's a good horse capable of doing very good things.  When Big Drama faced no early pressure, he became extremely tough to run down.  I cashed on him, but not on Morning Line, who ran an absolute corker in the Dirt Mile only to fall shy to longshot Dakota Phone. 

Even with Workforce scratched, our American turf runners failed to put up much of a fight in the Turf.  Dangerous Midge, first-time blinkers, Lasix, and Dettori, made his Grade 1 debut a winning one.  Champ Pegasus tried to steal it through tepid fractions, but simply wasn't good enough. 
Shared Account was aided by a perfect trip and ride to upset defending champion Midday in the Filly and Mare Turf. 


Back next time with the HandiGambling results.
Hope you enjoyed the BC.

Jeff T. More than 1 year ago
I also forgot to congratulate the Goldikova camp for what truly made the Breeders Cup historic. I love that horse almost as much as Big Z. She's (Goldikova) coming back for 4... unreal and historic.
Jeff T. More than 1 year ago
It's great to get to read all this stuff (but it sucks because I never get to post for some reason). There have been many good points raised on the BC races and the specific horses entered. After the pain (of watching Zenyatta not pull off a perfect 20-0 record) has warn off... it really is easy for me to put in perspective. Blame and Zenyatta were the best male and female horses in the country. No argument so far? Blame wins by a little bit and Zenyatta finally receives the admiration that she has deserved all along. No arguments yet? The HOY debate begins and this is where the opinions will become very heated (from bloggers to Blame's breeders) and almost tongue-tying at times. There is always a little truth sprinkled into every fabrication and this holds true for almost every post on Dan's blog here (mine included). It is easy to say after the fact that Zenyatta should be this and Blame should be that. I believe it is Zenyatta's camp that wishes they had done a little more (but they DID do a lot more by bringing her back at 6 yrs. old. They prepped her no different than they did the past 3 years (getting her ready for the BC and more specifically; the BC Classis the past 2 years). Blame's camp did exactly the same thing as Z's did... get him ready for BC Classic at Churchill, a track he loves. Seems logical and Zenyatta was doing it as well; and, it was going to assure us of a great race for what should be the biggest honor in U.S. racing (the BC Classic showdown). Now that it's over and I realize that no amount of venom will change a thing... I think Blame and Zenyatta should make babies together. Everything else is just... well... speculation.
binky mcfadden More than 1 year ago
Smith screwed up. Z goes to Dubai for World Cup. Will he be the jockey?
Lou A. More than 1 year ago
Hey Mat you should get you FACTS straight BEFORE you post!!! the race that Blind Luck raced at PARX in PA. was for STRAIGHT THREE YEAR OLDS!!!!! and no Zenyatta did not travel farther to race than Blame. I always said why did Shireffs scratch her when she was supposed to run at Churchill? because the track was sloppy? I thought champions were supposed to be champions on all kinds of track conditions?
CM More than 1 year ago
Nobody can deny ZENYATTA and her story have been positive for horse racing. But can we please stop using that extra attention as a basis for awarding her Horse of the Year? Let's keep it to on-track accomplishment. If we are going to base an award on attention grabbing, I am going to become a jockey agent and find a young guy (say a Joe Talamo or Alan Garcia) and have him do the following.... 1. Start dating Miley Cyrus; 2. Join the Jonas Brothers; 3. Write a tell-all book about the hard life of a jockey; 4. Do the requisite book tour with Oprah, Regis, Letterman, Ellen, Leno etc. 5. Join the Tea Party; 6. Party with Lindsay Lohan; 7. Go on Dancing with the Stars. Imagine all the attention. He will be a lock for an Eclipse.
Blackseabass More than 1 year ago
Blackstone, Gallop outs only matter if the horse is kept to a drive and is looking to run farther next out. Passing or not passing a horse when both are being pulled up doesn't mean much. Those things were not in play saturday for either horse. Smith was standing up a jump beyond the wire. It is hooey. Its just something to say to try and counter the folks that say Z was getting to Blame and he's lucky the wire came up. Blame doesn't quit. I would agree with that statement. Gio Ponti doesn't quit either. I wouldn't label Summer Bird a quitter. Lookin at lucky is not a quitter. Hystericalady would be hard to classify as a quitter.I could go on but I won't. So for the people that want to say Blame is the first horse Z ever faced that wasn't a quitter, I'd have to say recheck the PP's(not you LSD) . If Blame is the only gamer Z ever faced then that would mean that the horse population in this world is not very good. The BC races and other graded stakes are just like $2500 claimers at Los Al populated by an endless supply of quitters ? If so why do we watch them even if we don't have a bet ? Blame is a logical pick for HOY. It is pretty funny how none of the owners or trainers trust the people with a vote to be logical though. Fallout from years gone by ? I'd have to say so. There is enough demagoguery from both sides to make it seem like a presidential election ! For a track vagrant and C-SPAN junkie like myself it combines two things I get a kick out of into one. I'll follow along for the laughs.
blackstone More than 1 year ago
blackseabass Re the gallop out-thank you. It seems as though it is as i thought. Let's see what Dan says.
Dave K More than 1 year ago
Jeffrey: Sorry we did not connect at Canterbury. I had the Roman Ruler cap laying on the table on Saturday and if you would like to have it, email me at dkragness@mncable.net with your mailing address and I will send it to you.
dsully More than 1 year ago
Dan Is anyone going to be fined or suspended for the Life at Ten fiasco. Do you think there should be punishment, and if so, who should be punished? This horse should not have run and cost bettors millions of dollars. Saturday was a great day of racing, but Friday with Borel's insanity and Life at Ten performance after public statements from both jockey and trainer that she wasn't right, kept this from being racing's greatest weekend. I bet Unbridled Belle so this is not a loser's rant. Your thoughts? DSully
Alan More than 1 year ago
C, The HOTY argument has all the incendiaries to once again degenerate into another east-coast vs. west-coast, dirt vs. synthetic, speed figures vs.. well maybe I'm taking this too far!! I still believe it comes down to how you define the award. If you define HOTY as the horse who performed the best in the US in 2010, it is hard to argue against Blame...or perhaps even UNCLE MO! Without hopefully again getting thrown to the wolves as a hater of Zenyatta and/or west coast racing, Zenyatta's connections could have made the entire argument moot by allowing her to compete in 2010 at a level befitting the reigning BC Classic champion. They didn't... and I wonder now if they regret not facing the boys in other Gr1 races this year. If you define HOTY as the horse who dominated the racing year, it is Zenyatta hands down. The NFL Player of the Year award is almost always won by a QB or RB. Are they really the players who performed best that year? Are the QBs and RBs by far the best players on a pro football team? I would argue no...but QBs and RBs are players whose performances dominate the sport. We have a similar situation in our sport in 2010. 2010 in horse racing = Zenyatta. I would vote for Zenyatta as HOTY in 2010, much as I would have voted (and argued on the blog last year) for Rachel Alexandra as HOTY in 2009. I would understand if someone voted for Blame...or Uncle Mo...or even Goldikova. But for me, it will always be Zenyatta.