10/31/2010 12:47PM

Zenyatta + 60 = ?


As advertised on its website, the Halloween evening edition of "60 Minutes" was determined to take on the question of whether or not Zenyatta, six days shy of her defense of her title in the Breeders' Cup Classic, should be referred to as "the best horse ever."

The question, of course, is disingenuous, because no one who knows the history and nature of the racing game asks such a thing with a straight face. Concensus is neither expected or encouraged. It is a sad commentary on the depths to which horse racing has fallen in the eyes of the main-est of mainstream media that a) it takes a once-in-a-lifetime animal like Zenyatta to attract a flicker of attention and, 2) in order to justify committing the vast resources deployed to assemble such a story, the subject must be the best or the biggest, with its elements of the superlative boiled down and simplified for mass digestion.

In asking such a specious question, sometimes answers to better questions elbow into the frame. Hopefully, during the course of the piece, there comes some insight as to why Zenyatta rises to the level of asking about "best ever," beyond the obvious perfection of her record. What is it about the Zenyatta package that now, after 2 1/2 years of campaigning, "60 Minutes" finally drops by? I will concede that, without a doubt, Zenyatta is the best horse the most people never heard about until very recently, and that she will have a larger audience for "60 Minutes" than all of the live crowds and ESPN cable telecasts -- including two Breeders' Cups -- that have witnessed her in the past.

(For the record, on this edition of "60 Minutes" Zenyatta at least will be the smiley-face, sharing screen time with David Stockman, the backsliding architect of Ronald Reagan's economic policy, and the Iowa town of Newton, which is not doing so good.)

"60 Minutes" made its debut on Sept. 24, 1968. The first show featured backstage peeks at presidential candidates Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon, a look at police brutality with Attorney General Ramsey Clark, a commentary by Art Buchwald and a short film by Saul Bass. The atmosphere of the moment was charged with elections, political assassinations, war protests and carnage, but if "60 Minutes" had tackled the thorny issue of the "best horse ever" back then, they would not have needed to look far. One month earlier, on Aug. 24, 1968, Dr. Fager set a world record of 1:32 1/5 for one mile in the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington Park while carrying 134 pounds, the highpoint of a season during which he won major stakes from 7 to 10 furlongs, on turf and dirt, in New York, New Jersey, Illinois and California, and never carried less than 130 pounds. 

Mike Wallace: "Are you telling me he could have run faster than 1:32 1/5?"

John Nerud: "Coulda, sure, but what's the point? They pay you the same as long as you win."

The best horse ever? Impossible. In the game, the question is never taken seriously, posed only to provoke, to entertain, or trotted out by lazy columnists lacking an angle. I'll ask it sometimes of the guys and gals hanging around the tavern, which then gives me the chance to show off how much I know about Gallant Fox, or Discovery, and that usually clears the bar. Best singer of all time is easy (Ella), best town (Mendocino), best movie (Godfather Part II) and best jockey/mother of my child (ummm). But best horse? If they'd have asked, and I'm sure they lost my number, I would have told "60 Minutes" to go back to Lexington and work this way, stopping to kneel at Man o' War, Exterminator, Whirlaway, Citation, Buckpasser, Damascus, the good Doctor F., Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and Spectacular Bid, and then we can talk about Zenyatta.

I was encouraged, however, by the presence of Michelle Boniface in a position of responsibility on the "60 Minutes" crew on location at Hollywood Park last week. Boniface, 23, is the granddaughter of J. William Boniface, the patriarch of the Maryland family whose Bonita Farm operation was the subject of the reality show "Thoroughbred," which aired on Animal Planet in 2001. It was Michelle's job to make sure the crew stood in the right places, talked to the right people and didn't step in the wrong stuff, at least not too often. If you like what "60 Minutes" comes up with on Zenyatta, Boniface deserves a nod. If you don't, blame it on the fact that the upper reaches of the media descend upon the carnies of horse racing only about once in a blue moon, and if they can't get the question right, how can anything else follow?