10/15/2010 2:53PM

Sentiment finally in Zenyatta's favor

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Benoit & Associates
Zenyatta will look to clinch the Horse of the Year title with a victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. – Three weeks from Sunday, on the clear, cool Kentucky morning of Nov. 7, the racing world will awaken with all matters resolved. Horse of the Year will be decided. The lesser divisions will be nailed shut. Horse racing can safely tuck itself away in its winter cave and wait for the emergence of spring, or the release of “Secretariat” on DVD, whichever comes first.

There is never a bad time, though, to point out once again that the whole exercise in determining Thoroughbred champions is grossly unfair, without rhyme or reason, and ultimately without serious merit, given the slippery definitions of achievement recognized by most of the sport’s practitioners. It’s also a whole lot of fun, because folks love polls, and Top 10 lists, and anything else that boils down difficult concepts into bite-sized brain snacks.

The Eclipse Award rules are basic:

◗ January through March is the pre-season, accomplishments in August weigh more than anything in April, and October trumps August, unless the Breeders’ Cup takes place in November, which it has been lately, but mostly because of the NFL schedules.

◗ Pay attention to the Foster, not the Clark.

◗ California racing only counts if the Breeders’ Cup takes place in California.

◗ Europeans need only win a Breeders’ Cup race to be considered for an American seasonal championship.

So it will not have mattered what a grand, long season Proviso has crafted in the United States, fully deserving of the Eclipse Award as outstanding grass mare were the statues engraved today. When she gets beat by Goldikova in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, Proviso will become a footnote.

It will not matter if Ramon Dominguez once again compiles the best all-around seasonal record for jockeys in terms of both purses and winners. If he gets shut out again at the Breeders’ Cup, like he did last year, he will not win the Eclipse Award.

The greatest potential injustice, at least in the hearts and minds of a growing number of racing fans, would be that if somehow Zenyatta lost the Breeders’ Cup Classic and, say, Blame, Quality Road, or Lookin’ At Lucky won, she would be deprived once again of racing’s ultimate honor.

She lost the Horse of the Year vote in 2008 to Curlin, despite the fact that Curlin lost the Breeders’ Cup Classic (while winning the Dubai World Cup, the Stephen Foster, the Woodward, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup that season). Zenyatta lost the vote in 2009 to Rachel Alexandra, despite the fact that Zenyatta won the Classic and Rachel Alexandra, after winning the Preakness, the Haskell, and the Woodward, stayed home.

But this year? It won’t happen again. It won’t happen again because – and I’m not exactly going out on a limb here – the chances of Zenyatta losing the Breeders’ Cup Classic hover somewhere between slim and none, with slim in play only if ESPN’s helicopter-cam crashes in midstretch this time around instead of just spooking Quality Road.

As a handicapper, I have very little imagination. If I can picture how a certain result would unfold – Rachel Alexandra running her heart out and eventually getting caught, for instance – then I will leave room for that result no matter how unlikely. Otherwise, I have trouble committing to the concept.

I know Zenyatta has cut things close a few times in the past (I half jokingly blame pilot arrogance, not error, and Mike Smith would agree), but the result is always identical, which requires me to cling to my personal definition of sanity: Doing the same thing again and again and enjoying a successful outcome.

In fact, I think Zenyatta’s victory in the Classic at Churchill Downs could be somewhat anti-climactic. It will be the post-race celebration that really rocks the world. Can you imagine – killing the house lights at Churchill Downs, hitting Big Mama on the track with a trio of spotlights, tens of thousands raising Bic lighters and cellphones to the darkened Kentucky sky. Cue Queen. Stomp and clap. My God, is that snow?

But even if the highly unusual occurs, and somehow the winning streak ends, there is a reason Zenyatta still will be 2010 Horse of the Year. I call it the Frodo Principal.

In 2001, “Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring” was nominated for the Oscar as Best Picture but lost to “A Beautiful Mind,” which as I recall was a movie about how math can drive you nuts. Right on.

In 2002, “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” was nominated for Best Picture but lost to “Chicago,” in which Richard Gere sang and Renee Zellweger made a funny face. I loved it.

In 2003, “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” completed the trilogy and was nominated for Best Picture, in a field that included “Master and Commander,” “Mystic River,” “Lost in Translation” and, yep, “Seabiscuit.” It didn’t matter, though. The sentimental fix was in. Three years of dominating the movie landscape was rewarded with the ultimate honor for “Rings,” whether or not the third installment could be picked apart as better or worse than the other two.

The last mature Thoroughbreds to capture and cling to the good will of the American racing public through an extended series of seasons were John Henry, from 1981 through 1984, and Forego, from 1974 through 1977. Between them, they racked up five Horse of the Year titles and won 74 races. When they lost, it was news. When they won, the world seemed right.

The same phenomenon has now engulfed Zenyatta. The opposition has been neutralized by their admiration, while most skeptics, having stated their reservations, have decided to let the story play to its end. The worst part, right now, is imagining 2011 and beyond without her.