11/18/2010 5:03PM

Zenyatta a vivid image amid confusion


Well dang, I didn’t see that coming.

Just when she was getting warmed up, they go and pull the plug on Zenyatta. I mean, what has she done for us lately? And anyway, she didn’t look any different that night after the Breeders’ Cup Classic than she did after the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic, or the 2010 Santa Margarita, or the 2008, 2009, and 2010 versions of the Vanity Handicap, the Clement Hirsch or the Lady’s Secret, or – well, you get the idea.

Still, they say all good things must come to an end, even though “they” have never had the courtesy to explain why that is true, and if it is, who gets to decide. From a standpoint of frayed nerves, I wouldn’t mind a fallow season or so of the Zenyatta running style. After a while it got to be like dealing with way too much caffeine, rendering observers all tweaky and drained, longing for the more straightforward techniques of mares like Azeri and Rachel Alexandra.

In a lifetime that already has savored Kelso, Buckpasser, Damascus, Dr. Fager, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, John Henry, Sunday Silence, and Cigar, it was unreasonable to expect such excitement to be generated by a racehorse again.

Here it must be pointed out that the writer is not attempting to suggest an unbroken line of succession from the above horses named through and to Zenyatta. Rather, it is to cite each of those champions as standing tall in their singular excellence and stirring the hearts and minds of any fan lucky enough to watch them perform. Not since the days of John Henry – and there were many – has a horse so completely seduced even the most hard-bitten horsemen and horseplayers.

Zenyatta’s retirement to Lane’s End Farm comes at the end of a week that offered a few odds and ends of confusion, mostly because of numbers. I truly dislike numbers, and the tyranny they represent.

The market, however, does not lie. And as far as the market is concerned, the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic was a meaningless enterprise. Blame, the noble winner, is being retired a sound and healthy 4-year-old and will stand next year for a $35,000 stud fee. Quality Road, the disinterested last-place finisher, is being retired a sound and healthy 4-year-old and will stand next year for a $35,000 stud fee.

This is goofing around, of course. Blame probably came into the Classic with no more than a $25,000 fee looming on the horizon, while Quality Road, had he won, might have been floated at $50,000. Still, at the end of the day, the race did not tell anyone anything much about either horse that was not fully exposed already. And Blame was not valued, at least for 2011, on whether or not he was Horse of the Year.

Then there are those quirky Europeans. What a bunch. They’ve got these year-end rankings – World Thoroughbred Rankings they call them – that purport to rate the best performances of the best horses on the planet, and then arrange them in an order that has the look of a stack of weights.

The planet, according to the World Thoroughbred Rankings, is pretty much limited to North America and parts of Europe. The parts of Europe that count the most, at least at the top of the rankings, are England, Ireland and France (but don’t they always?). The U.S. of A. is in for a fair amount of consideration, at least based on the 2010 rankings, which place Blame (129) six pounds less than Harbinger and a pound over Quality Road, which in essence means the committee members stopped watching American racing after the Whitney.

Where’s Zenyatta you ask? Even if you didn’t, Zenyatta is considered four pounds the lesser animal than Blame and equal to Goldikova, at least according to their shared ratings of 125. The ratings, in their wisdom, do not acknowledge weight allowances for sex as theoretical but real, which means females are always starting behind males, and reward horses more for beating the bejesus out of their opposition (like Harbinger’s romp in the George and Elizabeth and Quality Road’s in the Donn) than for winning at all, or with regularity.

And then, at the end of the day, the committee apologizes with the explanation that each horse is weighted within a particular category, e.g., Long/Turf, Mile/Turf, Intermediate/Dirt, or, in the case of the everlastingly confusing Zenyatta, Mile-Intermediate/Artifical-Dirt. Let confusion reign!

(On the other hand, America’s respected Nerud Ratings, which are compiled by a one-man committee made up of Hall of Fame trainer John Nerud, referred to Zenyatta as a “helluva mare – best I ever saw.” But what does he know, having “seen” only the likes of Busher, Gallorette, Ruffian, Silver Spoon, Susan’s Girl, Shuvee, Gallant Bloom and his own sprint champion, Ta Wee.)

The Euros were rescued from the confusing haze of the World Thoroughbred Rankings by the Cartier Awards, complete with glitzy banquet, that named Goldikova as the best horse trained in Europe in 2010. Have a seat, Harbinger. Your King George & Queen Elizabeth was just bumped by the mare’s third Breeders’ Cup Mile.

The Cartiers are, according to their rules, decided by points accumulated in group/graded races (in which the World Thoroughbred Rankings play a role), along with voting by both European racing journalists and readers of The Daily Telegraph, a British newspaper.

Presumably, the journalists and racing fans were voting with their hearts as well as their heads, against which, in the face of a star like Goldikova, there is no known defense. Whether or not American journalists and racing officials will fall prey to the same temptation when time comes to vote for Eclipse Award Horse of the Year is a subject for another day. It is not, however, a stretch to think that Goldikova’s Award might have been the first of the two shoes to drop.