01/05/2011 1:59PM

Zenyatta vs. Blame: Byron King's vote for Horse of the Year

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What distinguishes greatness in sports? Certainly performance – of that there is no question. But the most popular athletes, those remembered as legends, were not only great for what they did, but also for the manner in which they did it. They had style, likeability, and flash that made fans drop their mouths in amazement, wondering if they would ever see the likes of them again.

Horses, just like human athletes, can inspire these same feelings. And to my eyes, only two horses dazzled in that way this year: Zenyatta and Goldikova.

Here we are just two months after the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs, and I’m still stunned that Zenyatta came within a short head of winning the Classic after hopelessly losing contact with the field early, and how world traveler Goldikova went from fifth to first in a matter of seconds to score her third consecutive Breeders’ Cup Mile victory.

But Goldikova’s chances of winning Horse of the Year, off a single start in North America, mirror those of Ralph Nader in the 2008 Presidential election. She’ll be lucky to garner 1 percent of the vote.

The Horse of the Year race boils strictly down to Zenyatta vs. Classic winner Blame.

Blame obviously had a stellar 2010, winning four races and three Grade 1s, and capping his season by becoming the first horse to defeat Zenyatta. And he would be a deserving Horse of the Year in an ordinary year.

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But anyone who thinks this is an ordinary year needs to check the headlines. The year 2010 was about Zenyatta, a deserving of Horse of the Year.

Zenyatta won five races in 2010, and also the crowd. Throughout 2010, her ardent supporters came by the thousands to watch her compete.

She was featured on the Oct. 31 program of “60 Minutes,” which Nielsen estimated attracted 10.74 million viewers. And the final hour of this year’s Breeders’ Cup telecast, in which she raced in the Classic, had approximately 3.1 million viewers, representing more than a 180% increase over last year.

Zenyatta filled the Breeders’ Cup seats, and she kept people at home watching on television from flipping the channel.

People even came to watch her do, well, pretty much nothing. In Lexington, it was estimated that more than a thousand people showed up for a Zenyatta send-off at Keeneland in sub-freezing temperatures, merely to get a final glimpse of the superstar mare doing her distinctive strut.
Glenye Cain Oakford of Daily Racing Form even interviewed two ladies at the event who had traveled all the way from Wisconsin to see Zenyatta before the mare headed off to Lane’s End Farm to become a broodmare.

Naturally, popularity alone shouldn’t assure titles. Mine That Bird could have 100,000 people show up to see him in New Mexico, but that doesn’t change that he was one of the weakest Derby winners in recent years. Ditto Super Saver.

But in a year in which Blame and Zenyatta each had one-loss campaigns, and were separated by half a head in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, where Blame had an advantage of having already raced successfully at Churchill Downs, Zenyatta’s contributions to horse racing trump his narrow edge in their head-to-head matchup.

She will get an enthusiastic vote from me for Horse of the Year.

Next on Friday, Jan. 7: Dave Litfin

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