12/03/2010 3:11PM

Zenyatta vs. Blame: Marcus Hersh's vote for Horse of the Year

DRF illustration

In the run-up to the Eclipse Awards ceremony on Jan. 17, Daily Racing Form reporters and handicappers will reveal their votes for Horse of the Year and discuss the thinking behind their decision.

If there are five stages of grief, how many stages are there in Horse of the Year contemplation? I am on my third.

Stage 1 came on the “viewing” stands outside the Churchill Downs press box. Viewing is in quotation marks because the stands are poorly designed: When their four levels fill up for a race, anyone not standing in the first row cannot see most, if not all, of the homestretch. I had a fourth-row spot for the BC Classic, but that was all right. I could follow the action on the infield Jumbotron at the start, switch to binoculars from the club-turn to the top of the stretch, then go back to Jumbotron. The idea was to see as much as possible without having recourse to a monitor, and, most of all, to be outside among the crowd as the race unfolded. So, that was amazing: Most exciting horse race I’ve seen live. The viewing stands began to clear, and I moved to the front row to watch the horses come back after galloping out. I’ve read several accounts of how Garrett Gomez’s exhortations to the crowd generated little response for Blame. True, but before Gomez made any gestures, the clubhouse-turn crowd responded pretty heartily on their own when Blame galloped back after the Zenyatta cheer had died down. Guy standing next to me said, “Marcus! Do you recognize me?” I did not, but when he said his name I did. He had lavish praise for Zenyatta: “She has to be one of the all-time greats!” He asked who I thought should be Horse of the Year. It made me a little sad to point slowly down at Blame, and after his Zenyatta comment I expected backlash, but no, the fellow nodded eagerly in agreement.

HORSE OF THE YEAR DEBATE: Watch video highlights of Blame and Zenyatta's 2010 races

Stage 2 began an hour later. I drive from my home on the south side of Chicago to Louisville for work at the BC or the Kentucky Derby, and if possible, I throw a bike in the back of the car. On crowded days, I park a mile or more away from the track, as near as possible to the interstate, and cycle right up to the gate. Easy in, easy out. I was so doing Saturday night, and feeling pretty good about my transport methods while rapidly transiting east down the deserted west-bound side of Longfield Avenue – the road that borders the Churchill backstretch – while traffic stood still in the east-bound lane. I looked left, thinking to spy Zenyatta in her barn, and there she was, not in the barn at all, but on the other end of a lead shank held by John Shirreffs, standing right at the Longfield fence, people touching her through the chain-link. I’m not based in California, so this was new territory for me, this sharing of the horse at the most basic public level. It kind of blew my mind.

The drive back to Chicago took five hours. I turned on the radio for 30 seconds a couple times, tried an iPod borrowed from my wife on a dock that broadcast tunes onto empty radio space. Neither entertainment took, and the journey turned into a Breeders’ Cup meditation, focus on Zenyatta. Horse of the Year? Didn’t that encompass more than the running lines on the page? The who beat who on what day and where? Zenyatta had lost, but lost by a short head. I’m not buying the “should have won” line of argument, or the “blame the jockey” line, either. Blame and Zenyatta ran the same distance from Point A to Point B, and while Zenyatta’s rally from so far behind produced drama, energy conserved early is energy available late. I keep reading about Zenyatta’s “troubled trip.” Smith might’ve tapped the brakes ever so slightly once, but I saw a clean run without momentum loss. Still, she had nearly won. That fact plus the strange postrace adoration scene in the Louisville darkness, the winning streak, the lavish attention from corners typically blind to racing. It would take a curmudgeonly, small-minded journalist isolated from the public at large to attempt to restrict Horse of the Year consideration to strictly performance-based evaluation. To value the easy competition Zenyatta had faced over her meaning to the sport as a whole, to hold the short head against her.

Stage 3 did not come on for another 36 hours, after a phone conversation with just such a curmudgeonly journalist. He said after splitting the decision at first, he had come down firmly on Blame’s side. Replace the name at the top of the Zenyatta past performances with a horse named Zelda or Irene, and would you choose the animal as Horse of the Year over Blame? No, he said, and moreover, to do so would be to reward the conservative 2010 campaign undertaken by Zenyatta’s connections, and to encourage a similar trajectory with the Next Big Thing. I wasn’t entirely buying this. The past performances are Zenyatta’s particularly. The connections might have had good reason (never publicly expressed) for running where they did. But his arguments did spur deeper mental digging.

Until the Breeders’ Cup, Zenyatta did face overmatched competition all year. The perfect mark came about because Zenyatta is great, but also because she did not venture into deeper water. And it was exactly that undefeated record, achieved over inferior competition, that produced the scene I biked past in the dark, that brought sudden attention to the sport through the medium of Zenyatta. Had she shipped for the Stephen Foster and finished a gallant second to Blame, or gone to the Whitney and run a mighty third behind Blame and Quality Road, she would have proved her fundamental worth (massive) to persistent doubters within the sport. Outside the sport, however, her celebrity would have dimmed. Does Oprah ask for the third-place finisher from the Whitney? Do you, the casual Kentucky Derby viewer, take your child to glimpse the Stephen Foster runner-up?

Without the 19-race streak enabled by the conservative campaign, the argument for Zenyatta as Horse of the Year as a greater-than-the-sum-of-her-record argument crumbles. For now, barring the onset of another stage, I am back to Blame, the horse that won the best race of 2010 and beat one of the best mares in racing history.

On the other hand, it’s only the first week of December. And Zenyatta, she really was something, wasn’t she? There may be more stages still to come.

Next on Monday, Dec. 6: Michael Hammersly