12/21/2010 7:29PM

Zenyatta vs. Blame: Mary Rampellini's vote for Horse of the Year

DRF illustration

There were some grim headlines in the months leading up to this year’s Breeders’ Cup. The nation’s handle was deflating. Purses were being cut. And some tracks were eliminating dates. Racing was in need of a hero, an individual charismatic enough to unite its many factions and strong enough to bear its burdens, if just for a little while.

Reprieve came in the form of a towering mare whose "dimensions" made her impossible to ignore. Zenyatta was 19 and 0, more than 17 hands tall, and weighed some 1,200 pounds. She was dead fit and had dead aim on the biggest race in North America.

It was the story the sport needed. Zenyatta put the horse back in horse racing, and without saying a word, she became its mouthpiece in the weeks before the Breeders’ Cup. Her bid to retire undefeated hit "60 Minutes" in a piece that not only introduced racing to a new audience but also reminded lost friends how much the game had meant to them decades ago, when they followed horses like Secretariat.

Zenyatta, too, became the people’s horse. And her head loss to Blame in the BC Classic only bolstered her popularity. In a way, it made her more human. Zenyatta now has one more fight on her hands. But this race is on paper, for Horse of the Year.

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Blame is a serious rival. In the Classic he stood his ground against Zenyatta, the notorious closer who looks like a missile locked onto a target when she makes her run. In fact, she had never missed her mark since launching her career in 2007. But Blame turned out to be the one horse Zenyatta was unable to get past, and she carried three fewer pounds than he did over the 1 1/4-mile journey of the Classic.

Blame was bred to shine at such a moment, the product of a Claiborne Farm program that is one of racing’s institutions. And like Zenyatta, he was campaigned with dignity. Blame won one of his division’s most important races in the Whitney at Saratoga, was the victim of pace when second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont, then delivered when it counted most in the Classic.

He made his case on the track, and it’s difficult to argue what is documented in the black and white lines of his past performances. But by the same token, it’s rare to see a horse transcend the racetrack and capture the attention of those outside its gates. That is the heart of what I will be debating up until it is time to vote. To me, both Blame and Zenyatta are deserving. But for what she has done for racing, I am currently leaning toward Zenyatta for Horse of the Year.

Next on Monday, Dec. 27: Steve Klein

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