Saturday, November 7, 2009
Updated: November 10, 11:25 AM ET
Zenyatta a display of greatness
By Claire Novak
Special to ESPN.com
ARCADIA, Calif. -- For months the 13 horsemen had been pointing toward this moment, training for prep races, coming out of them, tweaking routines, scheduling workouts. Their runners were geared up and glistening, coats the color of burnished metal, muscles hardened by careful conditioning. And this was Saturday, the big day, grand finale of the season finally here.
For weeks, the conversation leading up to the Breeders' Cup Classic had centered around one topic. Could Zenyatta, the brilliant unbeaten racemare, turn in a winning performance against the boys? It was a question that buzzed around the vast California oval leading up to the main event, but John Shirreffs never faltered. His faith in his trainee remained strong.
For days, one jockey had been hoping, praying, knowing if he could just ride like he always did - in that perfect zone - that Zenyatta would do the rest. She would win, Mike Smith maintained, with her ears pricked. Galloping. Like she was out for a Sunday stroll.
The horses circled the paddock at Santa Anita and Ann and Jerry Moss kept focused eyes upon their runner. The fans outside pressed closer, crowding eight or ten tiers deep around. They held signs emblazoned with Zenyatta's name and she paused to accept their adoration with neck arched and eyes proud, carriage of a champion.
Jockeys in brilliant silks emerged from the room, doffed their helmets like perfect gentlemen, shook hands with their connections. For a moment it was just the way the artists portrayed it in rich oil paintings - the pageantry and anticipation and energy crackling through the air, familiar movements performed on countless occasions yet increasingly meaningful here. Zenyatta filled the frame.
The paddock judge gave the call for "Riders up!" and the jockeys popped up into their saddles. The outrider led them onto that wide California oval with the cameramen scrambling to capture the post parade. Viewers across the nation tuned in to what we saw in person, watching along with us, interest raised from coast to coast.
The racing fans were tired, sated from a long day of thrills, perfect racing in the late autumn sun. But the excitement of the moment inspired them to rally and press forward along the rail and out of their seats to watch one horse, the horse, parade out onto the track. They cheered for her, they clapped for her; they loved her. And moments later when Zenyatta powered through a history-making run to victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic, she left a mark on the industry that won't soon be forgotten.
It was what she did and how she did it that will have them talking for ages to come, for Zenyatta annihilated the Classic field. And she did it with such ease, in a manner so overpowering, that her brilliance could never be doubted.
It started with her calmness at the gate when an upset runner, Quality Road, refused to load and was scratched. Throughout the delay, as Smith stepped off very gently and just prayed that she wouldn't get excited, the big mare waited, unshaken. Reloaded, she broke on her left lead, but soon switched over to her right, the correct lead for cruising into the turns, on her own. In the race of her lifetime, as always, she spotted the field.
Rolling along down the backside in the wake of her sport's sharpest runners, the big racemare had lengths of ground to make up. Smith kept on thinking of her closing style, the test that would come when she had to mow them down, that if one of them tried to steal away, he would have to move early to catch them. At the half-mile pole they were stacked up, no way to get around the other horses. He was looking for a way to split them when a runner eased out as the field turned for home - and just like that, Zenyatta's path to victory was clear.
Down on the rail, Shirreffs watched the race progress. When she swung to the outside and changed her leads and started making that big move she always made for him, he knew what was going to happen.
And it did. She kicked on. And the crowd started screaming. And Smith had to remind her not to stop and pose; she had a task ahead to finish, greatness to attain. And still she went on, well within herself.
She won with her ears pricked.
Like she was out for a Sunday stroll.
Horse of the Year?
The debate that has been simmering since summer is guaranteed to reach a boiling point following that master performance, heated arguments to come as to who should be crowned Horse of the Year. Whether Rachel Alexandra, winner of the Preakness and Haskell and the Woodward against older males earlier in the season, can hold the advantage many believe she's earned - after failing to appear at the Breeders' Cup World Championships at the season's end. Whether Zenyatta, string of 14 perfect victories unsullied, first female Breeders' Cup Classic winner, deserves the title without a trip to the East Coast and only one score outside of California.
But for now it is good enough to take in the greatness that has just been seen, to bask in the pleasure of a story, of a race, gone perfectly right. To admire her incomparable brilliance, as in the words of trainer Saeed bin Suroor: "She's a different class. By far. By millions."
Claire Novak became a racing fan at the age of nine. Her award-winning work is sought by organizations such as the Associated Press and The Blood-Horse Magazine, while her byline has appeared in numerous other publications.