JC / Railbird

Getting It

A dear friend, who doesn’t follow racing, emailed me on Saturday night:

I Googled Breeders’ Cup this afternoon — like it would help me “get” what happened. It didn’t. Looks like a lot of races and some kind of fight was reported — including the heights of the jockeys involved. I can see horse racing is its own world with weird horse names, legacies, and soap opera personalities. I also saw references to the Ladies’ Classic and laughed.

Not a word about Goldikova, or Zenyatta, or Blame.

I wrote back, knowing that I wouldn’t, I couldn’t, get across the wonderful strangeness of our little world, the essential mystery of every champion, every race that draws us back to the racetrack, no matter what heartbreak or disappointment befalls us there. We’re in search of the sublime in the form of a thoroughbred, and for 19 races, Zenyatta delivered.

Like a lot of other people, I made the pilgrimage to barn 41 on the Churchill Downs backstretch each morning of Breeders’ Cup week to gawk at her, the perfect mare. I took in her glowing coat and her calm amidst the constant crowd; I felt privileged to be so near. To look at Zenyatta was to wonder — how did she do it each time, coming from so far back? Could she do it again?

She almost did in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Almost.

I stood on the press box balcony, overlooking the finish line. I knew at the wire that she hadn’t gotten there first, even as I wished that what I knew would somehow turn out to be wrong. The crisp white “5” of Blame’s saddlecloth blared “Winner” as the pair flashed past, he on the inside and inches ahead. Back in the press box, even the coolest turf writers stood stunned. “I wanted that win so much,” said one to me, surprise in his voice.

And he had picked Blame to win. He had a ticket to cash.

That’s racing, a game of love and money, emotion and reason.

In the post-race press conference, jockey Mike Smith cried, blaming himself for a result not his fault. “She should have won, and it hurts.” She should have, she could have, she would have. I looked at the fractions. There, the first — the quarter she ran in :26.01, losing contact with the field, as Blame went in :24.45. And there, the last — the quarter she ran in :24.17, gaining on a slowing Blame, going in :24.96. Faster, but too late. If only …

I didn’t cry until Sunday morning, and that was while sitting at a Cincinnati airport gate, awaiting a flight to Boston. It wasn’t because Zenyatta lost; it was because an era was at an end. We’ve been lucky to witness the greatness that we have, in Rachel Alexandra’s 2009 campaign, Goldikova’s historic career (to continue for another year, a bit of good news), and Zenyatta’s almost perfect 19-1 record. Years from now, I won’t say that I saw Zenyatta lose.

I’ll say that I saw Zenyatta.


It took me until last year’s Classic to get Zenyatta.

I have a vivid picture in my head of my father on the apron at Saratoga. He’s rooting RA home. It’s a strange scene, his face beat red, his veins popping from his neck. Instead of pleading for a number (“stick him 6”), he’s pleading for RA to stay on. He’s raising his arms as she crosses the wire. He’s running inside the grandstand to check the replay, see if she really hung on. I knew she did. We both tore up tickets, BTW.

I went to the Apple Blossom this year alone and against my better judgment after the “Race For Ages” fell apart. The weather was glorious, everything perfect. I’ll never forget leaving the infield after the race, through the tunnel, into the packed grandstand. Looking back onto the track, there’s Zenyatta, dancing her way to the winner’s circle and a sea of Bud Lite cans saluting her back. In passing I hear, “You can’t tell me that horse doesn’t know exactly what’s going on right here”.

I’ve been lucky to see some big sports events in person. But the mystery of racing, as you note, brings me back. It’s something much more real to me. Hardly anything has a happy ending in racing as in other sports. Eventually they all lose, disappoint or force you to consider your emotions from another perspective.

I really wish the New York horse players would have been blessed with a chance to see Zenyatta on their home ground. The cliche has been: “you have to see her to get it”. To me, that term will never be over-used enough to lose it’s original meaning in the context of Zenyatta.

Posted by o_crunk on November 9, 2010 @ 11:54 am

Funny, I didn’t cry until Sunday, too, and I think it was for the same reason. Actually, it was when I walked into her barn at Churchill and saw her standing proudly in her stall. I realized she was still her, the greatest I ever have and ever will see, and that the best ride I’ve ever been on was finally back at the loading station and I had to get off.

Posted by Alysse on November 9, 2010 @ 11:08 pm