JC / Railbird

The End of an Era

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.