Zenyatta: From the Back of the Pack, But a Backseat to None
When twelve of the best horses in the world leave the gate at Churchill Downs in the Breeders Cup Classic on Saturday at 6:45, all eyes, really, will be on one horse: Zenyatta. And not because she’s the only girl in the race. She has been described by various track announcers during the heat of her races as: a Living legend, The Queen, The Amazon, Poetry in motion, UN-BE-LIEV-able. One track announcer admitted he was speechless and basically told himself to shut up and bask in her greatness.
She makes grown men weep. She receives police escorts to her workouts, dances and preens in the post parade, and gobbles up race-day stretch ground like some modern-day Secretariat. She is a recent 60 Minutes star, and likes her Guinness in the afternoon.
Supposedly, win or lose on Saturday, she will retire. We say ‘supposedly’ because last year after the Breeders Cup, she was to have been put to pasture, but her owners had second thoughts. (Her owners, Jerry and Ann Moss, are longtime denizens of the sport. Jerry Moss is the ‘M’ in A&M records; Zenyatta is named after the Police album, Zenyatta Mondatta). In a sport where winning one in three races is considered good, 50 percent is outstanding, and where two-thirds is otherworldly, what do you call a horse who has won an astounding 19 of 19? You begin to realize why those track announcers scratch their heads and stumble over words. And these are men whose job it is to talk and gin up descriptions on the spot, as a race unfolds.
What is it that makes her stand out from other greats of this and previous generations? For me, it is the machine-like efficiency of how she wins every race. She’s a robot; her races follow the same pattern every time. It’s as if someone programmed her. I sat astonished recently as I watched all 19 of her races in succession (if you wish to do the same, go here for a chronological list of her race videos). Her wins are carbon copies of one other, in a way that is downright eerie. I can’t stress this point enough.
Every horse has a distinct running style and they will run in that style until the on-the-ground realities of each race unfold and possibly dictate a change in tactics. But not with Zenyatta. Every one of her races begins and ends the same way. She leaves the gate slow, and finishes fast and first. Nineteen times! She ambles out of the gate (in her early races, the announcers would say ‘she broke badly,’ but after awhile, they amended that to ‘as usual, Zenyatta is last leaving the gate’), and sometimes trails the leaders by a dozen lengths or more on the backstretch. Going into the far turn, she starts to move; at the final turn she swings wide; and by the time she straightens out into the stretch, she’s gobbling up the dirt and picking off horses until it’s just her and the wire. I only saw one race where it looked like another horse was gaining on her in the stretch, and only one where she came inside—temporarily—in the stretch.
What’s even more amazing is that at some point at the top of the stretch, in almost every race, she seems to hang (racetrack parlance for stalling). And each one of those times, you half-expect the announcer to start saying something like, she just doesn’t have it today folks. But so far, 19 times, she has dug down and turned on the proverbial extra gear that all great champions have. Her hall of fame jockey, Mike Smith, rarely has to use the whip, and many of her race lines contain the telling description “vigorous hand ride,” suggesting that she has an ethereal sense of exactly where the wire is. In other words, Zenyatta doesn’t need to be told when to start running. She just knows.
Her races play out exactly like this, so often, that it is almost funny, especially watching all 19 in succession. It’s like repetitive humor, like some running joke you might have with a friend: once it isn’t funny, twice it isn’t funny, but after eight or nine times, you begin to find the humor. With Zenyatta, if you watch any single one of her races, they don’t seem that impressive. (She doesn’t win by huge margins: her largest margin of victory is 4-1/2 lengths, which she’s done twice; seven times she’s won by a length or less). But taken together, 19 wins in a row are mind-blowing. And kind of funny in a “ha-ha, I’m witnessing greatness and it makes me feel good” kind of way.
There’s been so much hype surrounding Zenyatta this week, that some people are forgetting to actually look at how the race might turn out for her, to see if it will be a good bettors race. She is currently the so-called morning line favorite. The track oddsmaker sets the odds based on two things: 1) how he thinks a horse will run, and 2) how much he thinks the public will bet on each horse. The odds are usually set the day of the race, hence the name, but in big stakes races like the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders Cup races, they are usually set days in advance. The odds on each horse fluctuate right up until post time, and the amount of money bet to win on each horse directly determines the odds, through a formula. Zenyatta will take a ton of money because of all the publicity, like her star turn on last Sunday’s 60 Minutes. But, her low odds make it unfavorable to bet on her, since the return on investment isn’t worth the risk of so many tough obstacles Zenyatta has to climb here.
The Zenyatta nay-sayers have plenty of ammunition. Most of her 19 races were run against slower, female horses (she’s only run against boys once, in last year’s B.C. Classic); and she ran most of her races on the synthetic tracks of California (17 of 19, to be exact). Most of the fields were small (the 2008 Lady’s Secret Handicap, for example, only had four horses), though in both her maiden race, and last year’s B.C. classic, she beat 11 others. Her last three wins have been by less than a length; some would claim that her age is catching up with her: at six, she’ll be the oldest horse running in the Classic.
The Breeder’s Cup will run at Churchill Downs, an oval known for its long stretch and tight turns; the former might work in Zenyatta’s favor, but the latter might work against her. As a horse that passes most of her competition in the stretch, having more stretch to work with is good. But she also passes a lot of horses going around the final turn, and with the turns being so tight (hence, shorter), and with her gargantuan size, she might have a mobility issue.
Like any race of this stature, this year’s B.C. Classic is fairly wide open. Second-favorite Blame loves Churchill Downs (he’s 3-for-4 at the track). Quality Road, the third-betting choice, has been on fire in 2010. His 5-1 morning line odds offer great value. Fly Down’s trainer, Nick Zito, is most dangerous when his horses are overlooked (Fly Down is 15-1) and his jockey, Julien Leparoux, has rounded out into one of the country’s finest. And finally, Etched is a potential live long-shot, currently at 30-1 and will likely to go off even higher. I love Etched’s stable, Godolphin Racing, one of the richest outfits in the world (Maktoum family of the United Arab Emirates: oil). Godolphin has won a lot of Breeder’s Cup races and pulled a lot of upset over the years. They spend a ton of money on their horses, which buys both class and pedigree.
But this week, the horseracing world begins and ends with Zenyatta. Perfection is perfection, and sometimes you want to chuck the cynical, betting aspect of horseracing out the window, and just root for the good story. If Zenyatta wins the race, she’ll be in heady company. I’m talking to you Secretariat, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Pete Sampras, War Admiral, Babe Ruth, Pele and Joe Montana. Jockey Mike Smith claims we haven’t even seen the best of her. Let’s hope that’s the case, and let’s hope we see the perfection extended, so that the Churchill Downs track announcer will be rendered speechless. Though my wallet will try to beat Zenyatta, my heart will be cheering her on.