Monday, October 4, 2010
To paraphrase the old 1970s Saturday Night Live character Todd, played by Bill Murray alongside Gilda Rander’s Lisa, “Zenyatta is unbelievable. She’s so unbelievable, I can’t believe it.” Does that sound trivial for such a great mare? Then take note of owner Jerry Moss, without doubt considered an eloquent ambassador for horse racing, who described Zenyatta momemts after the race by telling TVG’s Christine Olivares, “She’s unbelievable. It’s believable because I’m here. But she keeps doing it. I can’t explain it.”
TVG Host Bob Badeaker said, "I'm 63 years old... ...I've been watching races a long, long time and I can't remember anything to equal it." The ever classly Penny Chenery, owner of the great Secretariat said on TVG of Zenyatta, "it is so exciting. She’s a big glorious mare. She knows she's good. She's happy . The crowd loves her. It is just a wonderful day. I'm so glad I had a chance to get here." Then in a more touching comment she told Christine Olivares, "There is such a good feel. People who love horses... “ Ms. Chennery then tapped her heart twice, and while a little farklemt, “... right to my heart."
For most of my 30 years of adulthood, one of my favorite cocktail party questions has been, “Who are the three greatest race horses of all time?” I’ve asked this question among hall of famers at a Shoemaker Foundation event at Hollywood Park and of a similar group of attendees at a Super Derby event with Charlie Whittingham, Jack Van Berg, Bill Shoemaker, etc. I’ve asked that question at countless cocktail events at the University of Arizona Race Track Industry Program Symposium on Racing and I’ve asked the question at St. Vincent de Paul Fish Frys, boring bridal showers and honky tonks from Spokane, Washington to Slidell, Louisiana.
Two horses come up more than any others – Man o’ War and Secretariat. After that come a slew of others that includes Kelso, Forego, Dr. Fager, Citation, Cigar, Native Dancer, Buckpasser, Spectacular Bid, Seattle Slew and the likes.
I’m not sure Zenyatta will break the Man o’ War/Secretariat barrier, but she is definitely among those I consider to be the greatest of all time. And I pity those who disagree. They have every right to have that opinion, but it is a shame they can't appreciate the greatness of Zenyatta.
One barometer I will use to define the greatness of Zenyatta is ESPN’s Sports Center. There are four races that annually make Sports Center: The Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands, the Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Occasionally a race with a funny call or unusual event like a jockey riding to the wire hanging on only to the horse’s neck, makes Sports Center as well. Depending on the winner of the Preakness, Belmont and Classic, only the Kentucky Derby can regularly be seen on the Sports Center weekend highlights Sunday night. Zenyatta’s TVG Lady’s Secret was among the Saturday AND Sunday highlights on ESPN. That kind of impact on the general sports public can not be underestimated.
The crowd of 25,800 was not so impressive, but their behavior was. I worked at Hollywood Park in 1990-’91 and would often walk through the massive paddock and wonder what it would be like to see the stairs and the walkway behind the grandstand overlooking the new paddock filled with fans. The expanse of the old grandstand designed to hold the huge crowds of the 1940s, 50s and 60s was not at capacity for Zenyatta, but it was electric. And electric fans in Southern California are rare. There are no National Football League teams able to survive there. National Hockey League fans don’t go to Kings and Ducks games just to see the puck drop to begin the game. They can hear the puck drop too. The easiest parking in major league sports is to get to Dodger Stadium before the third inning. Oaklawn Park will get that may fans for a Terry Wallace autograph session and Aqueduct will come close to that count if the weather is good.
But the numbers don’t reflect the enthusiasm as Zenyatta came home and they drowned out the race call of track announcer Vic Stoffer.
And how to you measure the greatness of Zenyatta in that Hollywood Park stretch. Switch, a 3-year-old filly that had primed to almost perfection by trainer John Sadler, turned for home with a 3-length lead on Zenyatta, switched leads and burst another length ahead. Defeat seemed a possibility for Zenyatta who confidently and slowly began to lengthen her strides – making up little ground in the first few in the straightaway. The jockey Mike Smith snapped his whip once – twice – three, four, five times and Zenyatta somehow passed the fast moving Switch.
Type “Zenyatta, Ladys Secret” into Google, Bing or Yahoo and you don’t see Daily Racing Form, Blood-Horse or Thoroughbred Times among the top visited sites. Instead you see Forbes, CBS Sports, NBC Sports, Yahoo Sports, USA Today, ESPn Sports.
Believe me. There are thousands of young sports fans out there that saw Zenyatta for the first time through this media and will bet her at any low price in the Breeders’ Cup. If she should win, they will celebrate that 5-to-2 win ticket like they hit the Breeders’ Cup Pick-6 for a mil. If they match their psychographics like I think they, they will take five friends to bet the Breeders’ Cup only to show their superior intelligence. That’s the kind of impact Zenyatta is having on the sport.
Does Zenyatta belong with Man o’ War and Secretariat? Probably not. Should she be mentioned in the same breath as Citation, Kelso, Dr. Fager, Forego, Buckpasser or Spectacular Bid? I pity those who think not.