The Brock Talk

Monday, October 4, 2010

Zenyatta: So Unbelievable You Can't Believe It

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.


John Califano said...

A very nice report, Brock and eloquently said.

I certainly think Zenyatta is a great racemare, but I disagree that she belongs in the company you mentioned, or at least in the company of Citation, whom I personally feel is the greatest of all time.

Zenyatta has won all 19 of her races, mostly at home, and that's fine. She's also won most of her races in graded stakes company, although at times I've wondered about the quality of those races. But make no mistake, this is still a remarkable feat, and I don't want to diminish what she's done, and there is still the BC classic, so her story isn't over yet. But when you put her in the company of these horses, at least prior to the BC, I have to state my opinion, and I hope I'm doing it respectfully.

Citation won 19 of 20 races in his three-year-old season alone, including the Triple Crown, including the 1 1/4 mile Jersey Stakes, between the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, and he went from coast to coast, several of his wins against older horses, and as early as February against his elders, when he was still biologically two. And between Citation's two and three-year-old seasons, he only lost two races, which were very excusable, the first defeat probably being by design and the second when he was carried very wide by another horse. It's conceivable that he could have easily been 29-29-0-0 by the end of his first two years.

As to the other horses, particularly Kelso and Dr. Fager, they're above her as well by what they did compared to what the mare has done. And even with another BC Classic, I probably would still have these horses higher than her; but we'll see who shows up for the race and depending on what happens, I am willing to keep an open mind.

But again, being unbeaten is certainly remarkable and I said that about Peppers Pride and I say that about Zenyatta; however, there is more than just being undefeated, and greatness involves many criteria, in determining the level of greatness an athlete is put on; not that anyone really knows for sure, but we take our best shots. I think part of Zenyatta's appeal is her personality, and as delightful as she is, I hope people aren't so emotionally involved with Zenyatta that they're convincing themselves that she belongs with a certain pantheon of greats, when she may not belong. Sometimes I think there is a hysteria involved with her and this emotion can easily cloud objectivity. When she is finished racing, and the emotions die down after a period of time has elapsed, a more objective evaluation of where she belongs in history can be made. One thing I can say about her is that she makes it look pretty easy out there, at least most of the time; and I do think she could win anywhere, and possibly against anyone. But the point is, she hasn't, at least not enough to satisfy me, not yet anyway.

This is just my own opinion based soley on my observations, and I've never seen her in person. Having said all this, I've always been fond of Zenyatta, have seen all her races (on TV or computer) and wish her only the very best.

NetworkEmpowerment said...

I agree that she is great, and if you wanted to put her as one of the greatest race MARES of all time, I could see that. I can see her Rachel, and Ruffian all in the top 10, even 5, of fillies and mares in history.

However to say she is as great as Citation, Slew, Bid, Affirmed. I could see her cracking top twenty five, maybe twenty, but not top 15. If Ruffian, who many consider the greatest filly of all time, then why do we expect Zenyatta to get that much higher.

As I said, she is great, but the way she has been campaigned does not allow her to be put along side of the company you mentioned.

LetItRideMike said...

Andy Beyer please go see your optometrist! This mares stride when fully extended is three feet longer than our countrys best runners. what exactly does the surface she is running on have to do with that???

Unknown said...

Great comments by all and much appreciated. I don't buy the "Home Track" point as Hollywood, Santa Anita and Del Mar, though all synthetic could not be different. Especially that crazy Del Mar surface that came as close as some of her rivals to beating her (I think in the Hirsh last year if memory serves.)

But again, great points made well (Whether you agree with me or not) and thanks again.

ponygirl0nj said...

I think she has earned her place among the best males and females in the sport. As a deep closer, her style makes it that much more difficult to acheive what she has in her career. She has discarded the term "pace makes race". She has overcome bad starts, traffic, being swung out wide on the turn and incredibly slow paces. Sometimes more than one of these scenarios in the same race. The use of these tactics have caused the best in history to fall victim to their competition. But somehow this mare has found a way to win, even when should have rightfully been beaten. I am an east coast racing fanatic and I am thrilled to have followed her career and experienced the heart pounding, hair raising and spine tingling excitement she has brought me. I am sad that as this season comes to an end, two of the greatest horses that we have seen in a long time will have retired to the breeding shed. I just want to say thank you to Zenyatta and thank you to Rachel for the thrills and chills and I look forward to cheering on the next generation.

Anonymous said...

Zenyatta most certainly does belong in the company in which you place her. She and what she has accomplished and the way she has accomplished it make her utterly unique in the annals of the sport. The idea that a deep closer could arrive at this stage of her career racing at an elite level without ever having lost goes against the most fundamental principles of handicapping. This is why Beyer and the numbers boys have trouble with her...according to their equations and formulas, a horse like her should not exist. To get where she is, she has had to pass literally every horse who has stepped onto the track with her. If one is truly looking objectively at her and her career, her accomplishments are unique and extraordinary, and that's got nothing to do with her personality.

Also...the crowd at Hollywood was impressive. Opening night, there were allegedly 4,000 present. The next day, 2,000. Zenyatta shows up, and just shy of 26,000 show up. The largest crowd to go through the gates in almost a decade, and it's hard to imagine that Zenyatta Day wasn't the last hurrah for that dying white elephant of a racetrack. I was just happy to be there to experience it in person.