The Brock Talk

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Time, Not Awards Will Define Zenyatta

In the days since Zenyatta failed to win the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic by a scant nose, breaking her 19-race win streak and the hearts of fans everywhere, the attention on her has waned but certainly not vanished. Randy Moss on ESPN called her the undisputed greatest female race horse of all time moments after the race. CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Ausgood, the Today show on NBC, SportsCenter on ESPN and any number of other network programs replayed the Classic into Sunday, with more accompanying editorial than horse racing is usually given after other major events in the sport such as the Kentucky Derby or a failed Triple Crown Belmont.

There is a “Zenyatta HOY (Horse of the Year) 2010” Facebook page with nearly 3,000 fans, Twitter, internet discussion boards and blogs are jammed full of those espousing her while few still cling to their criticism of the great mare. That debate will rage until the golden Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year is presented in January. If Zenyatta is not named Horse of the Year – judging from last year – the dissatisfaction talks will continue months longer.

Even if the voting goes to Zenyatta, nothing will really be solved. Eclipse Awards are not determined on the track. There are no qualifications. Not even a victory in the Breeders’ Cup World Championships can guaranteed a trophy. Last year Zenyatta proved that. Five wins in five starts including four grade 1 races and the Breeders’ Cup Classic was enough for Zenyatta to earn only 42% of the vote. Rachel Alexandra took 56% of the vote and the trophy.

This year, it appears Zenyatta will be denied the Horse of the Year title because she missed winning the Classic by a nose. Those voters will ignore her five wins this year – all in grade 1 races present it to Classic winner Blame. Yes, Blame, they will say, had a better year than Zenyatta. They will give him the award despite his record of only three wins (two grade 1) from four starts before the Classic.

Both Zenyatta and Blame finished second once this year. Zenyatta to Blame by a nose in the Classic – Blame finished four lengths behind Haynesfield in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

But because there are no official qualifications, the race for horse of the year is not won or lost on the track. It is nothing more than a popularity contest. Whoever is most popular among the The Eclipse Awards sponsors – the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Daily Racing Form and the National Turf Writers Association – get the awards.

That is not an accusation of hypocrisy, nor a complaint of how the system works. Horse racing doesn’t have the benefit of other sports that can solve such championship issues in strict competition. So we are left defining our champions by ballot.

And that is exactly why fans of Blame and Zenyatta and Goldikova, or even Uncle Mo, should relax a bit for the next few months. Because in the end, that title will matter little.

Nothing defines greatness better than time. And time will surely lay on the side of the great mare Zenyatta. In fact, time may somehow morph Zenyatta’s final loss into something far more positive than we can imagine in few days, weeks or even years following.

Jim Thorpe was stripped from his Olympic Gold medals and quarterback Johnny Unitas finished his illustrious career with a dismal season as a crippled former champion in San Diego. Willie Mays retired as a New York Met and Michael Jordan left basketball as a Washington Wizard.

Zenyatta’s loss in her final start may be more defining than disappointing final seasons or Olympic bureaucracy, but time will likely put the race into perspective non-the-less. In fact history and time will define her legacy much better than any awards.

And time has a habit of examining cultural impact as well as wins and losses. So Zenyatta's appearance on Los Angeles Dodgers' billboards, Oprah Winfrey magazines and 60 Minutes television shows have also been stuffed into her virtual time capsules. And there are very few thoroughbreds that have carried ammunition that heavy into retirement. Cigar was perhaps most recently in that realm of popularity among non-race fans.

So time will be the final judge for Zenyatta. We just have to be a bit more patient for the results.


Anonymous said...

Very nice post Brock, and absolutely true, she will live in history no matter the outcome of the Eclipse Awards voting. Blame wins Horse of the Year if you take things just as they are "black and white" but Zenyatta is the horse that truly captured the hearts.

I just have to say as a personal opinion I think it was ridiculous for Randy Moss to state that Zenyatta was the undisputed greatest female race horse of all time when Goldikova just won the Breeders' Cup Mile for a third consecutive year mere hours earlier. I think Zenyatta is great, but the way the two mares records stack up, there is just no way you can compare the two, Goldikova is miles ahead of her.


(P.S. It was Haynesfield not Etched that beat Blame in the Jockey Club Gold Cup which I'm sure you meant to say and just did a typo)

E-man said...

Well-balanced historical perspective! FYI, I just quoted from, and linked to, your article on my own blog,

ksweatman said...

I don't know why, but it irritates me when fans say things like "Goldikova is miles ahead of Zenyatta". What exactly does that mean? Goldikova is a magnificent mare who is repeatedly put in challenging races that define her as the brilliant mare she is. On the other hand, Zenyatta has been "held back" for most of her career. She is the great underachiever. Big Z could have consistently beat the very best at any track in the country, but instead she spent most of her time racing females in her own backyard. I'm not saying Zenyatta wouldn't have lost a race or two along the way. All of the legendary greats lost races. What I'm saying is, Zenyatta would've proven what some of us already know, that is, she is in the elite group of thoroughbreds who are the gifted few, the greatest of all time. I'm happy that she is retiring in good health and that she didn't leave her life on the track like so many have before her, but a pang of sadness touches me when fans feel the need to debate her value as a race horse. The grand mare named Zenyatta should've been allowed to show the world the depth of her soul, so there wouldn't be a question mark after her name concerning greatness.