Zenyatta Races for History
The horseracing world is holding its collective breath for a true superstar.
Zenyatta is about to do what no horse has done -- not Secretariat, not Cigar, not Seabiscuit, and not even Man O’War -- since 1874: be undefeated in 20 outings. This is the last race she will ever run. She’s 19-0. Can she win one more time?
Even trainers with colts running against her hope that if they lose, it’s to her. “Once she comes past your horse,” competing trainer Bob Baffert told the Telegraph, “you start rooting for her.”
The record is held, ironically, by an outstanding but little-discussed mare named Kincsem from Hungary, who won 54 victories in a row. But for all her victories, Kincsem didn’t race past the age of five.
Zenyatta is a six-year-old mare who faces the best of the best in the Breeder’s Cup Classic for a mile and a quarter, the same distance as the Kentucky Derby, run on the same track as the Derby -- Churchill Downs in Louisville.
She won this race last year (and won me a little money in the process) last year against the boys -- the first mare to do so. But can she still beat the teenage-like three-year-olds when she’s already middle-aged, in racehorse terms?
She does tower over them, and I don’t mean that metaphorically. She stands an impressive 17.2 hands high, nearly a foot taller than her competitors.
So famous that “60 Minutes” aired a segment about her last Sunday, Zenyatta seems poised to race her way into the record books tonight. She’s already raced her way into many hearts.
At Hollywood Park recently, hundreds of bettors waited a long time in the sun to have Zenyatta’s regular jockey, Mike Smith, sign commemorative mugs honoring the mare.
Where many of her challengers are famously high-strung, Zenyatta is remarkably calm, almost humble. But don’t be deceived by her demeanor. Her jockey Smith has described her on “60 Minutes” as “a loaded gun – if you pull the trigger, she’s going to fire.”
After her come-from-12-lenths-behind run in the Breeder’s Cup last year, Smith said she wasn’t even breathing hard, noting “I’ve never gotten to the bottom of her. We don’t even know how many gears she has.”
Maybe her Zen-like attitude can be attributed to the occasional treat her trainer gives her: beer. Zenyatta is a genuine Guiness lover. Her trainer, Vietnam Vet John Shirreffs, said he tried other beers, but she only likes the hearty Irish stout.
Zenyatta is a tease. Like Secretariat, she tends to come from behind, biding her time until the home stretch, and then shifting into what seems an impossibly higher gear to outrun her competitors. This leaves her fans holding their breath each time she runs, wondering if she’ll manage to make it to the front.
It’s never clear she’s going to win, until she does, which, so far, has been every time.
Zenyatta hasn’t set many speed records, though. Her owner Ann Moss speculated that perhaps Zenyatta was satisfied with coming in first and maybe didn’t want to show off or make the other horses look bad.
Whatever her reasons, the mare doesn’t seem to know how to lose, which gladdens the heart of many a bettor. There’s no such thing as a “sure thing” at the track, but no one has lost money on this $6 million winner yet.
Now, before you all run and place your bets, bear in mind one thing: this may be the toughest field Zenyatta has ever faced. She hasn’t raced against the boys all year.
She’s moving from the synthetic tracks of California, where she ran 17 of her 19 races, to the firmer dirt track at Churchill Downs, which can be tougher, especially over the long distance. She’s won two on the dirt, but at shorter distances.
And if she loses, the horse to blame might indeed be Blame. Like Zenyatta, Blame is a late-runner, and in a long race, late-runners have the advantage over those who take off fast but tire as they enter the home stretch. Blame has won three of his four faces this year.
Still, it’s hard to fight an undefeated record like hers. It’s poised above the field like a tidal wave, ready to sweep her past the competition and into horseracing history.
Can she become the first horse in over 100 years to remain undefeated in 20 starts? Tune in to ESPN at post time, 5:20 p.m. Eastern, take a deep breath, and find out.
Lisa Pease is a historian and writer who specializes in the mysteries of the John F. Kennedy era.
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