Friday, November 5, 2010

Zenyatta goes for 20

Churchhill Downs

Saturday November 6th, 2010
Estimated Local Post Time: 6:45 pm (EST)

Breeder’s Cup Classic - Zenyatta

At it’s finest, there is a moment in sports – when an athlete transcends into artistry….there is a breath of rarified air one takes when you witness someone (or in this case an extraordinary creature) perform at the highest level – you have ever…seen…before.

Imagine having never seen Reggie Jackson or Ken Griffey Jr. hit a home run.

Imagine having never watched Muhammad Ali or Iron Mike Tyson deliver a devastating uppercut that ended a bout.

Imagine having never enjoyed seeing Lynn Swann make a circus catch – or seeing Joe Montana toss a pass that snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

And finally – imagine if you will – never watching Magic Johnson fool everyone with a no look pass, or Michael Jordan hitting just another impossible, game winning, shot at the buzzer….

I have enjoyed sports for a long time now – and I can write with all sincerity that if you don’t watch Zenyatta run this weekend in the Breeder’s Cup Classic you will have missed a sporting event that I earnestly believe is comparable to everything I’ve just listed above.

If you’ve never heard of Zenyatta – or perhaps you have heard of her but can’t imagine what the “big deal” is….I completely understand.

A year ago, I was the same way.

I follow horse racing more than most – however I primarily follow the “male” horses, and more specifically the horses that make a run for the Triple Crown. As last years Breeder’s Cup approached I had heard about this “special” horse named Zenyatta, who had never been beaten, and was about to run against impressive competition in the Breeder’s Cup Classic – personally I thought she didn’t have much of a chance.

The Classic is the highest paying race in the United States ($2,700,000 to the winner), and is open to any age – meaning it’s supposed to be the Super Bowl of Horse Racing – because the money and the lack of an age barrier opens it up to the best horses in the world….I repeat it’s open to the best horses in the WORLD.

I had read last year that once Zenyatta raced in the 2009 Breeder’s Cup – she would retire – to my surprise, she ended up winning the Classic last year and I witnessed people literally crying over this horse….and at the time I “still” didn’t understand – but I did know that clearly I had missed something….something very special.

Turns out Zenyatta’s ownership Jerry Moss (He’s the M in A&M Records) wanted to give her another year of racing. Mr. Moss and his wife say it was a gift to her fans….and when you watch the passion this horse displays when she runs - there is no better word I can dream up to describe this horse, other than to call her a Gift.

This animal…this creature – loves to run….loves to win – oh and she’s got an attitude about it too…..the kind of attitude that would make a young Elton John proud. This horse actually puts on a “show” before she even steps on the track! I have no doubt they’ll show it in the coverage as she approaches the stage.

I have witnessed this horse – in person – twice. And when she struts on to the track she lets every man, woman, child, horse – any creature on the premise – know she’s here for one reason – to win, baby – and win with style.

And that’s exactly why you should watch her this Saturday – she’s never lost a race…..and I mean ever. This weekend she will attempt to win her 20th race in 20 attempts.

Consider a couple of horses you’ve probably heard of –

Secretariat – won 16 races in 21 attempts.- a Triple Crown winner who won the Belmont Stakes by running the fastest mile and a quarter in history.

Seabiscuit – won 33 races – out of 89 attempts (that’s winning about 37% of the time) - A statue of this horse stands at the entry of Santa Anita Racetrack (where Zenyatta calls home). The Biscuit defeated a Triple Crown Winner (War Admiral – Man O’War’s son) in the Pimlico Special – and found a way to make not only one but two amazing comebacks.

Man O’ War – who won 20 races out of 21 - considered one of the greatest American horses ever – a horse that didn’t win as many races as they would have liked because other horse owners withdrew when they found out he was running.

Does she belong in the conversation with this quality of horse??

Well here’s her resume – If Zenyatta wins this race – she will become the only horse to win three Breeder’s Cup Races – and she will tie Tiznow for having won two Breeder’s Cup Classics. She has defeated Kentucky Derby winners - if she wins this year she will add a Preakness winner (Lookin At Lucky) to her list as well.

Some claim that she didn’t travel much out of California and therefore her ownership didn’t really “challenge” her against the preeminent competition. Detractors will write and say that because the Breeders Cup has been held in California the past two years – she’s enjoyed an advantage. And perhaps to some extent this is true.

However – when horse racing wanted her to run in the Apple Blossom this year in Arkansas against Uber-great, and last year's Horse of the Year, Rachel Alexandra…..Zenyatta showed up – Rachel didn’t.

Ask her to run against the best in the World – It’s “supposed” to be the Breeder’s Cup Classic – this is her second year….and now it’s in Kentucky – this race on Saturday is some major put-up or shut up time for those who like to talk about horse racing – and in particular Zenyatta….a.k.a. The Queen.

In my opinion she’s “dodged” no one – you want to race against the Queen – anybody with a calendar knew where she was going to be….and this Saturday if you want a shot – it’s in the Classic – not to repeat myself, but it’s show up or shut up for anybody who’s got a problem with this horse.

There are also a number of “racing” experts that believe she will struggle on the Kentucky dirt – which is different then the California Poly-Track she has raced on for the predominant part of her career. However her half brother Street Sense seemed to have no problem winning the Kentucky Derby on that dirt in 2007 – those racing experts seem to be silent (perhaps even frightened) about the possibility of Zenyatta actually "improving" on this dirt.

Should she lose – it will be validation for few, and heartbreak for many – which is just one more reason you need to tune in on Saturday.

Those strange East Coast “I told you so people" aside - She is beloved by most -

 – if you give this horse 30 minutes of your time this Saturday I believe you will have no choice but to understand that this is a moment in sports you do not want to miss.

Catching four seconds of her crossing the finish line on ESPN's Sports Center will be a disservice to yourself if you are any kind of sports fan.

In closing, while horse racing is a neglected sport – Zenyatta represents the best that any sport can offer. She will give you a show before the race has even started – when they leave the gate she will give, as if to be fair, the other horses a head start – and then in the closing moments….when you’re sure that this time victory is impossible – you will see a spark in her eyes and the entire world around her will seem as if it’s in slow motion as she sails past her competition.

And perhaps most impressively – before she enters the Winner’s Circle she will stand in front of a teary, but joyful crowd with an elegance and poise that will make you wonder how much of all of this she somehow understands.

If victory is for the 20th consecutive time achieved by her – I doubt you’ll ever see a “send-off” in sports quite like it.

Watch 60 Minutes coverage of Zenyatta -