What an electric moment, one frozen in time for even the most casual of horse racing fan to cherish the rest of their life.
From the time Zenyatta was being saddled in the paddock, to when she did that little prancing act for her adoring public, to the five-minute delay at the gate when Quality Road acted up, to her tardy start out of the gate, to, finally, Mike Smith’s picture-perfect ride and the the roar of the crowd as Smith steered the massive mare outside and let her do her thing, which is to put her head down, lengthen her stride and close ground in the stretch like few horses we have ever seen, Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Classic was the greatest single moment in sports I have ever had the pleasure to watch in person. Not just the greatest moment in Breeders’ Cup history, but greatest sports moment ever. Period.
Then, of course, the scene that followed — trainer John Shirreffs going nuts in jubilation, tossing his cap into the crowd, everyone associated with the horse hugging, and many crying, the crowd’s roar when Smith galloped Zenyatta back in front of the clubhouse and then the heightened ovation as Smith stood in the saddle, exulting the fans to let it all hang out.
I wrote a column a couple weeks ago stating, for all intents and purposes, the Horse of the Year race was over and it was Rachel Alexandra’s no matter what happened in the Classic. Uh, wrong. It’s the second time I’ve eaten crow this year, the first being when I told readers back in May they could immediately eliminate Mine That Bird in their Kentucky Derby handicapping.
It’s funny how one race — albeit one astonishing race — can change a columnist’s mind. It was such a dramatic race, and the finish could not have been more thrilling. I’ve covered World Series, NFL playoff games, Rose Bowls, and nothing compares to that moment that I covered Saturday. It was something I will never, ever forget. It was one of those moments all of us are lucky to witness in person once in our lifetimes.
HOY? Well, I’m not as adamant anymore. They don’t let us split our votes, but I would love to see them voted co-Horses of the Year because neither one deserves to lose out to the other. They have both been so good for the sport this year that I think it would bring the house down if the two horses’ connections were asked to come up to the stage on the night of Jan. 18 in Beverly Hills and at that moment it was announced they were both all-time great horses and, because of that, for the first time in history, they would both be crowned Horse of the Year. Can you imagine the ovation?
Don’t give me the argument that the vote’s never been split and because of tradtiion and/or precedence, we can’t do it this year. Hogwash. Incredible circumstances call for temporary rules changes. These are two unbeaten race horses that did NOTHING wrong at any time this year. They were perfection, both going unbeaten and both drawing their own loyal followers. At a time when this industry has just about hit rock bottom and it’s starving for attention and feel-good stories, to have these two magnificent horses come along the same year and do what they have for the sport, well, tell you what — I’ll let YOU tell the owners of the losing horse the final results for HOY.
I mean, c’mon … Rachel Alexandra did things no filly has done in close to 100 years. Incredible, extraordinary feats. She made people sit up and take notice in the Preakness Stakes when perhaps interest surely would have waned. She took on the boys twice more, beating older males in the Woodward. She graced the inside pages of Vogue magazine, again lending increased exposure to a sport that is as starved for attention as much as Cubs fans are a World Series.
Well, I have been blessed enough to witness 10 or 11 of her 14 races in person, and she is unlike any horse — either sex — I have ever seen in the way she comes from last or next to last every single time and it doesn’t matter what the fractions are. How many times have you heard jockeys and trainers say after a race, “It’s tough to win when there’s no pace to run at.” Damn right it is, but you know what — Zenyatta closed and won every single time she raced, no matter how painfully slow the early fractions were. And she capped her career by becoming the first female winner of the Classic and the first horse to win two different Breeders’ Cup races.
Ladies and gentlemen, if what these two horses have accomplished in 2009 is not worthy of co-Horses of the Year, well, I’ll use part of a quote by Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who told reporters at Santa Anita’s Clockers’ Corner on Sunday morning that if Zenyatta is not rewarded with Horse of the Year, “there is something wrong with our sport.”
“They both deserve it, but I think after yesterday, you got to give it to Zenyatta,” Baffert went on to say.
I say if they aren’t named co-Horses of the Year, racing is missing a great opportunity and yes, there is something wrong with our sport.
Baffert said he would not be opposed to co-Horses of the Year.
“That wouldn’t be bad,” he said. “They’re both great mares. I’ve never seen anything like Rachel or Zenyatta since I’ve been training here. You got to give a lot of respect to both of them.
“(But) if you had to give it to one, it would have to be Zenyatta. What she did yesterday for the sport was incredible. The Breeders’ Cup, without her in the Classic, oh my God. It would have been like Friday. We’d have had two Fridays. She put about 10,000 people in the stands.”
True, but Rachel did a lot for the sport as well, and we know the Preakness would not have been what it was without her in the second leg of the Triple Crown. And when was the last time you saw a horse in Vogue? I mean, c’mon. It’s unheard of.
There were thousands of racing fans who went home after the Preakness, Haskell and Woodward after Rachel beat the boys feeling good about the sport, talking about the history they’d just witnessed for days after.
Same with Zenyatta.
“When (Zenyatta) hit the wire, it was like everybody won,” Baffert said. “I mean, horse racing won when she hit the wire. She made us all leave here feeling good about our sport.
“It was like a movie script. They couldn’t have written it any better. Then for her to make that run. And then the fans, I’ve never been at a track where the whole grandstand just erupted. There was so much buzz.”
Yes, this is so much more than just about how many races each won this year. It’s about what they also did for a sport crying for attention.
No, both Rachel Alexandra were just too brilliant, two good for the sport to ignore one of the two. We have to reward them both by making this a special occasion, naming them both Horse of the Year.