Star of the show brought down the house

Breeders’ Cup XXVI brought 58,845 to Santa Anita, the Great Race Place, last Saturday to watch the greatest filly/mare I’ve seen run in my lifetime, and I’ve been going to the races since 1973.

Yes, Zenyatta put on quite a show for a turnout that, for the most part, didn’t care who they’d bet on when jockey Mike Smith steered the mammoth daughter of Street Cry to the outside and then closed like a locomotive to win the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic by one length over Gio Ponti.

It was the biggest non-Churchill Downs crowd for a Breeders’ Cup since 1986 when 69,155 turned out at Oak Tree to watch horses like Capote, Fran’s Valentine, Precisionist and Skywalker run. It was the biggest crowd at Santa Anita, period since 1988 when Alysheba won the Big ‘Cap in front of 70,432.

It just shows how important it is for the sport to be able to showcase its stars on big days like Breeders’ Cup weekend. Yes, there’s no denying the fact a lot of poor management decisions have helped drag the industry down to where it is today, but a big part of the blame can also be pinned on the decision to retire horses before they’ve developed a following. And once they’ve developed that following, during the running of the Triple Crown races or what have you, then they’re sent off to the breeding shed before we can witness scenes like we did when Zenyatta became the first female to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“I think we’re all euphoric,” Allen Gutterman, Santa Anita’s marketing director, told me Sunday morning at Clockers’ Corner. “It’s been a difficult meet, and to see the reaction (of fans), you feel like you are in a real major-league sport again when something like this happens. It’s good for racing when we have these kind of things happen where the fans come out and want to be part of something.

“It shows you how badly we need stars and how the problem is when horses are retired so young. We don’t get a chance to develop stars as marketers and race-track operators. It’s not just all about the betting, it’s about the horses, and people love horses. When you see people with signs for Zenyatta or Rachel (Alexandra) or anybody, that means that they care. That’s an emotion that you can’t create with giveaways or freebies. It comes from the horse, and I think it’s the same thing how people feel about the Lakers or the Dodgers or something like that.”

Exactly.

Walter O’Malley’s decision in the late 1950s to uproot the Dodgers from Brooklyn and move them to Los Angeles caused a lot of bad feelings. Yes, the Dodgers were a bunch of bums to many Brooklyn fans, but they were “their” bums, and that’s all that mattered. They had developed a following, and then they were moved 3,000 miles to the west and the Brooklyn fans had lost something that meant a lot to them.

Same way with horses, only to a lesser extent. Stars like Secretariat, Street Sense, Empire Maker and Smarty Jones are retired way too early, before they can attract the same type of fan base Zenyatta did. And we saw Saturday just how powerful that fan base can become and what it can lead to in terms of drama and excitement for the sport.

Sadly, money rules the world nowadays. It’s the reason World Series games are all played at night and why the baseball playoffs are sprinkled with so many needless days off. It’s the TV money that calls the shots.

Same with these horses. Breeding rights are so valuable now, few want to risk future riches by racing their stars much beyond their 3-year-old campaigns.

Love him or loathe him for his decision not to bring Rachel Alexandra to the Breeders’ Cup because of his disdain for synthetics, but owner Jess Jackson deserves much credit for campaigning Curlin as a 4-year-old and if he does bring back Rachel for her 4-year-old campaign. Ditto the Mosses, Jerry and Ann, for bringing back Zenyatta for her 5-year-old season.

Imagine the sport right now if we hadn’t had Zenyatta this year, or if we didn’t have Rachel’s 4-year-old season to look forward to with anticipation?

Well, that’s too depressing to even ponder. Excuse me while I go watch a replay of Saturday’s Classic again for the umpteenth time.

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