LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- It is racing tradition that the winner returns last. They all run their race and then gallop around the turn, gathering themselves up after the effort, slowing and allowing their pulse rates to fall ever so slowly back toward normal while jockeys rise in the irons. And then they come back, clockwise this time, to the finish line, where the riders dismount and the tack is removed from the horse's back for a long walk to the barn. And the winner returns last.
So it was in twilight Saturday evening at Churchill Downs, when a four-year-old colt named Blame cantered back toward the finish line, bathed in the artificial glow cast earthward from tall light towers. He had won the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic by
Now Garrett Gomez brought Blame back toward the winners circle and in a small patch of earth not far from the finish line, groom Mario Espinoza walked Zenyatta toward her barn on the backstretch. Her muscular chest was spackled with light brown mud. Here Gomez stopped on Blame, turned to face Zenyatta and then saluted her with his right hand. Not once, but twice, a winning human being bestowing respect on a beaten, riderless animal. And of course the message was less for the towering mare than for the crestfallen crowd behind her in the grandstand.
"I wish she would have went 20-for-20 at the expense of someone else and not us,'' Gomez said later. "She's an amazing racehorse. ... She's awesome.''
There is no disguising the reality that Saturday was scripted as part coronation, part validation. Coronation because it was almost certainly the last race of her brilliant career. Validation because there remained nonbelievers who held back praise, as just two of of Zenyatta's victories had come on dirt (the rest on synthetic surfaces in California, including last year's breathtaking victory in the Classic at Santa Anita), and she had never faced a field as strong as Saturday's. Yet she was made the even-money favorite, so many fans betting from affection.
In each of her victories, Zenyatta had run the same way -- falling back early and then winning with a blistering finish. Sometimes she drew away by daylight and sometimes she just barely reached the finish line first. A legend grew around this style.
"She knows where the wire is,'' said Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey before the race. "And she runs to it.''
Saturday's race took that drama to its extreme. Zenyatta broke slowly from the gate and then stumbled down the homestretch and underneath the wire for the first time in the 1 ¼-mile race. She was running impossibly slowly. It seemed she might even be injured.
"She just wasn't leveling out like I wanted to,'' said jockey Mike Smith. "The dirt, of course, hitting her in the face, was a lot of it. She just wasn't used to that.'' (Having run so often on synthetics, on now a deep, tiring Churchill track).
Zenyatta fell behind by nearly 20 lengths, a ridiculous deficit against top horses, and didn't seem to find her stride until more than 30 seconds into the race, as the field rolled up the backstretch. (Clearly Zenyatta disliked the unusual footing; jockey Kent Desormeaux said on the morning of the Classic that the Churchill racing surface "was different from any time in the last 20 years,'' probably because of unusually cold weather.) Zenyatta only made contact with the second-to-last horse in the field, the overmatched Pleasant Prince, after they had run three-quarters of a mile.
"Just left her with too much to do,'' said Smith.
On the turn for home, Smith moved Zenyatta to the back of the contending field, but briefly had to check the big mare when she caught the suddenly stopping Quality Road. Then Smith angled Zenyatta sharply to the right into the middle of the racetrack and set her down. In front, Gomez and Blame -- a very good racehorse who had three of his previous four races at Churchill Downs -- had found the lead with three furlongs to run.
Those in attendance on this cool autumn evening will long remember the emotions of the ensuing 15 seconds. Blame finding daylight, looking like a winner. And then Zenyatta, suddenly lengthening, devouring earth in huge gulps. Surely she would win now. The racetrack shaking in a roar, unlike anything even on Derby Day. Finally, Blame digging down in the final strides, the talented Gomez having saved just a little for the finish, and holding Zenyatta off by a short head.
"Probably the best race he's ever run for me,'' Gomez said afterward.
"I truly believe I was on the best horse today,'' said Smith, fighting tears. "I just wish I had been in the race a little earlier, because I think the outcome would certainly have been different.''
Alas, the feelings were familiar to the racing game: universal disappointment and deflation, emotions plucked from the racetrack as if by a giant cherry picker. It has happened so much in recent years. In 2003, when Empire Maker denied Cinderella Funny Cide in the Belmont. In 2004, when Smarty Jones turned back three challenges in pursuit of the Triple Crown on the same Belmont track, only to be caught in deep stretch by Birdstone.
(On that day, winning trainer Nick Zito totally embraced the warring emotions of the afternoon, embracing Smarty Jones' trainer, John Servis, near the winners circle and saying "I'm sorry.'' The same could not be said on Saturday for winning owner Seth Hancock of Claiborne Farm, who, when given the opportunity to embrace obvious perspective, could do little better than, "Well, I thought the battle for Horse of the Year was fought about a half-hour ago, and Blame won it,'' is if the suddenly higher stud value of a horse that will stand at Claiborne is more important than the soaring presence of Zenyatta for the last three years. It was disappointing at best, unseemly at worst).
Little time will pass before Zenyatta's place in history is debated. There are times when an athlete (or a team) elevates him (or her) self in defeat. Think: Kentucky basketball in 1992. (A metaphor they would understand in these parts).
Standing on the track after the race, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, whose very good three-year-old Lookin At Lucky finished fourth in the race, talked about the beaten mare.
"[The race] shows that she's the real deal,'' Baffert said. "She had bad racing luck. For them to run her in this race, I've never been involved in such a big race. I lost my voice yelling for Zenyatta in the end, once I knew Lucky was tired. I'm sad that she lost. She could have easily won the race, she was too far back.''
In a cold, statistical light, Zenyatta needed to win Saturday's race to burnish her legacy. Detractors can now say that she never beat top males on dirt, that she was never Horse of the Year (Hancock is probably right, Blame is likely to win that award, after Rachel Alexandra won it last year, despite never facing Zenyatta).
Those measurements are accurate, and we live in a statistical age. Yet they are also insufficient. By the grace of her owners, Ann and Jerry Moss, and her trainer, John Shirreffs, Zenyatta kept her sport on the stage when there is a creeping urge to push it aside. And on the day when she was most challenged, she overcome nearly all of it. She was -- and is -- far bigger than her one defeat.