Some events are best experienced in a vacuum, without hurried attempts at establishing greater meaning or inciting debate. Zenyatta, a mammoth 5-year-old mare, won the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic last Saturday at Santa Anita Park. And before the dirt was washed from her chest, fans and media were lining up to argue whether Zenyatta or 3-year-old filly Rachel Alexandra, winner of the Preakness and Woodward Stakes, should be named Horse of the Year.
Zenyatta's supporters point to her perfect record (five wins in five races in 2009 and 14 straight wins in her career), the deep quality of the field she beat in becoming the first female to win the Classic in its 25-year history and the fact that Rachel Alexandra's carefully managed campaign did not include a trip to the Breeders' Cup. Rachel's camp responds that she, too, was unbeaten in '09 (eight for eight) and that while Rachel won races in six different states, Zenyatta didn't leave California and ran exclusively on synthetic tracks after April 2008.
It's an intriguing debate but one that should be framed in such a way that demeans neither horse. Separately, they have given racing a remarkable year. Rachel's victories in the Preakness (the first filly to win in 85 years) and Woodward were breathtaking. Zenyatta's win in the Classic was the moment of the year.
Before the Classic, Zenyatta, a late bloomer who didn't race until November of her 3-year-old season, had been brilliant, but she had neither raced beyond 1 1/8 miles (the Classic is 1¼) nor against males. She went off as the 5--2 favorite, but against a deep field that included Belmont winner Summer Bird she was in deep company. In what was likely her last race, Zenyatta broke lethargically, but jockey Mike Smith found small holes on the rail to save ground and worked her into the race before swinging wide in the stretch. She galloped desperately down the middle of the track, catching Arlington Million winner Gio Ponti inside the 16th pole as the Santa Anita grandstand shook in support. It was an epic performance on a grand stage. Period.