It's been just over two days since the 2010 Breeders Cup Classic, one of the most meaningful and exhilarating horse races of my lifetime, ended. Zenyatta, using the same style that has thrilled horse racing fans for three years and fueled an unprecedented 19 race unbeaten streak, exploded from last at the top of the stretch and unleashed her patented late kick upon all those in her path.
However, for the first time in her illustrious career, the great mare ran out of time and real estate.
As a fan of horse racing well beyond the gambling aspect, this day was one that I have been looking forward to ever since the Zenyatta connections announced that she would be coming back to racing in 2010 with the intention of defending her Classic crown. I watched in awe as she marched through her 2010 campaign in some cases with great ease and, in others, with a final surge just as the wire approached. With each victory, I somehow became even more attached to this historic champion than I was after her Classic victory in 2009.
Zenyatta and her Girl Power mantra began to sweep the nation. She touched the hearts and minds of those even outside the horse racing circle in a way that went well beyond even the most popular Triple Crown hopefuls. This in itself could be considered Zenyatta's greatest feat amongst her many.
As most know, horse racing is a sport on the downturn. No longer the Sport of Kings, at least in this country, horse racing has faded well into the background of great American sports.
Zenyatta's run to the classic, though, hearkened back to a grander time for horse racing when the stars of the sport were household names and could be found on magazine covers or on the front of the sports page throughout the year. Whereas now, horses are generally only recognized and discussed during the week leading up to the Kentucky Derby through the five weeks until the Belmont. Her story drew new fans, young and old, to the sport and energized the already existing fan base in a way that is rarely seen.
Leading up to Saturday's races, Zenyatta appeared in commercials, became a recurring story on ESPN, graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, was featured on 60 Minutes, and even made Oprah's list of top 20 powerful women.
In my adult life, this would have been inconceivable. Aside from Barbaro, whose story really hit the mainstream only after he tragically broke down, no horse had captivated the sports world in this manner.
As I sat and watched the races on Saturday, my personal anticipation grew as each race went by and the countdown to Zenyatta's final race approached zero. After the Breeders Cup Turf became official, there was only approximately 40 minutes remaining.
ESPN showed Zenyatta leaving the barn and making her way through the crowds of fans hoping to just catch a glimpse or snap one passing photo of Queen Z as she danced and strutted her way to the track. Once she finally appeared beneath the historic twin spires of Churchill Downs, the crowd erupted with applause and electricity began to fill the air. The hype was finally behind us and it was time to see if the event could somehow live up to all that preceded.
With five minutes left to post, I sat in front of my television with beer in hand and my stomach in knots. I watched as they showed the connections of Zenyatta and could only imagine how their anxiety level had to be a thousand times what I was feeling.
They loaded into the gate and it was time. Time to watch the horse that I have grown to love achieve a greatness known only by a chosen few. A victory would cement her place amongst the all-time greats and I felt privileged just to have the opportunity to share in this unbelievable moment from afar as a lowly spectator.
As they broke from the gate, Zenyatta took her place in the back of the back as she is known to do. Although, this time, she seemed to be even further back than normal. In my mind, doubt began to creep in that she was over her head and her deep closing style was finally going to be her downfall.
When they approached the final turn, Zenyatta remained in last and was stuck behind a wall of horses. In the past, she would just sweep to the outside and run down whoever was in her path.
This time, though, there was too much ground to make up and her jockey knew that he would have to find a way to weave through traffic in order to give her a chance. This beast of a horse, whose size is part of her legend, had to dip and dodge and navigate her enormous body through a wall of horses.
Somehow, she finally found herself free of all obstacles and she was able to lengthen her strides as only she can do and take aim at the leaders. Out of the pack of leaders, Blame, a horse who has run and won over the Churchill Down surface on multiple occasions and who has been arguably the best male horse in the country, separated from the crowd.
Zenyatta now had her target. The brilliant mare strided out as she has done so many times before.
I jumped from my seat and pleaded at the top of my lungs for Zenyatta to make one final run for the wire. Mike Smith, her jockey, reached down for a gear that he has never had to use before and implored the champion to unleash all she had in her. Both horses were extended fully, but Zenyatta gained ground with every stride.
In the background, the crowd roared with excitement as I assume they could feel themselves witnessing history in the making. The wire approached and Zenyatta had almost drawn even.
A few more strides were between her and immortality.
Their heads bobbed almost in slow motion as they hit the wire and a collective gasp was felt. My heart jumped in my throat and the decibel level in my basement reached inhuman levels.
And in the end, she fell just short. The Churchill Downs crowed hushed in astonishment as they watched a sight that no one had ever seen before. The great Zenyatta was not the first to hit the wire. It was something I had hoped I would never see and that idea was one that I shared with millions across the world. I felt as though I was kicked in the stomach.
My body dripping with sweat and worn out from the prior two minutes of anticipation, nervousness, exhilaration, and disappointment sunk into my couch with nothing left. It was over and, even though Zenyatta had run one of the greatest races you will ever see, it was not enough on this night.
Now that I have had some time to get passed the utter disappointment I felt at the time, I can look back upon today and the past three years spent watching this fantastic lady with some perspective.
Zenyatta may not have always faced the highest competition, didn't run against the boys as often as one would have liked, and lost the biggest and most defining race of her career, but none of that matters in my eyes.
Zenyatta epitomized all that is great in sport—human or animal. She achieved perfection longer than any before her, she fought with every ounce of her 1,200 pound body every time she stepped on the track, and she wowed everyone who watched her compete with her personality and flair for the dramatic.
For me, she became a part of my life in a way that most will not understand and that's fine. At this point, I don't really care. I have watched her grow from an unknown to a star to a superstar to an icon and every second, even the last few seconds as she finally was defeated, were one's that I will cherish for all time.
She transcended sport for many, including me, and I hope that won't end today. If it was up to me, she would keep on running and would attempt to regain her standing of one of the all-time greats, but I doubt that will happen.
So, even if the last time we see her on the track is after a loss, it does not, in my mind, diminish her place in history. Her career and her impact should be celebrated.
She ran the race of her life today, and although it was not enough to get her to the winner's circle, it was enough to cement the fact that she is an all-time great horse and, in my eyes, still the Queen.
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