Apparently, I produce 0.9 posts a week, which I found out when Google Reader suggested I might like my own blog. Way to go out on a limb, Google Reader! I wanted to get it back up to 1.0, but this has been a crazy month. Luckily for all y'all, I've been bookmarking interesting news and blog entries so I've got shit to talk about later.
But all I'm going to talk about now is the Breeder's Cup last Saturday, when Zenyatta made the kind of history you just don't see. Any notion I had that I've seen greatness was totally blown out of the water when Zenyatta crossed the wire. I could wax rhapsodic and spew racing minutiae onto these pages but what I really wanted to do was try to put into words what this really means, and why Zenyatta's victory affected people so much.
I know that the majority of people (all, probably) who read this blog are either not racing fans, or just not sports fans at all. I'm sort of a sports fan. Love baseball, used to love football, can't stand basketball. Mad about racing. If you're a writer pitching a sports project (been there twice), conventional wisdom says "DON'T DO IT, YOU FUCKING IDIOT! ARE YOU INSANE??" When you're pitching a world that's unfamiliar to the majority of your audience, you have to set that world. Same with sports, unless you're pitching a baseball/football/basketball project. While most people have at least a rudimentary familiarity with those sports, they don't, on the whole, know anything about racing. Maybe they've heard of Secretariat. They've probably heard of the Kentucky Derby. But that's about it.
I had a discussion recently about sports movies versus sports and the idea was that sports movies work because they have a narrative that actual sports lack. This isn't at all true but the fact remains that if you don't know the sport in question, then the subtleties that may give you that narrative don't exist for you. Hence, you have no fucking idea what's going on, which makes the sport in question boring only for the people who truly know and understand it. I totally buy this with cricket.
But after seeing what Zenyatta accomplished on Saturday, I have to go against that. Except for the cricket. There were over 58,000 people at Santa Anita and lemme tell ya, on a good day there's 15,000. It was pretty crowded last year but nothing like this. People came on Saturday because they heard about this unbeaten filly who was going to take on the boys for the first time. People -- no matter how much they know -- LOVE the battle of the sexes. That shit is timeless. Even if they don't know the stories within the Classic, they know the main throughline... the high-concept moment. The poster. The trailer. And that's Zenyatta. Speaking of posters, TVG gave out Zenyatta posters. And they ran out. If you saw the telecast, there are freaking posters EVERYWHERE. And not just the TVG posters; homemade posters, too.
You don't need to know racing to recognize what Zenyatta did. You just need to be alive and somewhat conscious of the world around you. All a knowledge of racing does is enhance that recognition. For example, I know what it means for a horse to go out there fourteen times and win fourteen times. Even if a football team wins every one of their games, they always know who they're playing against. Baseball players don't bat 1.000. Pitchers lose games. And geez, horses lose races. Even Secretariat lost races. Seattle Slew lost. Affirmed lost. But Zenyatta faced -- and defeated -- 88 horses in her career, and she won every one of those races at a disadvantage -- her running style. She was at the mercy of every horse in every race she ran, and she STILL won them all. Now, much like a fan of Lost who dissects the clues in the episodes, you can get more appreciation about what this mare accomplished if you have the details. But you don't need it to feel the impact of what she did. And that is certainly the hallmark of great drama.
What's kinda funny is that the people who had the info -- the fans and the punters -- didn't even pick her. Because to them, the numbers didn't stack up. I can look at the numbers -- the cold, hard facts -- and see where they're coming from. But it wasn't how fast Zenyatta went or how much she won by. It was the way she did it. And she won every one of those races that way -- cruising past the leaders with her ears pricked. That's a racehorse's way of showing disdain, people. And she showed that same disdain to non-winners that she did to champions. Bettors need it to be about numbers but the whole reason EVERYONE comes to the races is that one intangible, and that's what Zenyatta showed fourteen times in a row.
Watching Zenyatta match Personal Ensign's unbeaten record of 13 straight in her Classic prep was emotional enough. But this was on a different level, a level the majority of people at the track (me included) had not seen in person. This was Secretariat winning the Belmont. When you have someone like Hall of Fame rider Angel Cordero Jr. say that this was a highlight of not only racing but of life, then you can begin to grasp the enormity of what was witnessed. But even people who don't know that, who don't have the history of that behind them, can go home knowing they witnessed something special. What Zenyatta's been doing for the past two years was captured by a huge crowd on Saturday. Everybody GOT IT.
I've never seen people just sob with joy after watching a race, but that's what happened at Santa Anita on Saturday. Emotion lifted the grandstand up. Trainers whose horses ran up the track behind Zenyatta were teary-eyed and cheering for her. Jockeys, whose horses ran very well, didn't have the words to describe what it was like to watch her cruise past them. And it was international, too. Horseplayers who were dissing Zenyatta were crying after that race. They were speechless.
Everytime a horse steps out on the track, or a pitcher takes the mound, or a swimmer takes his mark, there's the anticipation that something great could happen. The past, the history of the sport, and the future coalesce into the present. There's nothing more of the moment than a sporting event. And what sustains you through the majority of the non-great times is that possibility of greatness, of witnessing something amazing with thousands of other people. Sports are organized and rigorously policed but what happens when the gate opens in a race is the opposite of that. It's chaos, and the entropy that develops throughout can bring greatness.
It's about taking risk after risk, challenging yourself time and time again, to be better than you were the day before. It's about heart and truth and fight. Now add in horses. Nothing will make a sport more honest or true than a horse. When you see an animal lay it all on the line to WIN, it does something to you. And they certainly don't always win, as the myriad Triple Crown misses have shown us. I went to Del Mar to hopefully see Cigar break Citation's streak in the Pacific Classic and he got beat. I saw Big Brown go into the gate for the Belmont. The swell of anticipation that happens before something like that just fucking dies. It didn't on Saturday.
You can't plan great events in sports. You can hope for them, but ninety-nine out of a hundred times you're going to be disappointed. It's the unpredictability of the game or the race that gives it the drama. And it's about the search for those moments that define greatness. And that search is all about overcoming adversity. And isn't that what drama is about as well? You can't define or quantify heart, but you know it when you see it. And there's something primal about it, something that brings us all together. We recognize it instantaneously, even if we've never seen it before.
Now, if you come in and say that the horse is a dumb animal that is just doing what it's taught to do and it doesn't understand winning, you simply don't get it. And if you're a writer who feels this way, then you're doing yourself and your work an enormous disservice. Writing is about broadening horizons. Not narrowing them. And being unable to grasp what a feat like Zenyatta's means to people is more about being unwilling than blind, if you ask me.
Without Zenyatta's victory, it still would have been a phenomenal day of racing. But with that win, it became transcendent.