One day in August of 1996, I got up super early, packed my single-serving snacks and drove down to Del Mar to see a horse race. Two years earlier, Bill Mott moved Cigar from the turf to the dirt, and he began to win one race after the other. Sixteen in a row, in fact, matching a streak by the great Triple Crown winner Citation. Today, Cigar was going to attempt to break that record in the Pacific Classic and win his seventeenth race in a row. Like every other racing nut, I became captivated by what Cigar was doing. He shipped everywhere and just kept on winning. He wrapped up his Horse of the Year season in 1995 by winning the Breeder's Cup Classic. And we all got up at before the crack of dawn to watch TVG, as he just outran the tenacious Soul of the Matter in the Dubai World Cup. They even wrote a special race for him, the Citation Challenge at Arlington Park. That's where he tied Citation's record.
Del Mar was packed, and there were a lot of people there who didn't really know about Cigar and the streak. Going to Del Mar was just something you did when you were tired of the beach and Mexican food in Old Town San Diego. But those of us who knew racing knew that Cigar could achieve something truly special. However, six furlongs into the race, that dream ended with the split of 1:09 1/5. I will never forget that -- 1:09 1/5. That's COOKING for a mile and a quarter race, and Cigar was right up there on the pace. Understandably he had nothing left, and Dare and Go went right by him to break the streak.
On the way out of the track I stopped by the test barn and caught a glimpse of Cigar's eye as he cooled out. He looked apologetic.
This past Sunday, it was Zenyatta's turn to try and break that streak as she went for her seventeenth win in the Vanity Handicap at her home track of Hollywood Park. One big difference with Zenyatta's sixteen wins is that they came with no losses. She's been perfect in sixteen races. As electric as the atmosphere was for Cigar, nothing approaches the zeal for Zenyatta. Because this was her HOME. She won her first race here, and now she would attempt to win her seventeenth. Those of us who've been watching her run for three years GET her. We know how much of a star she is. The world was introduced to her star power in the Breeder's Cup Classic, where she did what she had done thirteen times previously -- found her way to the front before the wire. And that, as I've posted before (and many others have said elsewhere) was the greatest event I've ever witnessed.
But seventeen would not be easy. Zenyatta would be asked to carry 129 pounds for the second time, conceding from 9 to 17 pounds to the rest of the field. Just for comparison last year's champion, Rachel Alexandra, carried only 124 pounds while winning the Fleur de Lis on Saturday. Quality Road, considered by many to be the best older male in training, won the Met Mile under 124 pounds. West Coast star Rail Trip carried 118 pounds in the Californian. And another terrific older male, Blame, carried 120 pounds while winning the Stephen Foster (ostensibly a handicap, but come ON) on Saturday.
Zenyatta was in for a race from the second choice, St Trinians, a European import who failed as the favorite in the Santa Anita Handicap, but that's been her only poor start since arriving in the U.S. She figured to have several advantages in the Vanity. The distance, the weight, her running style. The goal for jockey Martin Garcia would be to get some separation from Zenyatta on the turn for home, and hold off the big mare to the wire. And then, of course, not get ripped apart by the fans, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Hollywood Park had a giveaway day on Sunday - a Zenyatta bobblehead honoring the mare for what she had already accomplished, which includes winning the last two runnings of the Vanity. If she could win this third straight Vanity Handicap, she would join horses like Forego, John Henry, Native Dancer, Flawlessly and Kelso for winning at least three runnings of a major race. Ever since Zenyatta shocked the world by winning the Breeder's Cup Classic, there's been a special kind of "event buzz" around her. People have started to gather when she runs, coming from all over the world to see her. It even spilled over to the Santa Anita Derby, which had about double the attendance of recent runnings.
There's a unique atmosphere to Zenyatta's race days. People who've met at her previous races come together and talk about her and the good that her name is doing for the industry. There were several horse charities visible on Sunday, selling Zenyatta shirts for the upkeep of retired racehorses. Nobody paid much attention to the earlier races on the card, not even the people involved with them. We all just counted down to the eighth race. And as it approached, people began to gather around the paddock, zig-zagging up the stairs and to the balcony overlooking the paddock. People wore Zenyatta hats and shirts and jerseys. If they didn't have anything official, they made their own shirts. Or they wore the Moss's colors -- pink and green. One adorable older guy was dressed head to toe in pink and green. Yes. Even his shoes. The crowd surprised owners Jerry & Ann Moss with spontaneous applause when they entered the paddock. Even Zenyatta's OWNERS get an ovation. Shortly afterwards, jockey Mike Smith entered to his own ovation. Former jockey Julie Krone brought her daughter, not wanting her to miss out on seeing a horse like Zenyatta. And Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert didn't have a horse in any races that day. He just wanted to be in the paddock for Zenyatta.
When the horses came over, fathers lifted their daughters to see Zenyatta walk into the paddock. The one thing you don't want for your racehorse is for people to just start applauding and making noise when the horse is getting saddled, but there was very little anyone could do about it. People who'd come to see her for the first time couldn't help themselves. They get EMOTIONAL. The buzz was incredible as John Shirreffs boosted Mike Smith up onto her back. Zenyatta arched her neck and stretched her legs, delighting the crowd. And then we all good-naturedly streamed towards the track for what promised to be the race of a lifetime.
Everybody knew what Mike Smith needed to do in the Vanity. Zenyatta was going to be the victim of yet another slow pace. Smith needed to keep an eye on St Trinians, who would be sprinting for home just off the turn. He couldn't let St Trinians get away from him. Because Zenyatta's a closer, she generally sits at the back and loops around the field, so she doesn't interrupt that massive motor of hers. While Smith could have gone down inside with her he didn't want to take any chances, especially with all that weight on her.
So when St Trinians began to sprint for the wire, Zenyatta was only a few lengths behind her. If you watch the race, you'll see St Trinians' jockey Martin Garcia take a peek back under his right arm when they make the turn. He's looking for Zenyatta, and he was probably muttering "Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear," because she was RIGHT THERE. He got going on St Trinians and that little horse took off, floating Zenyatta even wider than she was, forcing her to lose valuable ground. In midstretch, the flying St Trinians looked the winner... at least against any horse other than Zenyatta. I've never seen a horse look as terrified as St Trinians did, as in, "I'm going as fast as I can! HOW IS THAT OTHER HORSE CATCHING UP??"
But Zenyatta is no ordinary horse. She knows exactly where the wire is; she's known sixteen times in a row, and she knew for the seventeenth time. Somehow she caught a filly who wasn't stopping. And when she caught St Trinians, her ears went up. Just like they do every single time she gets the lead. This isn't just about winning the race. She knows that getting the lead is the goal, and so far she's been able to accomplish that goal every single time. And with her running style, nothing is ever going to run past her. Especially when you look at her time for the final eighth of a mile. It was freakish. Racehorses who are 7-wide and are carrying 129 pounds aren't supposed to go that fast.
From the time Zenyatta steps out into the paddock, myriad emotions are experienced by her fans (which also include all the other horsemen): Awe, delight, fear, dread, panic, something slightly less than panic, hope, despair, disbelief and finally unfettered joy. Hollywood Park was the cauldron for all of those emotions, people so carried away by a horse's great, generous heart that they didn't care that they looked like maniacs as they jumped up and down. Thousands of people joined it to make one sound, an otherworldly full-throated roar, that deep-seated instinct all living things have when they recognize something extraordinary. There simply weren't any words after the race was over. Everybody stood and watched and screamed. Even the racing pundits on TVG couldn't speak. There was literally not a word out of them for several minutes. One of those pundits, Ron Ellis, trains leading older horse Rail Trip. He's in AWE of her, and he wants NO part of her with his terrific horse.
When Zenyatta galloped back, the roaring increased. Even her connections -- owners Jerry and Ann Moss, racing manager Dottie Ingordo Shirreffs and trainer John Shirreffs -- didn't know how to react. How do you react to history? What can you say? When I was a kid, I read all the Black Stallion books. I mean, of course, right? And one of the things I loved most about the books was the hint of mysticism about the horses. There's a big match race in the first book and I love the way Walter Farley writes about it. Because it just transcends being "just" a horse race. The race takes on a life of its own because of the presence of this mystery horse, the Black. How DARE he take on these two superstars? The gall!
This is what Zenyatta in the Breeder's Cup was all about. It was the end of every horse-racing movie ever. The credits were supposed to roll, but they didn't because the Mosses decided to bring Zenyatta back this year, for a shot at immortality. And they've achieved it. But people complain that she hasn't been tested. They COMPLAIN! They're totally blind to the otherworldliness of this mare. She is the unquantifiable. She defies the numbers that are so crucial to the handicapping aspect of the sport. How can you handicap a horse who doesn't appear to have a limit? People impose artificial limits upon her, but she just keeps winning anyway. In all probability, Zenyatta will run three more times. With seventeen victories behind her, are the odds REALLY against her to win a measly three more? But who she has become is no longer about being undefeated and winning more races. She's already accomplished everything a racehorse can accomplish. There was no more pressure on Secretariat after he won the Belmont, and there is no more pressure on Zenyatta. Her place in history is assured, detractors be damned. History has a way of sorting out the bullshit.
I wanted to see Cigar transcend everything to win that seventeenth, but he found a limit that day. Last Sunday Zenyatta had every reason, every right, to find a limit. But she didn't. She won again, ears up, making history.