It is no longer possible to come up with new, exciting ways to describe the streak that Zenyatta has been on since she first stepped into the starting gate in 2007, nearly three years ago. Nineteen starts, 19 wins. She's also learned how to pose for photographers, and she's so good at it by now that I think Miss Tyra would approve of how she finds the light.
TeeVee networks, sports channels and magazines regularly report on the Triple Crown. ESPN may mention the Breeder's Cup. But the truth be told, it's been a long damned time since any of these horses stuck around for more than one news cycle. But still they cling to their Derby, even as you see horses like Point Given and this year's Lookin At Lucky (who isn't) get pasted in the too-big Derby field, only to come back and assert their superiority in later races.
But by then, the news has moved on. No potential Triple Crown winner? So long, suckers. There's basketfootbaseball to report on! We used to have the same three-year-olds through the entire Triple Crown, but even that's different now. Horses aren't brought up to be able to run every two or three weeks anymore. Hell, not even every six or seven weeks. Trainers complain about the rigors of the Triple Crown, like it's some new thing and horses didn't used to routinely do it.
But last year, two fillies emerged. Given this country's predilection for sexism (more on that in a later post), it took everyone awhile to catch on. Racing caught onto Rachel Alexandra right away. She ran eight times and won all eight, beating males three times. It was an historic, if carefully chosen campaign and Rachel was rewarded by being voted Horse Of The Year. For all that Rachel did in the latter half of the year, it was her electrifying, comment-defying bazillion length victory in the Kentucky Oaks that was her most impressive. That was in May. And then in November, we had Zenyatta's breathtaking sweep to victory in the Breeder's Cup Classic past a bunch of sensational boys, with her ears flicking around as if to say, "Males? Pfaugh. NOT impressed."
Two remarkable performances from two remarkable fillies.
The Eastern-based turf writers and handicappers felt comfortable with Rachel. She ran in the East, she was stepping out of her division to beat the boys, and she was doing it on what they call "natural dirt," which we all know is anything but. Zenyatta made them uneasy. She ran on "synthetic" racetracks, and the Easterners just hate synthetic tracks. If you ever see a "flubber" reference, that's what they mean. But Zenyatta was going to retire, so everything would be fine. However, Zenyatta was brought back for 2010, and then she became a problem for her detractors.
Especially when my most beloved villain, wine fellow Jess Jackson, started issuing his press releases and challenges to the Zenyatta camp. Jess, you see, purchased Rachel Alexandra after her Kentucky Oaks win for about ten million dollars. On a blog, some jackhole praised Jackson for having an eye for picking out horses. Honey, if I'd had ten million dollars, I would have bought Rachel Alexandra after the Oaks, too. Jess Jackson wanted another Horse Of The Year, and so he bought one. He wanted to bring Rachel and Zenyatta together at Oaklawn for the Race of the Century. Zenyatta came; Rachel didn't. As has become bitterly apparent, Rachel was not the same horse in 2010 as she was in 2009. Either that, or (as happens with young horses) the rest of her peer group caught up to her. She was beaten three out of five races and recently retired. Nobody knows why. Jess Jackson, who's famous for blathering on until you want to eat your own hair, hasn't said why. And Rachel's trainer, Steve Asmussen, apparently has some kind of a contract of muteness and isn't allowed to speak.
So Zenyatta has marched on, on her own. Imagine how pissed off these East Coast people are, now that their standard-bearer has been retired. There's still this Goddam synthetic specialist, this slow mare who beats nothing, and people are acting like she's a great horse or something!
Well, yeah. We ARE. Because she IS a great horse. She may be the greatest female racehorse to ever campaign in this country. And she is one of the greats of all time. To suggest otherwise, as many have done in print, is clueless. Most notably, "that guy" is Andy Beyer, the dude who put his name on the Beyer Speed Figure, which is a well-known and oft-used handicapping tool. Shortly after Rachel's retirement, and a few days before Zenyatta was to go for her 19th win, he wrote a snarky, whiny piece about how great Zenyatta isn't. Now, everybody always has this argument. Who's the greatest of all time? Secretariat? Citation? Man O War? What recent horses have been great? Was Ghostzapper, the admittedly brilliant Horse Of The Year who ran only four times to win the title, was he great?
Seriously, FOUR TIMES? Who the fuck has a conversation about a great horse WHO ONLY RAN FOUR TIMES?
I am so sick of this bullshit, where we are only supposed to judge greatness upon the same chosen criteria. Beyer's numbers are MADE UP. They don't account for everything that can happen in the running of a race. Just to point out how arbitrary they are, Beyer chooses horses every year that will be his Beyer stalking horses. He sets the range of his numbers based on how particular horses run. This year, Rachel was understandably one of those. Her numbers were sky-high last year. And they should have been. Rachel had a lot of speed. Everything about her fit into Beyer's little speed box. But he really fucked himself by giving Rachel high numbers right out of the gate in 2010. See, Rachel got beat in her first start. And that became a problem because the three horses who beat Rachel this year had to be assigned very high speed figures, which meant that they each ran out of their heads to beat her. Statistically, it's more than a little improbable for that to happen three times. Rather, wouldn't it make sense that Rachel had lost a step? Bring her numbers down and the other numbers up just a bit, and the whole thing starts to make more sense.
But God forbid.
Zenyatta, on the other hand, is a frustrating puzzle for Beyer because so far, in 19 races, she has run to the level of her competition. She doesn't blow her fields away. And as she's gotten more experience, she's learned where the wire is and now she does just enough to get there. The problem with this is that Beyer can't tell how fast she really is. So all he has to go on is final time. And when a horse gallops along at the slowest pace possible for the majority of a race (which is how the others try to beat her), the final time can only be so fast. Ergo, Zenyatta's speed figures are very low. And that's the trap Beyer fell into last year. There was NO WAY she was fast enough to win the Classic. Not based on her speed figures. And that is absolutely true -- based on the artificial numbers randomly assigned to her by a guy who only cares about speed, she was not fast enough to win the race. But she won anyway.
After that, though, her detractors got wise. They dismissed every horse in the race, when prior to that they had been saying that it was one of the finest Classic fields ever assembled. But since Zenyatta won, it couldn't be. See?
Here's the flaw with speed figures. They only measure speed, and they do not measure what Zenyatta does. She never has the lead. She always spots the field multiple lengths. And when I say always, I MEAN ALWAYS. In every one of her 19 races, she trails and has to pass EVERY HORSE IN THE RACE.
Beyond Zenyatta's running style is the real reason behind this bullshit: She runs in California, on synthetic racetracks. If there's one word that will make the eyes bug out of an East Coast racetracker, it's "synthetic." They will foam at the mouth. They will hit themselves in the head repeatedly with "Beyer On Speed." They will lose their fucking nuts, because all the synthetic runners have done is ship East and beat the shit out of the dirt horses. See, the synthetic numbers are low because races are run differently on synthetic and rather than, I don't know, FACTOR THAT THE FUCK IN, these guys keep saying that California horses are too slow. And then they tear up their Pick Six tickets in disgust.
The people who will give Zenyatta greatness have a caveat -- she is the greatest synthetic horse ever, and her winning streak will have an asterisk next to it because of that. This is like saying to someone, "I'm sorry if you were offended that I slept with your wife." Zenyatta's improbable, record-setting victory in the Breeder's Cup Classic over males is discounted because, to her detractors, every other horse in the race ran poorly over Zenyatta's favorite surface. Which means that every horse Zenyatta has ever run against is inferior on the synthetic, while she is superior. Sounds a bit improbable, doesn't it? Zenyatta is, to this point in her career with one race left, PERFECT. She has NEVER BEEN BEATEN. And she's not some two-year-old who goes into the Breeder's Cup unbeaten in two or three races. She hasn't been beaten in NINETEEN OF THEM. I don't care if she had to run over broken glass or cotton. The surface doesn't matter. She still has to go out and run, and that's exactly what she does. But then Andy Beyer wasn't sold on Seattle Slew, either. Seattle Slew, who became racing's first unbeaten Triple Crown winner. Maybe Beyer just has a problem when he sees a horse whose ability appears limitless. Because you can't put a number on limitless.
Putting aside the obvious fact that it's sad racing fans are missing out on how great Zenyatta is, this is just all bullshit. Zenyatta has run on the dirt. She's won twice. She is the only horse to win two different Breeder's Cup races. She's the only filly to win the Classic. She is the only horse in years who has actually given real weight in a handicap. When she won her 17th race to pass Citation and Cigar, she did so under 129 pounds, giving nine to the runner-up. She's carried 129 and 127 pounds several times. The top handicap males aren't even carrying 126 pounds in their handicaps. She is tied with New Mexico-bred Pepper's Pride for the most consecutive wins in modern history. She's won nine consecutive grade one races, which is a record. She's won fourteen grade one races all told, which is the most for any filly. She's earned the most money of any American female racehorse in history.
And the detractors will toss all of that and say it doesn't count because she runs on a surface they can't handicap.
So it all comes down to this: The Breeder's Cup Classic, at industry-approved Churchill Downs, is Zenyatta's only chance to add her name to the list of great horses. All that she's done previously doesn't count. It's all about this one race, but only for this one horse. These people keep moving the goalposts for this great mare. They attack her connections for a "conservative" campaign, completely ignoring the fact that great mares like Azeri and Personal Ensign and even RUFFIAN had what would be considered conservative campaigns, if we're using the same measurements for them that we are for Zenyatta.
That, however, is insignificant and in fact, if you bring that up, they ignore you.
Andy Beyer showed up to Hollywood Park on the day of Zenyatta's 19th win. He was there to give a handicapping seminar, the irony of which didn't escape anyone there. We all booed him. See, people like Beyer are only impressed with that which they've seen. If it can't be quantified and put into their preconceived little box, then they dismiss it. They hate the enthusiasm that exists for this horse. They're like those Star Trek geeks who were SO pissed off at the JJ Abrams movie, because Kirk wouldn't do that, and because lots of people who weren't Star Trek geeks loved the movie. That's how they act, these racing establishmentarians, like people who are pissed off that a racehorse THEY DON'T UNDERSTAND has transcended the sport and is drawing more people to the track than any horse in a decade.
They are sure -- just positive -- that Zenyatta and her hateful fans will get their comeuppance on November 6th. Zenyatta faces dirt, Churchill Downs, a potentially muddy track, and a whole bunch of MUCH better males than she beat last year, in her own sandbox. That is the conventional wisdom going into this year's Breeder's Cup Classic. Zenyatta will be the favorite, and they will be apoplectic. They will all toss her, and feel pretty good about it. The racing world will return back to normal, where handicappers can once again caress their speed figures as their ordinary horses fit into the tiny boxes that are made just for ordinary horses. They won't have to worry about the extraordinary Zenyatta ever again.
Regarding their handicapping for the Classic, though, they have forgotten one tiny thing: It's not that Zenyatta will finally -- FINALLY -- run against good horses. It's that these horses will finally run against Zenyatta.