Monday, January 17, 2011

Total Eclipse Of the Heart

Today is the Eclipse Award ceremony, where either Blame, Goldikova or Zenyatta will be named Horse Of The Year. I know what you are all thinking -- how can we possibly be ready to party in Miami the day after the Golden Globes??? That's right -- the Eclipse Awards are in Miami this year. Because NO American city is more about the Thoroughbred than Miami.

Luckily for you, gentle readers, this will likely be my last Zenyatta post because she is retired and just about ready to scare the shit out of A.P. Indy or whichever poor bastard they choose for her. I mean seriously -- POOR FUCKING BASTARD. I'll be back ranting like a crazy goblin about some television thing or the other. And yeah, I've got a particular topic in mind (thank God).

Anyway, there's been quite a lot of heated speculation about the HOTY award. It goes a little something like this: Voters (mainly turf writers) repeatedly claim that since Blame beat Zenyatta, he deserves HOTY. They say that Zenyatta is the greatest synthetic specialist of all time but since synthetic racing is less than dirt racing (yes, somebody actually SAID THIS), there's no way she could be named HOTY. Now, these folks are the voters and as the voters, they have every right to choose whichever horse they want. It's their vote. There are some fantastic turf writers out there. Oddly, though, a lot of the good ones don't actually GET to vote. So they've simply been waxing poetic on the greatness of Zenyatta. You know... DOING THEIR JOBS.

Some of the really good turf writers DO get to vote. Some of them are voting for Blame, and others for Zenyatta. Like I said -- up to them. But then there are THE OTHERS. There's been a lot of derision towards the fans of the sport by these Others. Mostly, it happens when somebody goes, "Hey, you know what? It wouldn't be the worst idea if the fans had a say in this awards thingy." They lose their fucking MINDS over this and bleat about how fans are stupid, they don't know anything, they only like Zenyatta because they like pretty horsies, and they will just fade away and lose interest. These fans never cared about the sport anyway. If they did, then wouldn't the newspapers that carry columns by these Others be doing better? I mean, who DOESN'T want to read another riveting article about takeout in California?

(me)

The insinuation is pretty clear -- these Others know more about racing than any fan. And because of that, they get to vote. They vote because their opinion is INFORMED, while a fan's opinion is simply emotional. Now look. If you WORK in the Goddam racing industry, if you cover the sport on a daily fucking basis in that this is the way you make your living and you have NO idea what Zenyatta brought to racing, THEN YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG. Because if someone who's never even seen a horse race can know that they've seen something special in Zenyatta, then you, Mr. Professional Turf Writer And Self-Proscribed Genius, should be able to see it, too.

Instead, you denigrate and dissuade and demean the fans, the people who -- BTW -- buy your papers and read your articles. THEY'RE YOUR AUDIENCE, FUCKWITS. And your behavior ever since Zenyatta set foot on a racetrack is embarrassing. But hey, what do I know? I'm only a fan, someone who's been following racing for most of my life. Given how these Others seem to kind of hate the industry, they will soon be heaping praise upon David Milch's gambling show, which is probably all about takeout and carryovers. Wee! How fun!

I thought that on the eve of the Eclipse Awards, maybe I should make my case for what MY vote would be for HOTY. I'm going to give you more than that emotion you so despise. I'll give you precedent, you fucktards. I also want to mention the fact that you can deride all you want about the fans having a vote, but you DO know that in Europe the readers of the Racing Post and Daily Telegraph get a vote, right? So if they do it that way in a place MUCH classier than America, then what's the harm in doing it that way here? Why NOT include the fans? Are you afraid that you'll all be found out for what you really are? This vote should be about the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism. I suspect it won't be, which would be quite a shame.

Anyway. On with my vote:

The guidelines for the Eclipse Award for Horse Of The Year are thus: A horse needs to have made one start in North America.

That’s it.

The rest is left up to the voters, which means that any criteria can be used. Blame’s supporters claim that a vote for Zenyatta is a vote for emotion or sentimentality. This is supposed to give Blame the award based on numbers, but is Blame really a clear quantitative winner?

Blame won four of five races in 2010, including three Grade One races. He won two handicaps – the Foster, in which he carried 120 pounds, and the Whitney, in which he carried 121 pounds. Zenyatta won five of six races, all Grade One. She won two handicaps – the Santa Margarita, in which she carried 127 pounds, and the Vanity, in which she carried 129 pounds. She gave from eight to nineteen pounds to her Santa Margarita rivals, and nine to seventeen pounds to the Vanity field.

Some choose to denigrate Zenyatta’s Grade One races, calling them “restricted” because they are restricted to fillies & mares. However, last year’s HOTY Rachel Alexandra ran every race but one in “restricted” company. And running in “restricted” races didn’t seem to harm HOTY Lady’s Secret, or HOTY Azeri. Lady’s Secret won only one “open company” race. Azeri didn’t face males at all in her 2002 HOTY season, winning five of the races that Zenyatta won this year.

Another criticism for Zenyatta is that she didn’t defeat any Grade One winners. But since 2008, Zenyatta has won every Grade One filly & mare race on the West Coast except for two – the 2008 Santa Margarita, won by Nashoba’s Key, and the 2009 Santa Margarita, won by eventual Ladies Classic champion Life Is Sweet. In this exceptional, unprecedented case, Zenyatta’s lack of Grade One competition was caused by Zenyatta herself.

This year, the Breeders Cup Classic is being held up as the most important feather in a HOTY contender’s cap. But last year, it didn’t matter at all. Those who choose Blame dismiss the rather weak campaign Blame had in 2010. They toss his four-length drubbing in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, but his slim victory over Zenyatta carries all the weight in the discussion. They talk as if there has never been any other HOTY who lost the Classic.

Well. Awesome Again was unbeaten in 1998 but the horse he soundly defeated in the Classic, Skip Away (who was 6th), was voted HOTY. Curlin lost the Classic in 2008 but was voted HOTY over Zenyatta. Native Dancer won only three races in 1954 but was on the cover of Time magazine, and was named HOTY. Anyone arguing against being influenced by the fact that Zenyatta smashed the consecutive win record should take a look at 1996, when Cigar lost three races, including the Classic, but was named HOTY because he tied Citation’s record.

Numbers and precedent don’t seem to give Blame the edge here. The notion that the HOTY would also be the popular choice goes against everything her detractors think the award should recognize. It would take the serious scholarship away from racing and turn it into something populous. And as we well know, populous sports don’t thrive at all. Ask football. Or NASCAR, which embraces populism and thrives because of it. Racing is still that cranky old man yelling at kids to stay off his lawn.

Zenyatta ran for three healthy, sound years. She was a horse who loved her job and the people who surrounded her loved their jobs, too. They also realized they had an opportunity to share her with the world, and they did that. Zenyatta put on a show. She was breathtaking. Perfect. And people were caught up in her glory. For the first time in a long time, racing was popular because of something positive.

However, horse racing is tradition and this year, racing has the chance to honor that tradition with Claiborne Farm’s Blame, a marvelous racehorse who represents everything that is safe and establishment about racing. Blame is not, however, transcendent. People who knew absolutely nothing about the sport knew that they had seen something special when Zenyatta narrowly missed running down Blame. Teaching new fans how bittersweet racing can be is a difficult lesson but Zenyatta showed them that greatness can sometimes be better quantified in defeat than in victory.

The critics, the skeptics, say that a vote for Zenyatta would tarnish racing’s image. The people who came out for Zenyatta will slink away now, and racing will go back to the sad state it was in before Zenyatta first danced onto its stage. But these new fans are getting caught up in the HOTY debate. People who had never been to the track are using numbers and history to debate Zenyatta’s attributes. They’re eager to see Switch and Blind Luck run this year. This enthusiasm is not the only reason to vote for Zenyatta but in a race that has proven to be so closely contested, all that the mare did for racing breaks any tie.

In her three years of racing, Zenyatta captured the public’s imagination and put racing on the map. No matter what accoutrements we hang on this sport, it all comes down to one thing – the horse. Heart is not quantifiable. It’s emotional and visceral, and that is what Zenyatta has brought back to the sport. A vote for Blame would be a vote for the old-boy establishment that hasn’t found a way to connect with a new fanbase. A vote for Zenyatta is a vote for the future of racing.

And that is why Zenyatta is my 2010 Horse Of The Year.