Thursday, November 11, 2010

Zenyatta, The Greatest Race Horse In History -or- The Greatest Race Horse In Our Hearts?

By Frankie Lovato

Being a professional jockey myself for 25 years, and my father also a professional jockey for as many years, my whole life has been horse racing. With this being said, never have I gone through the emotion and magnitude I felt when fellow jockey Mike Smith and Zenyatta loaded into the starting gates for the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic.

You do not have to be in the business or a horse racing fan to have heard of the great mare Zenyatta. She created her fame by never being beaten along with one of the most astonishing winning streaks in horse racing history. A perfect 19 for 19 record which included defeating the best males on the planet in last years Breeders' Cup Classic run at Santa Anita Park. But, like the great Secretariat, this story does not go down in Disney fashion when the seemingly immortal Zenyatta would be defeated for the first time. (all photos copywrite by Skip Dickstein Photography all rights reserved, please visit

The stage was set for the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic held this time at Churchill Downs. Zenyatta was flown in from California to begin her final preparations over the Churchill Downs strip. Like a rock star, news media, camera's flashing, fans, posters, and 24 hour security swarmed around her deeply bedded stall, as we watched every move she made. This 6 year old, 17.2, twelve hundred pound dappled bay mare and people lover, carried the presence of a true queen of royalty, even given the nickname "Queen Z".

Hall Of Fame and world class jockey Mike Smith knows greatness in a racehorse when he sits on one, having said, "I believe Zenyatta can go down in history as the greatest racehorse of all time". A strong statement made with the likes of racehorses that have been considered to carry this title such as Citation, Man O' War, and Secretariat to name a few. For many however, it was believable because no one has carried such an amazing record of being undefeated 19 for 19 especially running in the caliber of races she has competed. It was believable for me that Zenyatta could go down as one of the greatest racehorses of all time.

Along with millions of others, I sat and watched with hands trembling, and my heart pounding. I could not imagine what Mike was feeling. As the gates came open, Zenyatta was away badly but no worries, she always get's off sluggishly and awkward. As they headed passed the grandstand for the first time, Zenyatta was climbing with her action and looked a bit uncomfortable as she dropped back further in last with Mike nudging her to be more forward. OK, she did this a bit last year too so still not all that worried. As they made their way into the first turn, I see Mike nudging her more, OK, this is not good, something is wrong. Does she hate the track, having a bad day, the dirt getting kicked in her face bothering her that much? All the above?

Midway down the backstretch she was so far back behind the last horse, I was already feeling, "there is no way she can win from here" and disappointment was already setting in. As they hit the second turn, I see her starting to catch up somewhat with the field and thinking, "maybe she can hit the board", but also seeing other jockeys in position and poised to pounce as they neared the top of the stretch. Then all at once like an accordion from front to back, the whole field came together within a few lengths of one another with Mike and Zenyatta on the move. I am praying that Zenyatta finds her way through traffic (a jockey's nightmare) as she is picking them off one by one. Turning for home, I see Blame and Lookin at Lucky both blast off for the lead and looked like fresh horses headed for the finish line.

When spotting a fresh horse 5 lengths, there is no way it is possible for any horse to catch up with less than a quarter mile to go, but when Mike got Zenyatta out and clear, here she came! Within a sixteenth of a mile, she caught Lookin At Lucky and there was one left to beat, Blame and he was not slowing down. I have never seen in my lifetime a horse full of run like Blame and she was still getting to him with every stride. At that moment, 100 yards to go, I witnessed something I have never seen before. This was true greatness, my eyes began watering knowing I have just witnessed the greatest performance in racing I have ever seen. This mare was wearing down the best male horse in the world with every single stride. Even with jockey Garret Gomez's great ride and with all the run Blame had left inside him, Zenyatta was coming to get him. As they hit the finish line, it was over, she was too late. Blame hung on and reached the finish line first to defeat the great Zenyatta. Could two more strides have changed racing's history forever?

With Zenyatta's defeat, never have I seen the despair, sobbing and heartache from so many fans. Yes, she did get beat and Blame held on, but Blame is not the "bad guy" and Zenyatta is not the loser here, either. She maintained winning the respect and hearts of millions forever and always and people will talk about her for years and years. Although the history books won't quite tell the full story of how Zenyatta was just two strides short and inches away from historical greatness. Two more strides that perhaps would have given her the inches she needed to win, and that would have placed her amongst the greatest racehorses of all time. It is now even questionable if she can be voted the Horse Of The Year? Personally, I think she should be voted the Horse Of The Decade if there was such an award.

Her race record now shows a less then perfect 19 wins from 20 career starts, but her record in winning our hearts and respect remains perfectly intact. The greatest racehorse in history or is she just the greatest racehorse to win over our hearts? Could she be both? Only time will tell and with that, I say "Go Zenyatta!"

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Photos by Skip Dickstein Photographer all rights reserved.

In relation, Frankie Lovato interviews jockey Mike Smith on a sneak peek preview from his "What It Takes To Be A Jockey" DVD