Thoroughbred racing is full of stories with fairy-tale endings. Mine That Bird winning the 2009 Kentucky Derby was a fairy-tale ending. So was Funny Cide winning the 2003 Kentucky Derby. So was Seabiscuit winning the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap.
Fairy-tale endings have a way of crashing up against the rocks of reality. Take Mine That Bird, for example. He ran three good races after his longshot win in the Derby, then he ran six total clunkers (the last four this year after being switched to a different trainer). I hope he enjoys his reported retirement. Remember him for that Derby. Forget all the rest.
Another sort of fairy tale is the quest for perfection. Take Zenyatta, for example. She wins her first 19 races in a row. She goes for number 20 against the toughest field she had ever faced before. She gives it her best shot. She comes up a few inches short against a very good horse (Blame).
If Zenyatta had won that race, most of you would now be proclaiming her as the greatest horse ever to look through a bridle (or at least the greatest female horse ever to look through a bridle). Why change your opinion over a few inches???? Do those few inches really mean that much???? Is perfection (retiring undefeated) really all that important????
Man o’ War lost one of 21 starts. Did that one loss make him any less “great”? Native Dancer lost one of 22 starts. Did that one loss make him any less “great”? Secretariat lost five of 21 starts (one through disqualification). No one seems to think that made him any less “great.”
Anyone remember a certain daughter of Reviewer out of Shenanigans, by Native Dancer? Yes, I am old enough to remember Ruffian. I lived through Ruffian. I was in college when Ruffian died. I have a lot of personal memories surrounding the death of Ruffian. Her fairy tale crashed up against the rocks of reality about the same time as my own personal life did the same thing. The two events are intertwined in my mind.
Go back and look at those old posters of Ruffian you may or may not still own. “The body of a stud and the legs of a water spider.” Zenyatta and Ruffian were very different horses in their attitudes and racing styles, but I see a certain resemblance between them in that description.
There was a lot of discussion yesterday, before the Classic, about Zenyatta’s place in racing history. Undoubtedly there will be even more in the aftermath of that race. I can speak only about the many fillies and mares I have seen race over the past 50 years or so. Relative to other fillies and mares, I put Zenyatta and Ruffian up on a pedestal, far above all the others (even the undefeated Personal Ensign who, I strongly suspect, would have crashed up against the rocks of reality herself had she run in the BC Classic that year, 1988).
The biggest difference between Zenyatta and Ruffian is that the former is still alive. Zenyatta is not being buried in the infield at Churchill Downs this morning. Be infinitely thankful and grateful for that.
In absolute terms, how does Zenyatta stack up against all racehorses, males and females, over the past 50 years? I rank her right up there with Seattle Slew. That is a pretty high ranking, though I decline to say exactly how high.
Seattle Slew lost three of his 17 races. A few weeks ago I published in this space some verses about one of those losses, the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes, in which he defeated Affirmed but lost by a nose to Exceller under extremely extenuating circumstances. The memorable thing about that race is that it convinced me that Seattle Slew really deserved the overworked appellation “great.” I think it convinced a lot of other people of the same thing.
I am gonna repeat the last of those verses here with the appropriate alterations:
“Some loved Zenyatta; some hated her; some just loved her not
But in her final racetrack ramble she showed what she had got
From the highest scribe down to the lowest scab upon the street
The universal verdict should be: she showed true greatness in defeat.”