Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Sport of Queens

Browse the web, read the headlines, watch the races. Horse racing the world over has carried one dominant theme in 2009: fillies and mares beating the boys in important races. In a sport described as male dominated, the fillies are quickly proving it’s a girl’s world, too.

It started with the iconic superstar Rachel Alexandra. An annihilating victory as the overwhelming favourite in the Kentucky Oaks transitioned to male domination in the Preakness, Haskell Invitational and Woodward Stakes. A few weeks after Rachel’s Woodward win, it was the turf sprint master Ventura who shipped to Canada to overtake the boys in the Woodbine Mile, an important Breeders’ Cup prep race.

On Breeders’ Cup Saturday, however, all of this became a sidebar to Zenyatta’s overpowering win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Going into this event, the towering bay Street Cry mare had everything to lose: the race, a perfect 13 for 13 record, and her claim for Horse of the Year.

The most refreshing aspect of this scenario is that Zenyatta could have opted for the Ladies Classic, an event she won last year, and still kept all of the above intact. But instead, owners Jerry and Ann Moss and trainer John Shirreffs decided to test their faith in their champion mare. They experienced the fruition of this decision a thousand times over.

The spectacle put on by Zenyatta both during and after the race was unlike anything I have seen thus far in this wonderful sport. Her entrance into the paddock made classic winning colts and multiple grade I winners look like green broke maidens, and from that point forward she captured the hearts and imaginations of all 37,000 plus present, and thousands more watching on television across the world.

The Zenyatta showcase continued into the post parade. While the rest of the field jogged off around the turn for their warmup, Zenyatta paraded in front of the grandstand, showing off her traditional strut, turning her head to the crowd and throwing out her right foreleg in response to the cheers.

What looked to be a fairytale in the making threatened to come to an end just moments before the race. The controversial starting gate incident involving Quality Road has been well publicized, but it must be noted that the Santa Anita assistant starter is as heroic as Zenyatta herself. In being able to catch the reins and bring Quality Road under control, this man prevented sure disaster; one can only imagine the tragedy that could have materialized had this colt gotten loose while panicked and blindfolded.

Quality Road aside, Zenyatta’s race was much the same as her 13 other wins, but altogether entirely different. Making her trademark sweeping move at the quarter pole, the Amazon mare used the length of the stretch to annihilate her opponents, a style exhilaratingly familiar to her fans. But this race was like none other. None other of Zenyatta’s, none other this year, and none other in history. On this day, Zenyatta waived all criticisms of her previous wins against “inferior” opponents. She provided the crowning moment of a year for females. She marked her spot in history as a dual Breeders’ Cup winner, became the first female winner of the Classic, and with this win soared past Horse of the Year Azeri to become North American racing’s all-time leading money earner. For those watching on scene and across the world, Zenyatta gave us all a reason to believe. To believe in hope and overcoming adversity. To believe that mountains can be moved. To believe that miracles can happen. To believe in the people and things you love, because standing strong can provide the greatest of dividends.

Other Breeders’ Cup Quips

Lost in the shuffle of Zenyatta is Goldikova, repeat winner of the Mile. The French-based mare beat the males in this event for the second straight year, joining the great Miesque as female repeat Mile winners. Coincidentally (or perhaps not) Miesque was ridden by Goldikova’s trainer, Freddy Head.

I think it is easier in hindsight to appreciate that we saw three repeat Breeders’ Cup winners in a row: Goldikova (Mile), Conduit (Turf) and Zenyatta (Ladies Classic/Classic). This is a rare feat accomplished by precious few horses, and the victories by these horses were a testament to the quality of this year’s event.

I have many special memories from this year’s Breeders’ Cup; far too many to list here. From the fan standpoint this year’s event was a success, and the countdown is officially on to Churchill Downs in 2010.

Below: Zenyatta enters the paddock for the Classic, showcasing her trademark "strut".

video

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