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Horse of the Year: Zenyatta, Blame or Goldikova?

Say this about Zenyatta: she gets people talking. For 19 starts and 19 wins the conversation was about how good she wasn’t; how her wins were tainted — by weak rivals, an aversion to travel and a surface comprised of the stuff that Dallas Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones apparently injects nightly (or perhaps hourly) into his face. Then, last weekend, when the six-year-old mare was beaten for the first time by Blame in the biggest race on the U.S. calendar, the talk shifted to another sore subject for Zenyatta fans — the Horse of the Year award.

To review: Last year, Zenyatta capped a perfect season — which included four Grade I scores — with a win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Yet, the John Shirreffs’ trainee was denied Horse of the Year honors by an arguably equally brilliant female track star, Rachel Alexandra, who some say had a tougher campaign, despite the fact that she didn’t compete in any of the Breeders’ Cup events.

This year, Zenyatta has five Grade I triumphs; Blame will finish 2010 (and his career) with just three. But at least according to one of the colt’s owners, Seth Hancock, only one of those G1 tallies really counts.

“I thought the battle for Horse of the Year was fought about a half hour ago, and Blame won it,” Hancock said after this year’s Classic. “I mean, she’s a great horse, Zenyatta is. But she had her shot to get by, and she didn’t do it. So I don’t think you can vote for her. I don’t know who else you could vote for.”

Hancock noted that Blame had “taken his show on the road” and “done everything that’s been asked of him.”

“I can’t believe that he wouldn’t be Horse of the Year,” the head of Claiborne Farm said.

Frankly, it’s hard to argue with Hancock’s logic. The fact is, regardless of what one thinks of the trips that Zenyatta and Blame had in the Classic (many, myself included, feel that the former was left with far too much to do in the final quarter-mile), the bottom line is Blame crossed the finish line first. And awards and titles should be won or lost on the field of battle.

The problem is all too often they’re not.

Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta never met in 2009; Two-time Horse of the Year Curlin didn’t face either Zenyatta or Big Brown, his primary ballot box adversaries in 2008, and, in fact, lost his only meeting with 2007 runner-up Rags to Riches. Likewise, Invasor and Barbaro, the top two vote-getters of 2006, never met on the racetrack, nor did 2005 winner Saint Liam cross paths with that year’s top three-year-old Afleet Alex.

Given the subjective nature of the award, is it any wonder that the so-called “Zenyatta Zealots” feel a little miffed? Last year, one race didn’t matter; this year, it will likely crown a champion. In 2009, total Grade I victories were held in high esteem; in 2010, they mean about as much as an “I do” from Charlie Sheen.

Then, of course, there’s the widespread belief that Zenyatta has been something of a playground bully, beating up on weaker female opponents, whereas Blame has tackled the best and the brightest. While it’s true that the daughter of Street Cry has primarily faced other fillies and mares, that is par for the course in American thoroughbred racing. In the entire history of the Horse of the Year award, there have been exactly three testosterone-impaired honorees — All Along (1983), Regret (1915) and Imp (1899) — that captured more races against males than females during the year in which they were honored.

What’s more, not counting the Breeders’ Cup (which takes place at various venues), there were 34 Grade I races carded west of the Mississippi this year (from 112 total — can anyone say “East Coast bias?”). Of these, five were non-turf routes for fillies and mares… Zenyatta won them all.

Wait a minute Derek, I hear some of you object (perhaps substituting my name with one a bit more colorful), take a look at the horses she beat in those races.

I did.

Over the past two years, six of Zenyatta’s vanquished opponents came back to compete in a BC race. Life Is Sweet won and Switch finished second. Meanwhile, nine of Blame’s rivals made a grab for Breeders’ Cup glory and only one (Fly Down) so much as hit the board, even though a couple of his foes (Giant Oak and A. U. Miner) ran in the Grade III Marathon. To be fair, both Life Is Sweet (2009 Ladies Classic) and Switch (2010 Filly & Mare Sprint) ran in gender-restricted affairs; nonetheless, it is not exactly a ringing endorsement for those pounding the “who-did-she-beat” drum.

To add insult to injury, some have opined that neither Blame nor Zenyatta are worthy of Horse of the Year honors and suggest that Goldikova, the brilliant European mare, should receive the award instead.

Seriously? After Andrew Beyer and numerous others groused that Zenyatta was nothing more than a “synthetic surface specialist,” we should give the highest American turf honor to a horse that has never run on the dirt? To a horse that has recorded 13 of her 15 lifetime wins at a flat mile? Clearly, there is a precedent for the former — but it is a bad precedent, if you ask me (and let’s pretend that you did).

The truth is the European grass horses are nearly always better and more accomplished than their American counterparts. Since the inception of the Breeders’ Cup in 1984, there have been two Classic winners — Raven’s Pass (2008) and Arcangues (1993) — who last raced across the pond. There have been two such BC Turf winners in the past couple of years alone. To me, it borders on absurdity to have a U.S. Horse of the Year that chiefly competes on a surface over which Europeans typically dominate. If we’re going to crown Euro turf stars Horse of the Year, I propose the NFL follow suit and make Monday Night Football a Premier League showcase featuring matches between Manchester United and Chelsea.

Also, if we’re going to advocate that a distance specialist like Goldikova be Horse of the Year, why not give sprinters some love? The sprint category, encompassing horses that do their best running in races under a mile, is another that generally sees Americans reign supreme on the world stage. Yet, no sprint champion since Forego in 1974 has also been named Horse of the Year. And, frankly, Forego is best known for his route wins, not his sprint scores.

Lastly, why is it that when Goldikova beats Gio Ponti it proves that she is the best horse on the planet, yet when Zenyatta defeated that same rival a year ago, it was, according to most pundits, a subpar effort against a subpar field?

Look, I’ve got a solution that I think will appease almost everybody. I truly believe that the reason so many Zenyatta Zealots come across as… well, zealots… is because they are sick and tired of their horse — this magnificent mare they’ve grown to love — getting no respect by the racing establishment. They’re fed up with the comparisons to Pepper’s Pride, exhausted by the constant griping about the surfaces she did or did not run over and insulted by the notion that she needed — last weekend or ever — to travel east to “prove herself.”

Zenyatta’s valiant run in the Breeders’ Cup Classic demonstrated once and for all that she is among the best female thoroughbreds ever. Even Beyer, one of her greatest critics, said as much in a column he penned for the Washington Post.

“Zenyatta’s fans can make a reasonable claim that she should be considered the greatest U.S. filly or mare of all time,” the handicapping author conceded.

However, what Beyer and other cynics have not done is apologize. They have not issued a mea culpa, a “Hey, I was talking out of a different orifice when I called Zenyatta a fraud” type of statement that, I think, would go a long way toward soothing tempers and mending hurt feelings.

So, my solution to the Horse of the Year controversy is this: Give Blame the title, he deserves it. But give Zenyatta something even more meaningful (at least to her connections and fans) — a written apology from Beyer and all the other critics that have assailed her over the past two years.

Now that would be an award worth cherishing.

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November 14, 2010 - Posted by | Horse Racing | , , , , ,

6 Comments »

  1. I agree Zenyatta’s connections deserve an apology from those so-called authorities. It’s apparent this year thaqt Beyer went out of his way to give Rachael an outrageously high Beyer figure that he later recanted…..His east-coast Jackson/Hancock bias is apparent. As are so many other voters.

    I am a new race fan. Came back to rmacing because of ZENYATTA, and if she isn’t honored with the HORSE OF THE YEAR, I will turn away from racing and NEVER come back. I think there are a lot of us that feel that way. We saw her do everything she set out to do, and only missed by inches at the BC. Blame cannot say the same.

    As far as I’m concerned, Hancock was an ungracious moron after the BC…unlike the Mosses that have done more for horse racing to bring new fans into the sport like myself.
    Not to mention, their extremem generosity to Olf Friends retirment home for horses, etc.

    In years to come, they will ask Blame…..who? However,ZENYATTA will be a legend forever.

    Comment by Crystal Hollands | November 17, 2010 | Reply

  2. We don’t want an apology but her owners and trainers deserve one. We know that Zenyatta is absolutely incredible and should be given an award for all that she has done for her fans and the racing industry. I went to the Breeder’s Cub just to see the “Queen”. If the Horse of the Year award is decided at the BCC, then Zenyatte should have won it last year. In my opinion, the Horse of the Year award should be based on merit and the impact on the racing industry. Zenyatta couldn’t have done more to earn this title. She even got people at my office talking who aren’t horse people at all. Her picture is posted on my computer and I say good morning to her every day.

    Comment by Kimberly Olding | November 19, 2010 | Reply

  3. I am a Zenyatta fan but can say without hesitation that Blame deseres Horse of the Year- sure, Hancock was a bastard about it, but you can’t blame (no pun intended) the horse for someone’s obnoxious attitude.
    Z’s connections once again ruined her chances for HOYT by mapping out the same old campaign for this brilliant mare. Meanwhile, Blame was winning G1 races against decent competition (he had beaten G1 winners coming into the Classic), travelling, etc. Simply put- and I don’t see why this is so difficult for most Z fans to understand- he had the better campaign. He most certainly was NOT the better horse. Z’s charisma, the fans she brought to the sport, her winning streak…her unparalleled contributions to the sport WILL be honoured in the Hall of Fame. The prospect of Blame achieving THAT distinction is ludicrous.

    Comment by Maylene | November 20, 2010 | Reply

  4. Zenyatta SHOULD have won Horse of the Year last year AND deserves it AGAIN this year. She solidly POUNDS the competition. Just go back and watch her races again and again….she is like a bullet from the back of the pack. The ONLY reason she lost Breeders Cup Classic this year was Mike Smith.

    Comment by Jenny Ross | November 20, 2010 | Reply

  5. I am a firm believer in Blame. But, really, how can he be the HOY. He neither ran, raced, or deserve the HOY. Zenyatta does. It’s almost embarrassing to hear some of my East Coast turf experts propose Blame as HOY. Fact is, and this is where I agree with Ed Fountaine (NY Post) that Blame won one Grade 1 race over an injured horse, beat a tired Quality Roady whom finished last in the Classic but was receiving 5 lbs. from him, and was all out to hang on to beat Zenyatta, whom honestly, was the better horse in the race.
    Please, do the right thing. I love Blame, but he is not the HOY. Zenyatta is.

    Comment by John | November 23, 2010 | Reply

  6. I honestly think Zenyatta deserves HOTY title. She set out and accomplished everything she was asked , and she only fell INCHES short in the BCC so now she isnt good enough? I mean i am a Zenyatta fan but i don`t have anything against Blame. Blame is an amazing racehorse, but Zenyatta deserves the title of HOTY. I agree with Kimberly also, many people have never heard of racing until the filly ZENYATTA emerged from greatness. Watch her in the breeders cup classic. I think it was Mike Smiths fault , and i don`t have anything against Mike either , i think hes amazing. Just look at him at the finish though, he eased the filly off about two strides from the finish, and he stuck her WAY to far off the lead at the beginning. Any FILLY to make up about 20 lengths off the lead just to fall what? SIX inches off the win? Sure Blame is an accomplished horse.
    However,he is no Zenyatta.

    To watch all of her victories and see why i am so passionate about this unbelievable filly, just search “Zenyatta Montage, all 19 wins” Nothing compares.

    Comment by Makenna | November 23, 2010 | Reply


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