Today's announcement of the retirement of two-time Breeders' Cup winner Zenyatta comes as little surprise to those that have followed her career over the past three years. While some held out hope that there would be more racing in her future, after twenty races and three starts at the Breeders' Cup, the likelihood that Zenyatta would return was slim.
One could make the argument that no horse in recent memory has generated as much debate as to the level of her accomplishments as Zenyatta. Whether the reasons were due to speed figures, racing surface or competition, it's hard to remember a horse that won so often yet caused such a split in opinions among those that follow the game on a daily basis. Zenyatta, oblivious to all that was around her and focused solely on the task at hand, went about her business day-after-day and month-after-month.
The thing that makes Zenyatta special in the world of thoroughbred horse racing is that she couldn't be defined by a number. Every single time she stepped onto the track she ran her race. Whether the surface was dirt or synthetic - she ran her race. Whether the pace was slow or fast - she ran her race. Whether the field was large or small - she ran her race. Her consistency is the foundation of her greatness.
Anyone that has spent any amount of time around thoroughbred horses understands the difficulty in keeping them in form day-after-day and race-after-race. Horse aren't machines, they are flesh and blood animals that, from time to time, have "off" days. Zenyatta, incredibly, never did. Sure, she didn't end her career undefeated after she was beaten by the gutsy Blame in this year's Classic. But would anyone make the case that she didn't run her race on that day, that she didn't bring her "A" game? The 2010 Classic, like her previous 19 races, saw Zenyatta do what she does best.
Sadly, for all of Zenyatta's accomplishments during her career, she was only fully embraced by most of the racing industry at the very end. Prior to the last two or three months, the talk still focused on the details at the periphery instead of the successes on the track. Debate between fans is one thing - that can draw massive interest - but the ho-hum attitude of much of the racing industry was a disappointment.
If you follow racing long enough you'll hear the common refrain from those in the game that "the sport needs a superstar", that it needs iconic horses. Usually this involves the notion that a Triple Crown winner will suddenly breathe life into the sport and lift it to the top of the country's passions. Sadly, when a horse emerges that has the ability to grab "superstar" status, too much of the old guard is there to remind us that nothing is as good as the days gone by.
Perhaps the old guard is right. Perhaps no horse will ever measure up to Man o'War, Citation, Secretariat, Forego, Seattle Slew, Ruffian, or any of the ghosts of the past. But if that is truly the case, if we are always destined to reminisce as to how the past is irrefutably better than the present, then what's the point of following the sport in the first place? Don't we watch in the hopes that we'll see greatness? Perhaps the old guard will realize that their complaints that the common fan and general public aren't drawn into this sport ring hollow when they themselves can't recognize the game's brightest stars.
Zenyatta was one of the brightest stars in the sport for the last three years and over the past year and a half, her and Rachel Alexandra captivated players and fans the way it seems that only fillies can. Those two fillies, who never met each other on the track, will be eternally linked not by on-track competition, but by a public relations rivalry. Hopefully the passage of time will illuminate them both as the great champions that they are.
Zenyatta was a truly great thoroughbred, something she proved time and again on the track. One wonders if we really know how truly great she is.
I was trying to think of a video of one of Zenyatta's races that best illustrates the awesome class of this mare. Is it her win in the Ladies' Classic? Her history making win in the 2009 Classic? Her narrow defeat in the 2010 Classic? How about her first win in the Apple Blossom when she crushed Ginger Punch? While all of those are worthy races to highlight, I settled on the race that started it all almost three years ago - a 6 1/2 furlong Maiden Special Weight at Hollywood Park on November 22, 2007.
In many ways the first race of Zenyatta's career was the same as many of the races in her illustrious career. On this day, Zenyatta breaks slowly from the gate, dawdles at the back of the pack, makes up ground on the leaders in the turn, and runs them down in the stretch...and all while well within herself.
View the video below the jump