I'll never forget the first time I yelled, "Get her going, Smith!" at my television. It was right after they entered the far turn with about a half mile remaining. He was just too far back. The pace was respectable, but had noticeably slowed as they moved into the last 4 furlongs. I probably yelled at Smith 25 times after that too. Mike Smith was content to just let Zenyatta cruise along at the back of the pack, overly confident in the ability of the most beloved horse in America to close any gap and catch the leader at the wire. In the end, Smith understood what had to be done, and he just didn't get there.
In the end, Blame stood victorious in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs. And he certainly is nothing to sneeze at. But Blame? Blame beats the indomitable Zenyatta? This was her moment. The time for Zenyatta to triumphantly ride out a winner. The crowds were for her and her alone. Churchill Downs was packed with fans that loved Zenyatta, loved her spunk, loved her attitude. It was her day.
Looking back on it you see that she was a synthetic freak who just plain didn't like the dirt in her face. Just watch the replay and it's clear that coming out of the gate she wanted nothing to do with the Churchill surface as it was kicked up at her. She was comfortable way back where she could stay clean. Meanwhile, Blame got the race and trip that Garret Gomez wanted: quick early fractions, a slowed second half mile, and speed up front that just could not hold off the classier runners that were further back. Gomez put on a masterful performance in the quarter mile plus from the 3/4 pole into the straight, moving from 7th to 1st and making up 8 lengths while Zenyatta made her move and made up 13 1/2 at the same time. That 5 length difference was enough to hold off the charging Zenyatta by a head at the line.
Mike Smith was noticeably emotional after the loss:
"She just wasn’t leveling out like I wanted to; the combination of the dirt hitting her face was a lot of it," Smith said. "Just left her with too much to do. I truly believe I was on the best horse today. If I had to blame anybody, it would be me."
But this was no fluke as Blame was certainly no pushover. He won 3 G1s (the Stephen Foster at Churchill, the Whitney at Saratoga, and the Classic) a single G2 (the Schaeffer) and placed in the G1-Jockey Club Gold Cup, all in 2010. He was as good a dirt horse in the country (actually, looking back on it, by beating Zenyatta he proved he was the best dirt horse in the country) as there was that year. Amazingly, he only went off as the third favorite, behind Zenyatta and 3 year old sensation Lookin' at Lucky.
But none of this is why it was my favorite moment. It was my favorite moment because that specific race was and is a microcosm of the thousands of variables that make up a great horse race. Surface tendencies, pace, trip, bad/good starts, jockey tactics, and a thousand more that were not only on display, were prominently featured in the biggest race in North America. THAT is what makes a race not only (semi)predictable, but in the same breath unpredictable and ridiculously exciting.
But I will never forget yelling at my television trying to spur Mike Smith on to victory. If only he had listened to me, I was right down the road from Churchill and I know he could hear me.
2010 Breeders' Cup Classic - BLAME (Zenyatta Is Still The Best Ever!) (via hotilyer)