In November 2009, NICHOLAS GODFREY witnessed a memorable Breeders’ Cup Classic featuring his favourite horse Zenyatta. With this subsequent article, he won the Joe Hirsch Award for Outstanding Writing at the event.
The gang’s not all here. There’s no Sea The Stars, and more importantly round these parts, no Rachel Alexandra. Without them, the box-office appeal of the latest Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita rests squarely on the hugely powerful shoulders of one celebrated racehorse whose presence gives a lacklustre event its most potent sense of occasion: the gentle giant who has made a habit of beating her fellow females now facing the ultimate test against the boys.
Even allowing for the absentees, there are plenty of top-class horses here but right from the start it is clear who’s the real star of the show. That’s why they are handing out pink placards bearing the legend ‘Girl Power’ to support the sweet-natured she-hulk, the unbeaten mare her jockey Mike Smith says has been “sent from heaven”.
If the usual cartoon on the front page of the Daily Racing Form is anything to go by, she has been sent from heaven to land right in the middle of the Breeders’ Cup. Masked like Zorro with a flashing black mane.
American racing has had a pretty rough time of it in recent years. The stomach-churning racetrack breakdowns of Barbaro and Eight Belles have called the very sport into question – poor old George Washington doesn’t get quite as much airplay – allowing a prominent and vocal animal-welfare lobby to articulate their antipathy.
Steroids, a hot-potato issue brought into sharp focus in racing by Big Brown and his controversial trainer Rick Dutrow, have hardly helped matters.
Yet this year a beleaguered sport has fought its way back into the public’s affections to some extent. A thrilling Triple Crown series started off with the fairytale 50-1 victory of Mine That Bird and his little-known trainer, the Stetson-wearing, moustache-toting Chip Woolley.
Then came the massively popular Rachel Alexandra, downing the males in the Preakness and then putting together a string of high-profile victories that earned her celebrity well beyond the narrow confines of horse racing. Rachel, though, has been retired for the season, her connections unwilling to race her on the detested all-weather in California, and Mine That Bird is a shadow of the horse who shocked and thrilled us at Churchill Downs.
He can’t do anything here to ensure horse racing’s recent surge keeps up its momentum. There’s another horse who can, though, and she has never been beaten.
Yet this is far from a foregone conclusion. There are doubters, and not merely a few of them.
The form is no good, they cry. She has been beating up the same fillies time and again, only once leaving her cosseted home patch on the west coast and never racing against males.
Moreover, look at the numbers – she has never produced a really startling speed figure. “Toss the dirt runners – and Zenyatta,” says Andy Beyer, whose speed figures are close to scripture in US racing circles.
He is not alone. A list of experts in the Daily Racing Form reveals the vast majority favour Ballydoyle visitor Rip Van Winkle, who several European pundits are suggesting merely has to turn up given his proximity to the great Sea The Stars.
Zenyatta gets a few votes, all of them from California-based journalists for whom it may well be an act of faith. Plus at least one English visitor who has invested more emotion in this particular racehorse than can make any sort of sense.
Sure, there is money involved but not much, nothing like the each-way bets on Pacific Classic winner Richard’s Kid, who finishes slowly somewhere outside the first three.
This time it’s about something rather less venal, more intangible.
Okay, I understand the detractors, but have they ever seen her run? Where’s their sense of romance?
Putting such sentimental considerations to one side for a nanosecond, surely anyone who has seen at close quarters that patented loop to swoop, that stretch-devouring stride, wouldn’t be so quick to write her off?
What’s more, those all-weather strips out west seldom produce immense speed figures – Beyer’s team have had to tweak their scale this year on that account.
And she’s so big it is hard to imagine her getting pushed around by the colts.
Even so, as a fantastic afternoon rushes by – Goldikova brilliant; class counts for Conduit – belief starts to ebb. Almost tangibly, expectation turns to hope. What if the naysayers are right and she is only a giant among pygmies?
Excitement comes laced with trepidation and foreboding.
They are packed deep around the parade ring at Santa Anita, holding homemade signs bearing legends such as ‘Maneater’ and ‘Rachel who?’ alongside the thousands of pink placards cherished all day waiting for the arrival of their idol.
Cheers and applause as she walks into the circle, the practised actress giving the adoring fanbase the full performance: prancing show steps and stagily kicking out her off-fore. Unbelievably, she is actually posing for the cameras.
An impressive physical specimen, she belies the Wedgwood fragility of the thoroughbred, dwarfing several of her male rivals as Mike Smith jumps aboard, twee bow-tie securely fastened on owner Jerry Moss’s green-and-pink silks.
It is a stretch to imagine how this superlative racehorse must have been as a younger animal – backward, gangling, needing so much time to grow into her immense frame that she didn’t run until near the end of her three-year-old year.
Bloodstock agent David Ingordo said she took one stride to all the others’ two when she was on the farm in Florida. “We always had a real good feeling about her,” says trainer John Shirreffs. “She came in with the reputation of being able to outgallop anything at the farm.”
She has outgalloped everything else since, but now she’s being asked to do it in the biggest race of the year, the richest race on the continent.
Applause continues as the Classic field parades and the placards are waved in the air once more, but the start is less than straightforward. Bulky as she is, she seems discomfited by the presence of all those ornery (and, presumably, ‘orny) colts and seems reluctant to load up.
Not as reluctant as the terrified Quality Road, though, who refuses to go in and is finally withdrawn after a few minutes, taking home an injury for his pains.
A ten-minute delay ensues, hardly guaranteed to work in the favour of the mare who hadn’t much wanted to load in the first place. Clenched-buttock and sweaty-palm time.
She always falls out of the stalls, and this time the delay seems even more exaggerated. Did she stumble? How can she be behind even that old slowcoach Mine That Bird?
Go girl – please!
Okay, this isn’t funny. I know this is your running style, but do you really have to be ten lengths and more behind going into the far turn?
Has Mike Smith forgotten Del Mar this summer? Forgotten how he let her lope along at the rear for so long behind vastly inferior fillies and then just got up on the nod?
Remember how he blamed himself for over-confidence. Surely that cannot be the case this time, in this company? They’re better than bloomin’ Anabaa’s Creation for goodness sake … are they right? Is she just not good enough? Not fast enough?
All I am asking is to show everyone that incredible move – you don’t have to win, just come charging up the stretch. There’s no shame in defeat to Rip Van Winkle.
Now’s the time to go girl. Really, it’s time – go girl!
At last she’s moving up – easy to pick out with that noseband – and it won’t be Rip Van Winkle she has to beat. He’s already cooked and will need to hail a cab to get home from the two-furlong marker.
She’s moving now, by crikey she’s moving. Shades of Arazi, on the inner first of all as the front-runners drop back, ready for that catapult into the stretch.
Still midfield as they straighten up, still with a load of horses in front of her. Somewhere close to the rail at the furlong marker, an Englishman, frenziedly jumping up and down, loses any sense of dignity. It’s an overrated quality.
She goes, mountainous stride grabbing the racetrack. Smith brazenly switches her outside horses.
History of a sort is about to be made, grown men are about to hug like schoolkids as they witness an unforgettable charge to victory. Against all the odds, we are going to get an exhilarating, extraordinary climax, the kind of Hollywood ending demanded by the setting.
She’s six wide and she’s going to swamp them. Twinkletoes versus Treacletoes – except this formidable force of nature doesn’t look particularly dainty pounding down the lane. She brutally downs the gallant Gio Ponti and Twice Over, a pair of equine Canutes pointlessly attempting to withstand an irresistible tide.
Flawless, as her trainer says. An incredible, incredible horse according to her jockey, who gives her only a couple of taps that she probably doesn’t need.
Go girl! Go girl! GO GIRL!!!
You may well never see anything more exciting on a racecourse. As the LA Times says on Sunday, this is no longer the sport of kings. This is the Sport of a Queen.
And you know what? She did it with her ears pricked. That’s Zenyatta for you – once a ham, always a ham.
• Nicholas Godfrey’s latest book, Postcards from the World of Horse Racing, featuring this piece is available at the Racing Post shop
More from Nicholas Godfrey …