Tale of the Green Saddle Cloths
“I cried not because he lost, but because he tried so hard.”
---Karen Taylor after her beloved Seattle Slew was nosed out by Exceller in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup.
We’ve written it before, and believed it all our lives: You can tell more about a horse by how he or she loses than how they win. Thus although Blame did in fact finish first, this will always be “Zenyatta’s second Classic” rather than Blame’s big win. The race in which Zenyatta finally convinced at least some of the Eastern establishment that she is no more merely a “synthetic horse” than Goldikova is merely a “grass mare”.
In a commentary that Steve Bailey wrote for the on-line Thoroughbred Times called “Some Down Under Perspective On Horse of the Year”, Bailey quotes Australian form analyst Peter Ellis’ view of Zenyatta’s 20th lifetime effort: “I’ve been doing this for more than 40 years, and I can tell you that Zenyatta’s performance was the greatest that I have ever seen by a horse that did not win the race. Some people will say that she shouldn’t be named Horse of the Year because she didn’t win. I would argue that her performance in defeat was much better than her winning effort a year earlier and should guarantee that she is named Horse of the Year.”
Ellis concluded his comments with, “Here is a champion and a story that people around the world are captivated and touched by. I don’t think people are going to realize just how special she is until she’s gone because there will not be another one like her.”
When told that it was unlikely that Zenyatta would be given the gold Eclipse, Ellis added, “That’s the thing. It doesn’t matter if she’s Horse of the Year or not. She’s THE horse of the last 40 years. Which one do you think people are going to remember?”
Indeed, it was after all Zenyatta whose presence filled all those parking lots and seats, created all those traffic jams and record-setting press credential requests, upped television ratings to record numbers and, according to the Los Angeles Times’ Bill Dwyer, “(Zenyatta) hasn’t just won lots of races and attracted lots of interest to a sport whose piece of the general fan pie is a sliver; she has created a buzz that made its way to mainstream America. She is a once-in-a-lifetime athlete, not merely a superb racehorse.”
She even got a back-handed compliment from that most constipated of critics, Andy Beyer, “She’s as good as Blame, and few people would rank Blame among the immortals of the turf.” Gee, thanks, Andy.
Of course this was classier than Seth Hancock’s blunt, “Well, I thought the battle for Horse of the Year was fought about a half hour ago, and Blame won it. I mean, she’s a great horse, she is what she is. But she had her shot to get by and she didn’t do it.”
John Taintor Foote who wrote “The Look of Eagles” had a lot to say about class and how ‘blood will tell’ and we have a feeling that Seth Hancock’s father, “Bull” might have been more in touch with the future of the sport. We envision him saying something like this:
We feel for her fans who came out in the greatest of numbers to support us all and it took every bit of our horse’s mighty heart to beat her. As for Claiborne, if her people are so inclined, we’d love to offer them a complimentary choice of any sire at our farm with all expenses paid during her stay. We’d be honored to have her.
Horse of the Year should be decided by those good folks who do that every year. We’ll be getting on with the business of breeding horses for our part and hope to have another Breeders’ Cup Classic winner in the not-too-distant future. Now THAT would have been class!
Ron and I stood outside to watch Zenyatta enter the paddock and though I said nothing I thought she seemed more on edge than usual. I crossed my fingers and said a silent prayer, first and always for her safe return to us, second for her victorious return. Ron stood behind me and I gave his cold hand a kiss for luck (it was nearly freezing outside).
The race seemed to develop in slow motion and I could not have told you where any other horse in the field was at any given time until I watched the replay; my heart beat in unison with Zenyatta’s and Mike Smith’s and it broke accordingly when she just failed to get up at the wire directly below the balcony on which we stood. I turned to Ron and he sadly shook his head.
I had heard him pleading softly, “C’mon girl,” willing her to complete the thoughtful act(s) of love he had proffered to me by virtue of trekking three times to California to watch her race. Not having her finish 20-for-20 somehow, at that moment was like a knife wound to my heart – not for me, but for him. I had not seen him look his age before that moment and I have no doubt I looked mine as well, for as Zenyatta galloped out, I felt a decade older.
We straggled back inside and when Mike Smith’s faltering voice came over the PA system, I could bear it no longer. Watching him beat himself up verbally, so obviously crushed and devastated, broke what was left of my heart. “Let’s go,” said Ron and I nodded yes. We were finished there; we would see her in the morning. As we walked out into the freezing cold, dead leaves and discarded papers blowing about, a Daily Racing Form with Zenyatta’s visage flew past and landed on the ground. Two big, rough-looking men stepped onto her photo without a thought and I winced as though they had wounded her somehow.
When I woke up at 4:00 a.m. I was hoping I had dreamt the whole thing…the whole nightmare…… but I knew better. Yet one thought kept haunting me as I tossed and turned: Those three times we had traveled home to California to watch her run, we had seen her fly to victory wearing the green number five saddlecloth every single time. On Nov. 6, the green number five was worn by Blame. A coincidence no doubt, but one which will continue to nag at me as those things which are too odd to be true often do, like Secretariat losing races beginning with “W”.
Grabbing a quick cup of coffee and donning my new long-sleeved Zenyatta t-shirt we rode the hotel shuttle out to see our lady later that freezing morning. Arriving before her usual mob of fans, we were greeted by her groom Mario Espinosa and exercise rider Steve Willard, who took us to visit her in her stall and give her a carrot. It was a rare private audience with the best main-track filly or mare this writer has ever known, and we managed to get in more than a few kisses on her oh-so-soft muzzle before she began to tremble in anticipation, hearing her public gather outside.
Soon Mario came to lead her out and later when stable foreman Frank Leal held her as she grazed, a line of people led by a little girl in a hat with a pom-pom on top began to form. Frank allowed them, one at a time, as usual to be photographed with the grand mare, who – also as usual – enjoyed every minute of it, paying particular attention to the pom-pom atop the little girl’s hat, even taking a tentative lick before pulling away when she discovered the object was not edible. Seasoned turf writers like Steve Haskin stood in line alongside the fans, and a group even gathered outside the fence taking as much pleasure in touching the mare thru the wire mesh with a finger or two as those of us more fortunate souls who had direct access.
John Shirreffs showed up a bit later and was as kind, gracious and forthcoming as he always is. When asked if any of Zenyatta’s people might accompany her when she finally returns to Kentucky to be bred, Shirreffs said it was best to ‘let the farm people take over.’ It was clear that he was trying to begin the separation process, just as he had been when saying, “As a trainer you learn to let go.”
But how do you really let go of a legend? Even Blame’s trainer, Al Stall Jr. understands what she is. “I know the Zenyatta people aren’t happy with the outcome, but believe me, she didn’t lose anything in defeat. As everybody knows, she’s the best racemare there’s ever been in the game.” When your opposition thinks THAT about you, you really MUST be something special.
In the end, it’s all about perspective -in being disappointed with the result but never, ever with her. Of crying because she tried so hard, like Karen Taylor did when Slew was nipped by Exceller in 1978. Or, as John Taintor Foote wrote, “The thrill of any other game was feeble in comparison; but oh, the many and bitter disappointments!”
As we push our green saddlecloth nightmares to the back of our minds, we begin the frustrated dream of seeing her finally win a Horse of the Year title we doubt she gets. To see her ignored for a third year in succession is close to intolerable.
And we wonder if she will be allowed to see her army of fans. Shirreffs mused as he watched her enjoying her public at Churchill Downs, “The big thing the sport needs to do is let fans get closer to the horses. I don’t know how you do it because some horses won’t allow it, but when you have horses like Zenyatta that do, it’s important that fans share that.
“The thing is when people just watch races on television, you don’t get a feel for the Thoroughbred. As a trainer, I like for people to come out and see them up close. How often do people get a chance to get close to a horse like Zenyatta? It has to be very special for them
“It’s been a fairy tale and you want all fairy tales to come true.”
When all is said and done, that may be Zenyatta’s greatest legacy: accessibility and mainstreaming the sport. For all those who would doubt her contribution, call her second best of this year or any other, consider the empty seats she leaves behind and vote accordingly. Remember, as Peter Ellis said, “Which one do you think they are going to remember?” Why, the one who tried so hard she made us cry, of course, the one who ran second to that fateful green saddle cloth, the one who in the end had to lose in order to win. Before Nov. 6 we had never had reason to compare her to Seattle Slew, but in the gathering darkness that cold November evening, she earned that right, earned it with a heart as big as his was, and that is as high a compliment as we know how to pay any horse.