Horse racing always longs for a superhorse – one that can transcend the dying sport and make it relevant again. Make it big. Make it so that the movies about the sport don’t have to feature horses from 35 years ago (Secretariat) or 70 years ago (Seabiscuit).
In Zenyatta, horse racing may well have its star of the decade. But she probably needs to win one last time, on Saturday at Louisville’s storied Churchill Downs, to get her perfect ending.
Zenyatta isn’t the best racehorse ever, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. That would be Secretariat in my opinion – and I worked in Kentucky for three years, covered the Kentucky Derby a couple of times and know my way around a paddock a little.
But you could also make an argument for Man o’War, Citation, Affirmed or several others who beat better competition, won in different ways and in the mud and so on.
But Zenyatta – named for The Police’s third album, called Zenyatta Mondatta and featuring "Don't Stand So Close to Me," one of the best Police songs of all time – is special. Gentle to fans. A crowd-pleasing, pre-race dancer. A horse that loves the attention she gets. It will be heartbreaking to many who follow horse racing if she loses Saturday in the Breeders’ Cup Classic against a field of males.
Why is Zenyatta being featured in “60 Minutes” and “Sports Illustrated” and talked up by Oprah Winfrey as one of America’s most influential females? Three reasons:
1) She’s undefeated. That 19-0 record is remarkable, especially given that Zenyatta always, always comes from behind to win. You’d think just once something would have gone wrong (Secretariat lost five times in his racing career). But Zenyatta is an amazing closer, and of course that makes for more dramatic finishes than wire-to-wire wins.
2) She’s a girl. Duh. But it always makes a better story for a woman to beat a man in straight-up competition. Zenyatta has done it before; on Saturday, she tries to do the Billie Jean King thing again.
3) This is likely her swan song. Zenyatta has already “un-retired” once, after the 2009 season. But now, at age six, she’s probably near the end of her racing career. She will be in the breeding shed before long. So does she have one last great race in her? We find out Saturday at around 6:45 p.m.
I hope she does. Zenyatta isn’t the greatest racehorse of all time, but if she wins Saturday, I certainly believe she’s the best female racehorse of all time. Better than Ruffian. Better than Rachel Alexandra. And she will provide one last great headline to a great sport that sure could use one.