I started following this great mare a couple of years ago, in her run up to and winning of the Ladies Classic at Breeders Cup in 2008. At that point, many of my East Coast racing fan friends grudgingly admitted that maybe, just maybe, Zenyatta really was worthy of the accolades she was getting. "She stays in California and runs against soft fields," was the complaint. They said, "Well, okay, maybe she is pretty good," when she beat the best of the fillies and mares.
But then Rachel Alexandra came along in 2009, wowing us all in the Kentucky Oaks, taking the Preakness, the Haskell, the Woodward... she seemed unbeatable as a three year-old. The one thing she didn't have on Zenyatta was that she wasn't undefeated. (Zenyatta was, and remains, undefeated, and will try for her 17th win tomorrow at Hollywood Park.) Everyone more or less assumed Rachel would win Horse of the Year last year because of the grueling campaign she'd run, beating even the boys.
Then Zenyatta's connections said, "Oh yeah?" and entered the Great Z in the Breeder's Cup Classic--where Rachel could have entered, but didn't, and where Zenyatta faced males for the first time.
It was an amazing race to see. Zenyatta loped easily at the rear, and when Mike Smith finally let her go, she weaved fearlessly through traffic, finally got to the outside, and, in her usual style, ate the ground up with that long stride of hers, beating them all to the wire. She'd beaten the best males in the world in that race.
She still didn't get Horse of the Year, which went (as suspected, because there really is an East Coast bias in racing, let's just admit it) to Rachel. There were good arguments to be made for either horse winning. Rachel certainly earned it; I am not disputing that.
And that brings us to this year. Rachel ran twice and lost. Of course, she'd had a long layoff and sometimes it can take a race or two to race back into shape. And today she won decisively. (Of course, her nay-sayers are also pointing out that she faced a "soft field.")
Meanwhile, Zenyatta ran on dirt again this year in the Apple Blossom and won. She ran at Santa Anita on synthetic and won. She'll run tomorrow at Hollywood, where she's stabled. And if she wins, people will just say, "Well, of course she did. She is a synthetic specialist! She still can't beat Rachel." I will just point out right now that entered in the race against Zenyatta tomorrow is Zardana, who beat Rachel earlier this year.
Theirs is an exciting rivalry, one of the best things that has happened to horse racing since ... since ... well, since Secretariat? Maybe that's reaching, but trust me, if Zenyatta and Rachel finally meet on dirt at Churchill Downs at Breeders Cup this year, that will be the race to end all races. (If Quality Road will go into the gate this year, it will be even more exciting.) If this race happens, I might just have to get on a plane and fly to Louisville and crash on Dawn's friend's family's bathroom floor, or just sleep in my rental car. Hell. I don't care. I'll dress in a jockey suit and greet people entering the gates if I have to.
All of which brings me to today. We figured we'd have a better chance to meet Zenyatta today than tomorrow, the day of the race. So we hopped in the car this morning and made the drive. Flashed our owners' licenses at the backside and walked back to the training track and hung a right. (We knew where we were going.) Got to the Shirreffs Barn and there he was--the man himself, standing outside with a couple of grooms and a horse. Chelle approached him and introduced us, dropped a name or two, and asked if it was all right to go see Zenyatta in her stall. John Shirreffs is about as gracious a man as you could want to meet. He said, "Sure!", stopped what he was doing, and led us to her stall. He introduced us to Michelle, his Asst Trainer, who stayed with us as we visited the great mare.
I've gotten close to Zenyatta before, in the paddock and saddling ring at Santa Anita. But nothing says "up close and personal" like being a couple feet away marveling at how TALL this mare truly is. And simply regal in her bearing. Then, the next thing you know, she's being an utter goofball, sticking her tongue out and eyeballing you and then shaking her head as if to say, "Oh. You're just another one of those people who come here to gawk at me."
I asked if it was okay to give her a pat, but Michelle said, reluctantly, "No ... not a good idea before race day," and I respect that. They can get pretty hopped up, and our filly Firefly definitely took a few good nips out of me a couple of times. Then Michelle did something that surprised me. She said, "But you can come back tomorrow after the race and see her."
Yeah. Wow. We'd planned on leaving right after Z's race and heading back home.
I guess we'll see about that.