Zenyatta: the view from Heartbreak Hill

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Every couple of years or so, America falls in love with a horse. Usually, it’s a racing thoroughbred whose name and image spread throughout the land.

A few detractors, usually handicappers, disagree – but most of the general public tunes them out. We know that the real money in handicapping comes in betting the longshots. And a favorite doesn’t pay out well for bettors.

Then, hype happens. Major media catches wind of the horse, and its image spreads past the sports section. The horse joins the pop culture of the day.

Hopes and dreams ride on that horse. People who usually pay no attention to horses and racing tune in to watch. Especially during the big race.

Crowds, cheers, signs, outfits, tee shirts. Toys. Wild applause. Spectators on the edge of their seats, both at the track and on the couch.

Then the dream horse doesn’t reach the finish line first, and it’s all over. What had been cheers turns to stunned silence and sniffed-away tears. At least, that’s been the story in recent memory.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

Loving horses is not for the faint of heart.

And, this time, we were lucky – in a lot of respects.

She’s sound and fine

Zenyatta came out of the race healthy, unlike Rough Sailing who we lost earlier that afternoon.

Plus, earlier in the week, Garrett Gomez lay motionless on the turf. He ended Saturday by taking another win, this time in the biggest race of the day.

Much is made of the dangers of racing, but there is risk in every sport. Living, even being alive, is full of risk. Even taking no action is a risk itself.

Frankly, there’s risk every time anyone enters a barn. Have you ever seen the disclaimers posted in barns both here in Connecticut and in Kentucky? Loosely paraphrased, it says that, if you pass a certain point, you are considered a participant in a farm activity and have accepted an inherent level of risk. Period.

She made Blame work for it

Unlike some horses who just didn’t have it in them when the time came or couldn’t get past an early bobble, Zenyatta overcame a lackluster start and made Blame drive hard across the line like the champion he is.

She put up a tremendous fight to win. Even her detractors, those pesky handicappers who, really, find the advantage in going against the tide, agree that she gave it her all.

Why do we fall so hard for them?

So, why do we do it? Pin so much emotion onto the back of a horse we don’t even know? Especially us horse people, who know that there’s no “sure thing.”

We horse people know that a lot depends upon what’s happening inside the horse’s mind. We know that despite vet checks and blood tests, trouble can be brewing inside the body.

But then, for us horse people, watching others see what we see – the talent, the speed, the personality, the courage –  even for only a few weeks, is wonderful. Usually, we’re the oddballs in Red Sox Nation or Texas Stadium or the local country club. Then, in some years, usually in the spring when it’s Derby and Triple Crown time, we get to be cool.

But I think a lot of the wide appeal of the Wonder Horse is why we go to the movies, play video games, read books, watch TV.

We want a break from the day-to-day humdrum. We need safe (for us) excitement. A distraction from lurking bills, squabbling politicians, family hassles, job headaches, mounting responsibilities and fingerpointing.

For these months in 2010, we got to share that zing of excitement and anticipation as a group, in the tribe of Zenyatta.

Queen Z and Blame gave us one of the greatest shows on earth. And, even though it wasn’t the ending a lot of us wanted, we really got a happy ending.

Plus, we should remember the other wonderful moments that happened on Saturday.

* Jockey Frankie Dettorri’s jubliant flying dismount from the back of his horse in the winner’s circle

* The where-have-YOU-been feeling I got when I saw Goldikova power her way past the boys – again. Why haven’t we heard much about her on this side of the pond? Granted, I’m not as up on thoroughbred racing as I should be, but I that’s the price I pay for being a generalist. Still, isn’t horse racing considered an international sport? Talent is talent. A thrilling race is a thrilling race – and needs no translation.

* Garrett Gomez, injured earlier on the day before the Breeder’s Cup races, back in the saddle and winning, even though his horse beat Our Girl.

* Mike Smith slumped in self-blame over Zenyatta’s withers. Retired Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron pausing to grab his colleague for a quick re-assuring hug.

* The excitement of another star being born in Uncle Mo. He’s only two. We have almost six months til May. Will it all begin again? Will he turn out to be The One?

As of this writing, Zenyatta will say farewell to her fans at Hollywood Park on Dec. 5 before retiring to Lane’s End Farm in Versailles, KY. According to Blood Horse correspondent Steve Haskin, Zenyatta’s owners the Mosses will keep updates on Queen Z at her website, Zenyatta.com. Here is Zenyatta’s first retirement diary entry.

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  • Debbie @ Happy Maker
    November 9, 2010

    Rhonda, You do make it sound fun. And yes watching a horse race can be exciting and take you away from the every day things. Sometimes we do need that. Thanks for sharing.