Zenyatta rides sentiment to her crown

| January 20, 2011

MIAMI – The Eclipse Awards were handed out Monday evening at Miami’s Fountainebleu,  Hotel and the once-beaten Zenyatta has won the Horse of the Year trophy that her zealous fans felt she deserved a year ago.

The award caps a career that have some proclaiming Zenyatta as the best filly or mare in racing history, a claim that might be a little on the ambitious side that Ruffian, unbeaten Personal Ensign and a few others were pretty fair females. But she’s clearly in that conversation.

Happy for owners

On a personal level I’m very happy for owners Jerry and Ann Moss, trainer John Shirreffs and jockey Mike Smith now that Zenyatta has the coveted gold Eclipse Award trophy that her team has so badly wanted for her.

And her legion of fans can continue their celebration of her wonderful, nearly perfect career as they await the looming decision on which stallion will be Queen Z’s first “Mr. Right” as the big mare launches her new career at Lane’s End Farm.

For readers of this corner, the result of the 2010 Horse of the Year vote is no surprise. It’s been my strong feeling since her rally fell a head short of catching Blame in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs that Zenyatta would come out on top in the industry vote that determined the Eclipse winners.

Lifetime honor?

Rather than Horse of the Year, the 2010 vote became a lifetime achievement award for Zenyatta. If the honor was based solely on what happened on the track in 2010, Blame would have been the winner. He simply had a better year, whipped better horses and defeated the horses perceived to be the best in the country when he had the opportunity. In battles with Quality Road and Zenyatta, Blame won.

Regardless of one’s allegiance in racing’s spirited – sometimes too spirited – Horse of the Year debate, it’s a good time for racing fans to pause for moment and think of our collective good fortune over the past two years. We have seen an amazing group of females on the track. In 2010 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, we have had the opportunity to marvel at the the first back-to-back female winners of Horse of the Year.

And Goldikova

And there is also Goldikova, the great French mare who has earned an unprecedented three consecutive renewals of the Breeders’ Cup Mile. She easily gets my vote for Horse of the World and, if all goes well, she will return to Churchill Downs in November to bid for an unthinkable four consecutive Mile wins.

And we saw Blame reward Claiborne Farm, one of the great institutions in the history of Thoroughbred racing, with its first Breeders’ Cup victory – and it happened,  the farm’s centennial year. For my money, that story was as magical as anything that happened in 2010, but it was mostly lost on a public absorbed by Zenyatta’s every move.

Blame honored

Blame did earn an Eclipse Award in a unanimous vote that honored him as the nation’s top older horse, which helps make up for the big one that got away. The hope here is that he goes on to incredible career as a stallion and his pedigree, steeped in Claiborne evidence on both sides, puts him in line as a future resident of the farm’s “Big Stall.”,  That’s the slot in the stallion barn at the Paris, Ky. farm that has been the home of,  Bold Ruler, Secretariat, Easy Goer and Unbridled and other top Claiborne sires through its century of sustained excellence.

If I was disappointed by anything at the Eclipse Award dinner it was the crowd’s relatively tepid enthusiasm when Claiborne Farm received an Eclipse Award of Merit for its century of service. Earlier, Marylou Whitney received the same award and was greeted by a deserved standing ovation before and after her touching and emotional acceptance speech. The Zenyatta team received wild applause and one its several standing O’s of the evening when its members were honored with a special Eclipse Award. But only a handful of attendees – and in the spirit of transparency, I was in that small number – stood while applauding Seth Hancock when he stepped to the podium to accept Claiborne’s Award of Merit.

The cool response was clearly an outgrowth of the emotional Horse of the Year debate – the second consecutive year in which the tone on the outer fringes of the discussion was shrill and unpleasant. Claiborne wore a black hat in the eyes of many because Blame beat Zenyatta on the track, where issues in our sport are generally settled.

Reserved response

The reserved response by the Eclipse Award crowd was disappointing and, when one considers what Claiborne has meant to our sport, borderline disgraceful.

While that subdued salute diminished the evening for me, it did nothing to dim the brilliance of Blame, Zenyatta and their incredible duel in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Now that the championship debate is over, my hope is the heat generated in that discussion will yield benefits in the New Year to a Thoroughbred racing industry in need of new fans and increased prominence in both the sport and popular culture.

Now we focus on the 137th Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, now just over 100 days away. I’m hoping the stories that develop in the weeks leading up those great races are as marvelous as the successes of 2010 celebrated at Monday’s Eclipse Awards celebration. But they have some work to do.

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