Zenyatta horse of the year selection as is thoroughly deserved

Zenyatta: When the announcement was made, in a huge hotel ballroom in Miami Beach, Jerry Moss hugged his wife, Ann, and gave her a long kiss. For them, it was the ultimate ending to the ultimate gamble.

David Quinn/AP/File
In this April 9, 2010, file photo, Jockey Mike Smith, aboard Zenyatta, salutes the crowd on the way to the winner's circle after Zenyatta won the Apple Blossom Invitational horse race at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark.

The final mantle of glory they placed on Zenyatta's shoulders Monday night was wonderfully deserving and woefully inadequate.

She certainly was horse of the year. More accurately, she was horse of a lifetime.

Since the former is as high as the honors go in thoroughbred racing, it will suffice.

When the announcement was made, in a huge hotel ballroom in Miami Beach, Jerry Moss hugged his wife, Ann, and gave her a long kiss. For them, it was the ultimate ending to the ultimate gamble.

They had run her into her sixth year. They had brought her back after she had incredibly beaten the boys — a first for any mare — in the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic. At this time last year, Zenyatta's potential worth in future breeding earnings made Moss' little business of producing and selling zillions of records with Herb Alpert look like a lemonade stand. One bad step by the talented lady and the equivalent of the gross national product of Iceland was gone.

By the time most thoroughbred stars of either gender are in their sixth year, racing is analyzing the possible success of their progeny in an upcoming Kentucky Derby and their owners are spending much quality time with their bankers.

The Mosses let love of sport transcend love of dollars. They did it for racing fans, and in this case, that is not a cliche.

In the televised aftermath of the much-anticipated announcement, microphones were predictably stuck in faces. One of the recipients, Dottie Ingordo, race manager for the Mosses, got right to the point.

"I'm so happy for the fans," she said.

It was a basic, simple statement. What she meant was much deeper.

This was to be a controversial announcement. Many felt it was the toughest choice ever for Eclipse Award voters.

More so, it was to be a seminal moment in racing. Zenyatta had won her first 19 races, had done so by dancing in the paddock, posing for pictures like she was Heidi Klum and then sprinting from way behind — always way behind — to win at the wire. Zenyatta always finished like John Force started.

All the brightest minds in thoroughbred promotions could have spent millions and not come close to creating the drama she did every time she ran.

But the last time, she lost.

In the same race that had taken her public profile into the stratosphere the year before, the Breeders' Cup Classic, a wonderful colt with a fitting name — Blame — became the first horse to hold off Zenyatta's always amazing finish.

And so, with a victory over Her Majesty, a legendary owner named Seth Hancock pushing for Blame's horse-of-the-year candidacy in the news conference afterward, and Zenyatta's record now sullied by her 3-inch shortfall in her last race, racing had a controversy.

Insiders, many of them voters, favored Blame. Many seemed to put more value on the Grade I stakes won in the East by Blame than in the Grade I stakes won in the West by Zenyatta; also more value on victories on Eastern dirt than California synthetics. The general fan, especially a new legion of females who had come, seen Zenyatta and were conquered, didn't know or care about Blame, even after the Classic. Zenyatta had grabbed their hearts, convinced them that hers was a sport worth watching.

That meant that an announcement saying Zenyatta wasn't even considered by her own sport the best of the year could send hundreds of thousands of new fans away from the track, shaking their heads, never to return.

Ingordo got it right. This one was for the fans, as orchestrated by the Mosses. And, in the end, it is reasonable to conclude that that dynamic worked its way into the minds and hearts of many voters.

In the end, the vote was a fair 129-102. Plus, Blame's Eclipse in the category of older male horse was 228-0 unanimity. Zenyatta won older female horse for the third year in a row, missing that same unanimous designation by one vote.

Monday night, as always, brought the superlatives and attempts at the poetic over yet another Zenyatta victory.

Ingordo said this was a "diamond exclamation point" to Zenyatta's career.

Ann Moss said, "She lifted spirits."

Jockey Mike Smith, who had blamed himself after the loss to Blame for starting her too late on her home stretch drag race, said, "This makes it all OK."

Jerry Moss, in his acceptance speech, quoted from an author who wrote that the presence of Zenyatta was like "when clouds fall away to reveal mountaintops."

The man likely most responsible for this all, trainer John Shirreffs, simply said, "Zenyatta is a miracle."

Like all sports, racing's metronome will tick on. The Triple Crown prep races are upon us, Derby Day just around the corner. Zenyatta, soon to be further defined by her babies, will give way in headlines to racing's next hot thing, Uncle Mo.

But years from now, old timers on the backstretch will sit on a stump, clean the mud off their shoes and tell stories about horses of a lifetime. They will mention the likes of Seabiscuit, Secretariat, War Admiral, Seattle Slew, Affirmed.

And Zenyatta.

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