Zenyatta should be front-runner for Horse of the Year

It is not quite time to put Zenyatta out to pasture.

Yes, she is literally there, certainly enjoying the bluegrass of Kentucky. But she has left horse racing with one last important piece of business to chew on.

That would be the Horse of the Year selection.

Sometime this week, voters in racing's annual Eclipse Awards will start receiving mailings and/or Internet ballot directions. For voting members of the National Thoroughbred Racing Assn., the Daily Racing Form and the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters, the duty is heavy.

For their sport, much is at stake.

Anybody who has followed this at all knows the back story. Zenyatta is a 6-year-old mare, now retired, who won her first 19 races and lost by a head in her 20th, the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs last month. A 4-year-old colt named Blame, also now retired, beat her on a final bob.

There are 17 racing categories to be awarded at the Eclipse Awards on Jan. 17 in Miami Beach, and each is important to the people involved. But the big one, the HOY, will create a buzz that will work its way into mainstream America.

That is why Zenyatta deserves to win, because that is exactly what she did — work her way, and her sport, into mainstream America.

The Eclipse night is normally a nice, congenial evening of recognition, a time to look back and appreciate greatness from the year before. It is also an evening pretty much limited in interest to horse racing people and their immediate families.

Not this time.

The winner of this year's HOY vote will not be a Page 10 story, or something ignored on the evening sportscasts.

That is because of Zenyatta, who danced her way into sports fans' hearts all over the country and sprinted her way past all but one opponent in more than three years of racing. This vote result, whatever it is, will not be greeted by shrugs. The dispute has split families, barns, executive offices and press boxes.

When owner Seth Hancock said, immediately after the Classic, that it was obvious Blame was horse of the year because he had settled it on the track, "half an hour ago," the gauntlet was thrown down. Those voters who see that head-to-head result as the only issue will have Hancock's logic as their crutch.

But they will be wrong, as will any vote for Blame over Zenyatta.

Horse racing has a chance here to emerge from its own cobwebs, from its steadfast ways, from a thought process that still sees the world on a 10-inch, black-and-white Philco.

The sport of blinders needs to take them off.

Until the end, horse racing really didn't market Zenyatta. She did that herself. She was so exceptional and charismatic that she made everybody sit up and take notice. Every time she ran, she was a goose bump, waiting to happen. Soon, millions of fans who wouldn't cross the street to watch a horse race were set to dash across a freeway at rush hour to see her run again.

These same fans — new people, new numbers for racing, new revenue sources and TV ratings points — will be paying attention. If Zenyatta does not win, they will not understand the politics of the sport that will drive that decision. They will have no sense of the power of the Eastern racing and voting bloc, of the impact of a Kentucky blueblood, Hancock, saying what he did. They will not know how readily those east of the Mississippi sniffed at California's synthetic track surfaces and everything that ran on them, especially Zenyatta.

No, the newcomers who Zenyatta brought to racing will merely hear the news, wrinkle their brows in confusion and go back to buying basketball and baseball tickets.

Hancock's gauntlet has not gone unanswered. Hollywood Park, Zenyatta's home for her racing career, ran two recent ads in the Daily Racing Form, pushing her candidacy. Hollywood Park's two top executives, President Jack Liebau and General Manager Eual Wyatt, have taken heat for that, and neither cares.

Liebau says, "She has turned on a new fan base, and if she doesn't win, it could turn them off. It would be dreadful if she didn't get elected."

Wyatt says, "If she's not elected, the industry is crazy."

Fighting words, indeed.

A vote for Blame, certainly a wonderful racehorse, is a vote for the same ol', same ol'. It says that outsiders will not be welcome in this sport's cocktail parties. Ever.

A vote for Blame means that racing's establishment didn't actually understand what it had in Zenyatta, even when it had it.

In the year 2010, when Zenyatta's owners, Jerry and Ann Moss, decided to let their dancing queen perform one more year, everybody saw the genius and magic of how that turned out.

Did horse racing?


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