|Eibar Coa (1) rides Big Drama to victory during the Sprint race at the Breeder's Cup horse races at Churchill Downs Saturday, Nov. 6, 2010, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)|
Zenyatta falls short in quest for perfection
LOUISVILLE, Ky.—Put the blame on Blame for breaking Zenyatta's magnificent winning streak -- and a lot of hearts, too.
Jockey Mike Smith wept. Owners Jerry and Ann Moss stood in stunned silence. Trainer John Shirreffs trudged slowly back to the barn, hands in his pockets.
Nineteen times the people behind Zenyatta led horse racing's superstar to the track. Nineteen times they'd celebrated with her in the winner's circle.
Not this time.
Blame beat Zenyatta by a head in a thrilling finish at the Breeders' Cup Classic on Saturday night, handing the 6-year-old mare her first defeat.
Zenyatta threaded her way through traffic from last place while the crowd of 72,739 urged her on as she unleashed a monstrous closing kick under the lights at
It was so close, a matter of inches, the result had to be resolved by a photo -- a picture that saddened not only Zenyatta's owners and trainer but millions of fans around the world.
It was so close, Ann Moss said she was hoping her horse had "stuck her tongue out" at the finish.
Smith blamed himself for the loss. He walked off the track with his head down, dirt stuck to his face.
"It was my fault," he said, sobbing. "She should've won."
Blame went to the front in mid-stretch, then fought off another gutty run by the massive mare, who lagged well behind 11 rivals -- all boys -- in her customary style.
Sent off at 5-1 odds, Blame ran 1 1/4 miles in 2:02.28 and paid $12.40, $4.40 and $3.80. Zenyatta returned $3.60 and $2.80. Fly Down was another 3 1/2 lengths back in third and paid $8.60 to show. Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky finished fourth.
But the star, even in defeat, was Zenyatta, the sentimental even-money favorite.
She played to the crowd at every chance on her way to the starting gate. She high-stepped her way to the paddock, playfully pawing the ground as they roared. Ann Moss held her finger to her lips as a signal for the fans to quiet down.
"People who didn't know anything about horse racing became fans because of her," Blame's jockey Garrett Gomez said.
Zenyatta proved she could beat the boys last year when she rallied from behind to win the $5 million Classic at Santa Anita. It was one of her 17 wins on synthetic surfaces in her home state of California.
This time, though, she was facing the deepest, most talented field of her career on a surface where she had limited experience. Still, trainer Shirreffs had said she preferred it to synthetic tracks.
This was the third time she ran on dirt and in her two previous races, she beat other girls at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas.
But Blame had home-court advantage. He won twice before on dirt at Churchill, where Zenyatta had never raced.
"She ran an excellent race and just came up a little short," Shirreffs said. "She ran her heart out."
But Zenyatta's late-running style proved her undoing this time. She got away slow from the starting gate and spotted early leader First Dude 15 lengths over the opening half-mile.
At the back of the pack, Smith was coaxing Zenyatta to start making up ground. But it was a struggle. She was getting hit in the face with clods of dirt, something that doesn't happen on a synthetic track.
"She wasn't used to it," he said. "Although she's run on dirt twice, they were really short fields and really never got nothing in her face before."
Smith furiously tore through six pairs of goggles to keep a clear view of things.
"I just wish I would have been in the race a little earlier because I think the outcome would have certainly been different," the Hall of Fame jockey said.
Few would disagree.
When Zenyatta finally kicked into gear, Smith had plenty of horse left. She started her rally turning for home, dropping down to the inside rail with three furlongs to go and Blame on her outside.
Smith then angled her to the outside for clear running room, and the crowd exploded.
This was the famous come-from-behind run they had braved a cold November evening to see.
Zenyatta charged through the lane, gaining on Blame with every stride of her powerful legs. Gomez, aboard Blame, knew only Zenyatta could deny him the win.
"I was asking him as much as I could without asking him for everything," he said. "I was trying to save just enough so if she did get to me I had something and some kind of response."
It was just enough.
The loss might have cost Zenyatta a shot at Horse of the Year honors. She lost to Rachel Alexandra last year. This year's vote, announced in January, will come down to Blame vs. Zenyatta.
"I thought the battle for Horse of the Year was fought about a half-hour ago, and Blame won it," said Seth Hancock of Claiborne Farm, which co-owns Blame.
"She's a great horse, Zenyatta is. But she had her shot to get by, and she didn't do it. So I don't think you can vote for her."
Zenyatta's 19 consecutive wins tied her for most all-time with Peppers Pride, who retired last year after running against much lesser competition. Peppers Pride never raced outside New Mexico and all her wins came against fillies and mares.
"Zenyatta didn't lose anything," winning trainer Al Stall Jr. said. "I don't think you'll find anybody criticizing anything she's ever done, much less today. It was just two very good horses, and everybody talked about it coming down to these two for a long time. We were fortunate to have the right horse on the right day at the right time."
Instead of another merry jaunt to the winner's circle, the Mosses looked momentarily dazed.
"I thought she'd get there, but she just missed," he said. "She lost to a really good horse. We're real proud of her. She tried hard, she's the greatest."
All the great ones lose eventually.
Upset -- like Blame, another aptly named winner -- beat the unbeaten Man o'War; Triple Crown winner Secretariat was beaten; and Cigar won 16 in a row, but couldn't pull out one more.
During the two-day Breeders' Cup championships, American horses earned 12 victories while Europe-based horses won twice.
European import Goldikova successfully defended her title in the $2 million Mile for the third consecutive year against 10 rivals, including nine boys. Dangerous Midge won the $3 million Turf, and Pluck won the $1 million Juvenile Turf.
Big Drama led all the way to win the $2 million Sprint; Chamberlain Bridge won the $1 million Turf Sprint; and 37-1 long shot Dakota Phone won the $1 million Dirt Mile.
Uncle Mo won the $2 million Juvenile, giving trainer Todd Pletcher his third win of the weekend.
In the Juvenile Turf, Rough Sailing was euthanized after breaking a major bone in his upper leg when he slipped and fell going into the first turn. Jockey Rosie Napravnik wasn't hurt.