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On Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra and Memory

Memory plays a very particular role in horse racing, and the journey from historical statistic into the realm of myth necessitates some editing of that memory.

We remember that Man o’War won twenty out of twenty-one races, but we give special note to his single loss – losing to a horse named Upset only seemed that much more perfect; we often forget that loss came when he was a little-known two-year-old, and not the legend he would become. Like so much in horse racing folk-memory, it looks that much more predestined when seen in retrospect.

We have similar blinkers on regarding Secretariat in that his rare losses also became part of his myth – of course he lost at Saratoga, the Graveyard of Champions – how could he not? Even the nature of that loss is couched in the language of folklore – his vanquisher, Onion, was trained by “Giant Killer” Allen Jerkins. Although Secretariat was Horse of the Year at two, it’s his three-year-old year we remember; nothing in Triple Crown history can compare to his Belmont victory, which is perhaps the most indelible image in the entire sport of horse racing. We do not ask what caliber of horse Secretariat beat, because, quite frankly, it does not matter.

From our vantage point, it can be difficult to see Ruffian as anything other than the inevitably tragic heroine, hurtling toward her fate – we often overlook her record-shattering brilliance on the track because we know how the story ends, with a shattered leg. And yet she is still the benchmark for her sex – we still do not question what sort of competition she faced in the filly ranks, largely because she made any comparison to her peers irrelevant. Her memory had become part legend, part cautionary tale; despite considerable evidence that she was the product of a brilliant-but-fragile gene pool, Ruffian’s death came to be framed as the natural outcome of sending a filly against the colts – a useful bit of received wisdom to point to when explaining why American fillies so rarely faced off against colts in the modern era.

Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta might be viewed as long-overdue avenging angels for Ruffian’s cause. One proved that a tough bay three-year-old filly can take on not only boys her own age, but could also emulate racing’s heroines of old and beat older males; the other proved that it was possible for a mare of otherworldly size to beat males while maintaining a perfect record – both results which were denied Ruffian.

We will not remember most of Rachel Alexandra’s races against her own sex, save the Kentucky Oaks and her utter annihilation of the field by more than twenty lengths – we will remember her gritty Preakness victory, her runaway Haskell win and her hard-fought Woodward. The names of the other actors in her dramas may fade, but their roles will remain – we will remember that she beat the Kentucky Derby winner, the Belmont winner and the Stephen Foster winner. We will remember her milestones: the largest winning margins in Kentucky Oaks and Mother Goose history, the first filly to win the Preakness since 1924, the first filly or mare ever to win the Woodward.

Zenyatta’s perfect record may have been curated by careful placement for much of her career, but the final gamble leading to her Breeders’ Cup Classic victory proved that she had it in her all along to beat anything that came her way. The complaints about her relatively soft competition will not linger – we will only remember that she did not know how to lose, regardless of the field she faced. We will remember her quirks – her high-stepping, her pawing the ground in winner’s circle after winner’s circle, her sheer physical presence. We will remember how she towered over her competition, both literally and figuratively; given her size, coupled with her come-from-behind running style, she seemed like nothing less than a leviathan on the track, inhaling her lesser opponents in a final, devastating sweep.

In the end, Horse of the Year will not matter; the votes of a select few will bestow that title on one (or, ideally, both) of these outstanding fillies, but our collective memory will do them a better sort of justice – we will count Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta among the very greatest horses ever to have graced the track.

27 comments to On Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra and Memory

  • Colins Ghost

    Great piece! Thanks!

  • Cindy

    Great writing but please get Rachel's gutsy triumph in the Woodward correct, it was not the Whitney.

  • Superfecta

    Thanks, Cindy – this is why it's nice to have an editor! I axed a bit about some other horses in the Whitney but that made it through. I appreciate it!

  • Ryan

    Very well said. Between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta here in the States and Sea the Stars in Europe, the greatness of horseracing was on full display this year. I just hope we'll have some more incredible story lines to follow next year.

  • sid fernando

    well put and written. it's interesting to note thar ruffian, rachel alexandra, and zenyatta were large physical speciments — another similarity they share.

  • Anonymous

    Great post. Love your blog. I had a dreadful weekend (um, year) at the windows and this helped put the year in perspective. Co-horses of the year would be the only satisfying ending.

  • Mary Forney's Blog

    Very well said. Thanks for this great post!

  • Blues Greene

    Well done. Your last line says it all. There are inevitable comparisons about these great ones, especially their size and beauty. I hope all those inclined to split hairs about the competition, the surfaces, and the statistics, will realize what they've seen. Co-horses of the year gets my vote.

  • SaratogaSpa

    well said, I think all of us fans feel the same way

  • NorthCarolina.aahs

    Very well said.

    Yesterday we were fortunate to have witnessed one of the most impressive athletic feats ever, human or equine. Words barely do it justice…

    I too was left with a very comforting feeling that all these years later Ruffian's brilliant career, cut so tragically short, was vindicated.

    Zenyatta: HORSE OF THE YEAR

  • railrunner

    Beautiful writting, it's amazing to be able to witness these two great champions! Horse of the Year will be a hard fought battle now, and whoever wins will be well deserving, it would be the perfect end to a terrific year if we had dual-HOY's. Zenyatta's ultra impressive victory fresh in our minds will probably win her the title over Rachels campaign that feels like it's beeen run ages ago.

  • LindaVA

    Beautiful post! I agree with every word, both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta will live on in legend. Co-HOY would be a perfect ending to this fairy tale year of the FILLY!

  • Celeste

    Thank you! Beautifully said and I could not agree more.

  • Barbaro

    This was a brilliant piece of writing. Before the BC, I was a definite RA for HOTY but since, I feel there should be co-winners! What a blessing for us to see two great females in our lifetime. Why not make it another first for the two…co-winner of the Horse of The Year Award! Everything they have done has set them apart. Let's honor them that way as well…together.

  • Becky

    Thanks for saying exactly what I've been thinking over the past 2 days about both historic and modern thoroughbred heroes. Also, it's great to see the crazy idea that popped into my head right after the Classic ("Is there any way they share HOY?") isn't as crazy as I thought.

  • Anonymous

    I think Zenyatta's legacy will largely be effected by the future of synthetic surfaces in America. If they disappear she will be something of a quirk, if they take over tracks across the country she will be remembered as the first superstar of the synthetic era.

  • Anonymous

    Your sparkling picture is sublime. Did you see Santa Anita's home page celebratory photo- heavenly. Best observation- RACHEL and ZENYATTA can finally let RUFFIAN rest in peace- as a champion, not a tragedy. Let the fillies challenge the colts without shame, predjudice or misplaced pity. Don't forget the legions who begged Jess Jackson to not run Rachel with the colts. Or the loads of accomplished handicappers who were apparently blind to Zenyatta's very stride that eclipsed her male rivals. Open up the doors to our mares running past age three and in open competition. Stallions have a profitable excuse to exit racing, leave it to the ladies to keep the fans enthralled by staying on the track. DUBAI WORLD CUP 2010- 10 MILLION DOLLAR PURSE – PALACE OF HORSES IN MEYDAN CITY- RACHEL ALEXANDRA AND ZENYATTA TAKE ON THE WORLD TOGETHER.

  • Kincsem1874

    A beautiful piece. I hope the "Thoroughbreds aren't what they used to be," complainants can rest for a while now.

  • Valerie

    Lisa, one of the best blog posts of the entire year! I couldn't have said it better (and now I'm intimidated to try 🙂

    I'm not sure why folks (in comments on my blog post with quotes from Eoin Harty and Angel Cordero Jr.) are so opposed to the co-horse of the year idea. One idiot on Twitter even said it would "cheapen" the title to divide it among the two. Come on! Do we really need more divisiveness in the sport? Can't the idiots who decide these awards just set aside artificial constructs and declare the two co-horses of the year?

  • Keith - Triple Dead Heat

    It's been a great couple years for the ladies. Imagine if Zarkava had stuck around to try the Classic this year?

    Nicely done!

  • Jessica

    Like two other rival queens that never met: Mary, Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I.

    I'm sure neither will have the other ceremoniously dispatched however.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for your nuanced, well-thought-out piece. I saw Zenyatta at SA this past weekend (most impressive), but hope that Eclipse voters will remember Rachel's three wins over males. It would be great if these two great horses could share the title.

  • John

    To whomever the author of this article is please let me say this is the best and most "even sided" article that I've read yet anywhere. I don't mind admitting that I've been openly speaking out that I feel that Zenyatta's historic win on Saturday trumps Rachael's best efforts combined. But I must admit, this is the first article I've read that has truly brought out the best description's and point's on both of their behalf's. As well as beautifully describing all the earlier greats that are the standard as to what we measure these two great fillies by. First class job on the article. It's given me a different perspective to sit down, take a minute, and reflect on both as a whole.

  • Ekords

    As a fellow blogger, let me say well done man! My belief is that the HOY decision is already set in stone. This will essentially come down to another east coast vs. west coast debate and the 282 votes will be cast along "party lines." They each have made a case and are more than deserving. I agree in that our memories should be more important than who leaves town with the hardware.

  • Anonymous

    We as racing fan's have had the honor and privilege of witnessing not only two remarkable fillies, but two remarkable thoroughbred's period this year. Both are truly exceptional gift's from God. Both blessed with the ability to "run like the wind" but set in different styles. What Rachael Alexandra has accomplished for a 3yr.old filly is super. Rarely if ever do 3yr.old fillies beat colt's their own age, much less older colt's, and she's accomplished both. Zenyatta has faced very tough fillies through the year's as well, a group consisting of multiple Grade 1 winners which makes it remarkable when she went into this year's Classic that her race record was still unblemished. Then, to line up against the best colt's, 3yr.old and older from the U.S. and Europe that are currently in racing, and to do it at the 1-1/4 Classic distance on the biggest stage on one of the biggest day's in racing speak's volumes for her as well. Both horses have accomplished so much this year that to crown one HOY is to almost penalize the other. If ever a racing year cried out for co-HOY this certainly qualifies. They both posses far too much talent to deny either their rightful place in American Thoroughbred Racing History. IMO>

  • Anonymous

    Rachel and Zenyatta are helping us heal from Ruffian and Eight Belles' deaths. Perhaps we have finally learned to not to saddle our incredible female equine athletes with our social obsession for comparing and competing male/female gender roles.
    If the competition were beween owner/manager teams Zenyatta's win.
    Rachel has the misfortune of being owned and campaigned by a ruthless group and if you have not yet seen it, look closely at her eyes in photos of Rachel being led around. She is in pain — with a chain through her mouth. This video
    around the middle, shows her tongue trapped and hanging out of her mouth because of a chain in it. It is disgusting and her team should be barred from horse racing.

  • Amaya

    Ruffian is probably one of my all time favourite race horses although I was born exactly 30 years after her. When I saw the videos of her running, when I saw the pictures… I just knew. To me she isn’t a tragedy… She is a legend, because all legends are made of what she is; perfection, brilliant life with a poignant ending.

    But I must say when I watched the BC Classic, the first thing that came to my mind as Zenyatta crossed the finish line was “This one’s for you, Ruffian!”

    2009 was an awesome year for racing. On both sides of the pond. Can 2010 top it off?

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