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On Perfection: Musings on Zenyatta and Goldikova

Zenyatta and Blame

Zenyatta and Blame, joined in history

Perfection can be a double-edged sword; no one suggests that missing out on maintaining it by inches has in any way tainted Zenyatta’s reputation, but it could be argued that its pursuit has, in some sense, held her back.  While jockey Mike Smith may continue to lament his role in denying the great mare her perfect record, it must be noted that he was simply doing what had worked in that past (although many of his previous rides had made fans nervous, to say the least).  But such a viewpoint denies Blame much of a role in his own victory – though he certainly had the better trip, he still deserves credit – and it’s difficult to think of a horse more aptly-named for this situation.  It could equally fairly be suggested that a prep race against stiffer competition might have been useful – but there’s little point in second-guessing the paths that led to an ultimately thrilling race.

It was once said of Secretariat that he ‘should never have been beaten’ – but he was, and more than once – and yet we never dwell on the few losses, only the indelible wins.  No one suggests that Angle Light or Onion was a better horse – merely that the circumstances that played out in their individual victories over Secretariat happened to favor them, allowing them to briefly step into his spotlight.  Blame has a much more impressive record, but most will only remember him as the horse who happened to finish in front of Zenyatta – once. Those within the industry will argue over who should receive their vote for Horse of the Year, but it matters little beyond that sphere; the public has already chosen their champion.

Of course, there are a number of reasons for that; Zenyatta’s narrative is simply more compelling to the wider world than Blame’s – that might be different if there were better coverage and promotion of the major races he won, including the Stephen Foster and the Whitney, but the fact remains that even those who casually follow racing beyond the Triple Crown would be hard-pressed to notice them in the current media climate.  If Blame were to race next year, at 5, he would have a better shot at securing that recognition – but he’s already retired and ready for inspection at the breeding shed. He’ll maintain his own sort of perfection – never finishing out of the money – but it is not the sort that resonates.

Goldikova's Breeders' Cup hat-trick

Goldikova's Breeders' Cup hat-trick

Goldikova, meanwhile, has never been stymied by a goal of perfection; if anything, finishing second behind the likes of Zarkava only burnished her reputation – and the fact that she has remained in training far beyond some of her keenest rivals, improving all the while, only suggests that she might have eventually gotten the better of them.  One suspects that had Zarkava not had a perfect record coming into the Arc, she would not have been retired immediately after winning it – keeping her a spotless seven for seven.  The fetish for perfection denied a spectacular filly the chance to prove what she was truly capable of – but Goldikova has carried on, and she has even been allowed to throw in the odd clunker, usually as a tune-up for a huge victory.  Her eleven G1 wins are a testament to the fact that she has only raced at the highest level over the past few years.  Even when running in races restricted to fillies and mares, there has been real competition – she has not even been entered in anything below G1 level since summer of 2008.  Sometimes she did not have the best racing luck – but a few stray seconds or thirds did not lead anyone to doubt her greatness.

In a racing world where retirement after a handful of races is common for horses who gain even a modicum of fame, Zenyatta and Goldikova have both demonstrated that there is little reason for that to be the standard procedure.  The odd loss may diminish the pursuit of perfection – but perfection is not a useful measure of greatness.  Blame is a fine horse, but he will never carry the mantle both of these mares have worn so lightly; perhaps having written himself into their stories is mention enough.

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