Twelve years ago this summer, horse racing was at one of its periodic upticks in national exposure as fans were drawn to the exploits of an unbeaten star racemare based in Southern California, and by the time the 27th Breeders’ Cup World Championships arrived at Churchill Downs, excitement was at a fever pitch.
Zenyatta, a 6-year-old daughter of Street Cry owned by Jerry and Ann Moss and trained by John Shirreffs, had emerged on the scene during early 2008 with a string of emphatic victories, mainly at California tracks, and earned her first Eclipse Award at season’s end after taking the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic (now Distaff) at Santa Anita Park, her ninth win without a defeat.
The next season was even better – 2009 was horse racing’s “year of the female.” Zenyatta won four more stakes races leading up to a return to Santa Anita for the Breeders’ Cup, while 3-year-old filly Rachel Alexandra went undefeated in the Midwest and East en route to Horse of the Year honors.
At the 2009 World Championships, the Mosses and Shirreffs entered Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup Classic rather than bid for a repeat Ladies’ Classic win, and in one of the most memorable races in the event’s history, she unleashed a furious rally from well back in the field to win going away over multiple Eclipse Award winner Gio Ponti.
Going 14-for-14 through three seasons and defeating males in the Breeders’ Cup Classic left Zenyatta with nothing left to prove, to say the least – but her connections brought her back for one last hurrah in 2010. She rolled through the spring and summer with five more graded stakes victories, winning the Apple Blossom Handicap for a second time (her only two trips outside of California before the 2010 Breeders’ Cup) and the Vanity Handicap, Clement L. Hirsch Stakes, and the Lady’s Secret Stakes each for the third consecutive time back home.
By this time, fan interest in “the Queen” soared, as racegoers young and old brought signs, clothing, and a diverse assortment of trinkets to the track to signify their worship whenever Zenyatta ran.
At the end of October, the storied “60 Minutes” aired a special on Zenyatta titled “The Best Racehorse Ever?” In it, correspondent Bob Simon summed up the historical significance of what lay ahead at the 2010 Breeders’ Cup when he observed that Zenyatta had the chance to become the first great American athlete to retire undefeated since boxer Rocky Marciano in the 1950s. Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, who took the mount for Zenyatta’s third start back in April 2008 and never relinquished it, told Simon, “Given the opportunity, I think we could see something incredible” at Churchill Downs.
A formidable field awaited in Louisville in an attempt to deny Zenyatta a 20th straight victory in the Classic. Preakness Stakes winner Lookin At Lucky, Woodward Stakes winner Quality Road, and Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Haynesfield were all lined up, and then there was Adele Dilschneider and Claiborne Farm’s homebred Blame. The Arch colt had won eight of his first 12 career starts with two seconds and two thirds and was 3-for-4 at Churchill Downs, including wins in the prestigious Clark and Stephen Foster Handicaps. He had also won the historic Whitney Handicap at Saratoga earlier in the year before running second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Despite all of those credentials, Zenyatta was the post-time even-money favorite in the Classic on Nov. 7. When the field broke, Zenyatta immediately was taken back by Smith and settled in her customary position well off of the pace. By the time the field straightened out in the backstretch, Zenyatta was more than 14 lengths behind pacesetter First Dude. She remained last of 12 through six furlongs, and only when the field hit the far turn did Zenyatta begin to move, saving ground along the inside through most of the far turn and steadying briefly behind a faltering Quality Road at the quarter pole. All the while, Blame was sitting comfortably in midpack under Garrett Gomez, and he began his own rally at roughly the same time – but with far less work to do.
Blame found an opening in early stretch and moved up to challenge Lookin At Lucky, while Smith moved Zenyatta off of the rail and six wide to secure clear running room. What commenced after that was unquestionably one of the most thrilling race finishes of this century.
Emotions ran high after Blame ended Zenyatta’s 19-race winning streak by a head. Mike Smith blamed himself in a tearful post-race press conference, saying, “She’s my everything, she’s just amazing. I just wish I would have been in the race a little bit earlier. … It hurts more than I can explain.”
Blame went on to receive the Eclipse Award as champion older male and would retire as well after the Breeders’ Cup, banking more than $4.3 million in his career.
Zenyatta, however, took top honors for 2010 as she was named Horse of the Year at the Eclipse Awards to accompany her third award as champion older female. She made several appearances before adoring fans in the following months in Kentucky and California, and now resides at Lane’s End Farm as a broodmare. Inarguably one of the most popular racehorses of the 21st Century, Zenyatta gained even more admirers after her only career defeat. She was voted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2016.