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TrackNotes: Cool Hand Zenyatta

You had to wonder if Paul Newman even cared about winning an Academy Award. He seemed too cool for that.

Nonetheless, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences must have panicked when they realized in 1985 that they had never honored one of the greatest actors of our time and gave him a lifetime achievement award.

And the following year the Academy gave him a real acting Oscar for The Color of Money. (As great as Newman always was, The Color of Money?)

I don't know about Cool Hand, but I'll tell you this: Zenyatta couldn't give a damn whether she wins the 2010 Horse of the Year trophy on January 17 when the horsey people gather in Miami Beach for the 2010 Eclipse Awards, racing's Oscars.

She's lucky she's a horse. So is her rival for the award, Blame. They don't have to listen to the bickering. Their feelings won't be hurt.

Any Eclipse Award is merely about the gratification of the massive egos of a horse's owners and trainers. This one gets even better because Zenyatta's Jerry and Ann Moss are still stinging over last year's snub, and this year, Seth Hancock's Claiborne Farm won the big showdown race, November's Breeders' Cup Classic.

In the modern American tradition of making every kid a winner, the Eclipse committee has placed one of the biggest hedge bets in history by telling the connections of Blame and Zenyatta that they're both just swell, announcing on Wednesday that it was awarding the Special Eclipse Award to "Team Zenyatta" for its part in helping Zenyatta move "Thoroughbred racing off the racing pages and into the mainstream and social media spheres." More on that later.

And Blame's Claiborne Farm will win the Eclipse Award of Merit for outstanding achievement. So the committee has it covered. But hey, they also have a TV show and a billion viewers around the globe to think about.

The Internet has been ablaze for at least 14 months over the 2009 award and speculation over the 2010 award. Fan posts on racing forums have ranged from analyses of all statistical minutae between the two horses to vicious, hate-filled language that is so much a part of today's drive-by discourse. Some of the most vitriolic comments have been on Chicago Barn to Wire, where posters have been called haters, or worse, and utter hyperbole is the order of most days.

Don't get me wrong. I love Blame and Zenyatta themselves. It's many of the fans of Zenyatta who, in my opinion, have been the most unreasonably vocal and ungracious in first not recognizing how truly special 2009's Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra was and now not accepting that Zenyatta lost the Classic to Blame.

They've fallen back into the old cradle of "lifetime achievement" as justification for giving Zenyatta the Horse of the Year this year when the award has come to mean excellence in a particular calendar campaign.

Zenyatta fans are still irate about Rachel Alexandra's accolades after her historic season. Rachel's monumental run through 2009 made her Eclipse a given for me.

The napalm really rained when trainer Steve Asmussen foolishly declared Rachel would be ready for the Apple Blossom and a showdown with the 14-0-0-0 Zenyatta last spring if only they would push it back one week after Rachel got a prep race in. But Rachel's gut-wrenching win against the males in the Woodward the autumn before just took too much out of her. She wasn't the same horse.

That's when some Zenyatta extremists got ugly, calling Rachel a "pig" and accusing her of ducking Zenyatta when Rachel clearly was not right. Then they went to the other side of our galaxy and called Zenyatta "the greatest horse ever." Sheesh.

It only got worse last year as Zenyatta racked up win after win in a campaign eerily similar to her 2009 schedule. Having never really been out of training since 2009, or maybe ever, Zenyatta was carbon-copy, laying way back, for example, and then closing strong in the March 13 Santa Margarita at Santa Anita on her ubiquitous running surface, synthetic, and then toying with her chorus line at the aforementioned Apple Blossom on Oaklawn's dirt.

After barely edging St. Trinians, Rinterval, and Switch by no more than a half-length in the Vanity Handicap, Clement L. Hirsch Handicap and Lady's Secret Stakes, respectively, Zenyatta stayed perfect at 19-0-0-0 heading into the Breeders' Cup Classic.

She was perfect, by god. What does a girl have to do to get a little respect?

Four of her five races in 2010 were on synthetic surfaces, as had been all of her races in 2009 when she chilled at home and waited for them to come to her crib at Santa Anita's Breeders' Cup festival. From a handicapping point of view, she was staying home and beating up on the not-great California colony while fans kept crying for her to venture east and maybe take on the boys. Her connections muttered something about how hard it is to ship a horse across the Rocky Mountains. If only Ward Bond were available.

And with such narrow victories this year, Z's fans predictably started the mantra that "she just does what she has to do to win." The Breeders' Cup Classic on Churchill's dirt would be no problem. After all, she won on the dirt at Oaklawn, didn't she?

Another mantra was "19-0! 19-0!" This when she was barely winning in just-nice times with middling Beyer Speed Figures. I will give full credit to her awesome closing ability.

But if owners the Mosses and trainer John Shirreffs weren't taking it easy at home - and at Oaklawn - against a questionable level of competition in order to pad Zenyatta's record, it sure looked that way. They were pointing to the big trifecta of a perfect record, Breeders' Cup Classic win and Horse of the Year. She still wasn't getting beaucoup credit for her win in the 2009 Classic because it came on one of her home synthetics, Santa Anita.

Trouble is, with some hindsight, a loss along the road to Churchill Downs for the Classic would not have been the end of the world if it would have truly tested Zenyatta on dirt and then prepped her for the Classic win. A Breeders' Cup win means a lot, usually everything when it comes to an Eclipse. And she still possesses the record 19-0 streak. 19-1 with a Classic win? That's a HOY trophy.

All this time, Blame was on the other coast, running trainer Al Stall, Jr.'s campaign clearly meant to get him ready to peak in the Classic. After a win in the Grade III W. D. Schaeffer on Preakness Day, he beat horses including Quality Road, Musket Man and Battle Plan in the Stephen Foster and then the Whitney Handicap. Nobody was able to catch a flying Haynesfield on the lead and Blame suffered a closing four-length loss in the October 2 Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Contrast Blame's one-race-at-a-time campaign at five very different tracks, including a win on Keeneland's synthetic in the Fayette in October 2009, with Zenyatta's homebound, preserve-the-record season and it appears Zenyatta came from somewhere resembling the NFC West.

Thusly, they entered the gate for the Classic. Zenyatta's true lack of experience on dirt against top-flight competition was painfully obvious as she fell well behind, trying to get traction. Still, she made one of the greatest in-race comebacks in recent racing memory in a valiant effort to get past Blame.

But she didn't.

And she wasn't going to. Blame was too determined and fought back Zenyatta with every stride.

HOY debate began instantaneously. Zenyatta's case soon fell square on the lifetime achievement angle and, gosh, she may have just run the best race of her career, even though she lost. So she's not really a loser, is she?

That's the beauty of horse racing. If you can get them to meet on the track, that settles everything. Sunday Silence-Easy Goer, Affirmed-Alydar, Seabiscuit-War Admiral, to name just a few.

But here are a few statistics that illustrate what Blame and Zenyatta did in 2010, the campaign for which the award is given.

* Zenyatta's 23 unique opponents in 2010 won 15 stakes races, six of those graded stakes. For Blame, it was 28 unique opponents winning 40 stakes races, 30 of them graded.

* Of all the horses Zenyatta faced in 2010, 16.67 percent of them won and 47.44 percent were in the money. For Blame, it was a 29.44 winning percentage for his opponents and 62.22 percent in the money.

There's more, but you get the drift.

* * *

Zenyatta's supporters keep arguing about "all she's done for racing."

I will not buy the many arguments that she lifted racing out of its depths and firmly deposited it in the American sports mainstream. Just because a story has legs because writers parrot the press releases they want to believe doesn't make it so.

Sure, forums and blogs and personal pages were abuzz, but except for the Breeders' Cup weekend spike, Secretariat garnered more Google attention than Zenyatta this year. Secretariat still owns the mainstream and he's been dead for more than 21 years.

The rotten shame about Zenyatta is that her connections saw fit to feather her record in relatively inferior races two time zones away from the vast majority of America's racing fans. If they did so much for the game, why didn't she run at Arlington? Or Saratoga? Or Belmont with it's long stretch? Why didn't I get to see her? Amazingly, we will never know how good Zenyatta - who won 19 races in a row - really was.

It was Blame who paid his dues in 2010. It was Blame's iron will that turned back Zenyatta.

It is Blame who is the 2010 Horse of the Year.


Thomas Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.

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