There are occasions in sport when the outcome is secondary to the moment, when the contest itself is more revealing than the result. At shortly before seven o'clock last Saturday night at Churchill Downs, a hard-knocking 4-year-old colt named Blame held on to win the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic by a short head over the previously unbeaten 6-year-old mare Zenyatta. It was a game run by a solid racehorse on his home track, and it is destined to become a footnote to a bigger slice of racing history.
The Classic, racing's defining year-end championship event, belonged to Zenyatta. In three years she had won 19 consecutive races, including the 2009 Classic (the first female to do so), and, more significantly, evoked sustained passion from fans arguably not seen since the glory days of the 1970s, when Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Alydar, Spectacular Bid and Ruffian were in full bloom.
The Classic may be Zenyatta's final race. It was certainly her most important. She was almost universally beloved by fans, but naysayers persisted among racing's cognoscenti. All but two of her wins—including last year's Classic—had come on the funky synthetic surfaces in California. She had never beaten a field as strong and deep as Saturday's. "I've never been involved in such a big race," said rival trainer Bob Baffert, who has won three Kentucky Derbies and competed in nearly every major race in the last decade.
The record will show that Blame snipped the wire first. But the Classic of 2010 will be remembered for Zenyatta's gallant run. A slow starter who wins her races with dramatic finishing kicks, she ambled from the gate on Saturday and hobbled down the homestretch as if injured. A quarter mile in, she trailed by 16¼ lengths. Clearly, in her first start at Churchill, she was struggling with the unfamiliar surface.
Slowly Zenyatta gathered momentum as she moved down the backstretch, literally figuring the track out as she went. At the top of the stretch her jockey, Mike Smith, slammed on the brakes as Quality Road slowed abruptly in front of her. He restarted the big mare, angled her hard outside into the clear and set her into a drive. With each stride she closed on Blame, who had enjoyed a perfect trip under Garrett Gomez. The crowd roared, only to fall silent at the finish. When Gomez and Blame returned to the winners circle, they passed a riderless Zenyatta; Gomez twice saluted the mud-splattered mare.
Zenyatta only enhanced her legend in her first defeat. After the race, debate began about which horse would be voted Horse of the Year. It will probably go to Blame, because he won their only meeting. Zenyatta will have to settle for Horse of a Generation.
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For a photo gallery from last weekend's Breeders' Cup, go to SI.com/photo