Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Queen of the King of Sports

This morning on NPR I listened to an interview that started with the question of who is the best athlete in the world. Scott Simon posited that the racehorse Zenyatta should be given the title. After all, the mare remains undefeated in her sport and was the runner-up last year to tennis player Serena Williams in the voting for the Associated Press' Female Athlete of the Year.

To help support his argument, Simon brought Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit, to Weekend Edition Saturday.

Zenyatta is a six-year-old mare owned by Jerry and Ann Moss. Jerry is the M in A&M Records, which he co-founded with Herb Alpert in 1962. Jerry and Ann have been married for 32 years, and they bought Zenyatta as a yearling for $60,000 in September, 2005. To date, she's won more than $6 million in purses, paying her owners back 100-fold.

Zenyatta is the winningest thoroughbred of all time. She remains undefeated after 17 starts. To put that into perspective, Laura pointed out that during the entire 20th century, only two American thoroughbreds went undefeated. Colin, a brown colt who died in 1932, was unbeaten after 15 races. Personal Ensign, a bay filly who died earlier this year, was unbeaten after 13 races.

Scott Simon asked why Zenyatta began racing so late. In thoroughbred racing, horses often begin to race at age two. The best then meet as three-year-olds during the Triple Crown. Zenyatta did not begin racing until the end of her third season.

Laura believes that her trainer wanted to give Zenyatta time to grow into her body. At 17 1/2 hands (5'9" at the withers), the mare is enormous. Laura described her as "possibly the biggest great horse in history." Here's a clip showing a comparison. One of the horses shown is Rachel Alexandra, who beat out Zenyatta for the 2009 Horse of the Year, but who dropped out of the Apple Blossom Handicap after the 2010 purse was raised to $5 million in order to entice both horses to run in order to see which mare was best.

Of course, Zenyatta's huge size gives her an enormous stride. Her jockey Mike Smith's favorite strategy is to hold her back in last place during races before turning her loose to bypass the entire field and win.

Here's a breathtaking clip of Zenyatta winning the 2008 Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic, the championship race for fillies in North American thoroughbred racing. Mike Smith held her back until they were ten lengths behind the leader. Mike is in turquoise and pink silks. Zenyatta has a purple saddle blanket and wears #1.

A year later, in 2009, after having won the distaff version of the Breeders' Cup, Zenyatta went on to become the only filly in history to win the Breeders' Cup against a field of colts. Winning that race also made her the only horse in history to win both the male and female Breeders' Cup races. That race was almost more fantastic than the Ladies' Classic win. Watch it here. Zenyatta is #4 with Mike dressed in turquoise silks on a yellow saddle blanket.

Zenyatta continues to race this year and continues unbeaten. Her last win was at the 2010 Vanity Handicap last month in Hollywood Park, California. That's the third year a row she's won that race.

She's scheduled to run in the 2010 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes on August 7 in Del Mar, California. She's won that race the last two years in a row.

Stay tuned . . .

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