“Were these things real or are they but the vagaries of mine own imagination?”
- Private Sam Watkins, Company Aytch (H), 1st Tennessee Volunteers
Unbelievable: the word captures the feelings still percolating among the masses as they continue to deal with the unanticipated defeat of the 2009 Horse of the Year, Rachel Alexandra, at the hands of the relatively unknown Zardana in her first start of the 2010 season. The word also describes how fans felt who watched as the defending Breeders’ Cup Classic champion, Zenyatta, appeared trapped at the top of the stretch for the Santa Margarita, as the undefeated daughter of Street Cry was forced to duck inside and do some dirty work from down along the rail before pulling off in typical Slow Cheetah style.
To be certain, there were numerous players who thought either horse might be worth playing against, but I’m sure in their hearts they fully expected both champions to prevail. As we’ve been reminded countless times in the last 24 hours, Rachel Alexandra becomes the first defending Horse of the Year in the last 10 attempts to lose her debut race the following campaign. Of course, we also know that most great horses eventually lose – including greats like Kelso and Secretariat. The trouble is, for Rachel at least, that her rival, Zenyatta, doesn’t lose. She almost did once to Anaaba’s Creation, in what would’ve been an equally upsetting, well, upset, but found a way to gut out a win.
Let there be no mistake about it: Zenyatta is the best horse on the planet. It’s not even open for debate anymore at this point in time.
That’s not to say I’m taking anything away from Rachel Alexandra. Far from it. Unlike the throngs of absolutely classless Zenyatta fans (oh yeah, I’m calling YOU OUT if you were one…if you weren’t then please don’t take offense) who actually cheered that Rachel was losing. The living embodiment of the words “classless” and “disgusting.” I can only assume that in their adolescent minds this Saturday’s race was some sort of referendum on the 2009 Horse of the Year voting. It wasn’t, as anyone with an IQ over 40 understands. 2009 was about 2009, and that issue has been settled and debated to death.
Seriously, I wasn’t there to see it firsthand and so don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about it, but both folks on TVG and Twitter reported that fans at Santa Anita were “cheering” and “celebrating” Rachel’s defeat. I hold out hope that these reports are untrue or were grossly misrepresented and/or taken out of context. If, however, you were among those doing so – shame on you. SHAME!!!!!! Nothing but shame, and eternal shame! Just absolutely Wal-Mart trailer-trashified if you ask me.
Suffice to say that these reports were received as absolutely sickening by just about anyone with a pulse outside of California. This ranks right up there with Eagles fans booing Santa Clause and cheering the injury of Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin. The only way it’s excusable, in my mind, is if those cheering had wagered serious cash on Zardana to pull the upset. If that’s the case – yes, you have every reason to erupt in celebration. Something tells me though that was not the driving force behind the episode.
Ironically, it was during the stretch run of Zenyatta’s victory just minutes later that we were publicly admonished by the Santa Anita track announcer “if you don’t have goosebumps now, you’re not a fan of horse racing!”
Taken on its own merit, I fully agree with the sentiment of the statement. The timing of its delivery though, coming hot off the heels of the reports of Santa Anita fans rejoicing and celebrating at Rachel Alexandra’s downfall, could not have been worse. It left many perplexed as to just where in the hell anyone associated with Santa Anita would get off thinking they had any wiggle room to lecture the rest of us as to how “real fans” of horse racing ought to think, feel, or act.
What’s next, Nancy Pelosi telling us we need to be more fiscally responsible? Michael Vick chastising us over how we treat our pets? Octomom offering crtitical reviews of our parental skills (or lack thereof)?
The whole thing was laughable at best, if not somewhat aggravating.
Most “real fans” I know were pulling heavily for both horses to win. Obviously some self-described fans of one horse (but not the other) actually hate the “other side.” This is unfortunate and not something I subscribe to in our sport, but I suppose it’s what happens with great rivalries. No doubt many Ali fans despised Frazier. Yankee and Red Sox fans aren’t known for their cordial demeanor to one another. I think I detest Sidney Crosby (just a bit) for scoring that overtime goal in the Gold Medal game of the 2010 Winer Olympics to defeat Team USA in overtime. Obviously there’s the Bama/Auburn rivalry I was born into. And of course, I’ve never found room in my heart to forgive either the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates or the 1989 Toronto Blue Jays for crushing the hopes and dreams of my beloved Baltimore Orioles.
So yes, I get it – and I know many folks just have trouble containing their emotions and displaying “the better angels of our nature” when they are flushed with either victory or defeat. It does makes it extremely hard for those who identify themselves as Rachel fans to even be able to cheer for Zenyatta at all (though I concede that if Saturday’s results were the other way around, I might be penning admonishing words to Rachel fans for behaving in classless fashion towards Zenyatta fans, so I digress).
I guess I’m a poster child for this phenomenon/dichotomy/conundrum. Perennially torn between both factions. Zenyatta was a horse I fell in love with on paper in her maiden race, and then followed closely here as she progressed up the ranks. BEFORE the great masses who exist now had showed up. I remember screaming from the rooftops when she won her allowance victory that she was a “future Grade 1 winner, at least” (with the “at least” part suggesting the sky was the limit for her). Turns out that suspicion was correct and that she’s not just a Grade 1 winner, but an undefeated Classic winner who is every bit a champion and then some.
Then Rachel came along. A once-in-a-lifetime 3-year-old that broke hundreds of years of historical precedence every time she took to the track. Her 2009 campaign, despite all of the recent bashing from “haters” who are coming out of the woodworks in droves now, was a thing of beauty. No 3-year-old filly had ever achieved such a distinguished mark of races won. Was she ever better than Zenyatta? In hindsight, I don’t think so, but see – that’s where most fans get caught up. They mistakenly assume that “Horse of the Year” should be bestowed upon whomever would likely win a theoretical race between the competitors. It’s not about that. It’s about who had the better overall campaign.
I maintain that a slightly more aggressive campaign with Zenyatta in 2009 would’ve locked up Horse of the Year. She certainly had the race of the year, but for months while Zenyatta was barely in the news, Rachel was shattering history at numerous tracks. Oh well. At this point in time folks have heard it all before, so it’s not like anything I type is going to change anyone’s mind. Everyone’s an expert – and everyone knows better than the Eclipse Award voters….yet everyone cowered like frightened schoolgirls when we suggested opening up the voting process to the public (far easier to sit back and criticize whatever happens in the voting from a safe distance, I suppose).
So where do we go from here?
Well, it all depends on how Rachel Alexandra returns from the race. Personally, I don’t think she looked ready to take on Zenyatta in the Apple Blossom. I can’t imagine Jess Jackson will send her. I know she’s been off for 6 months, and that her training schedule wasn’t ideal, and she “needed a race”, but it would seem only those with extreme hubris or a personal lust to see her throttled on the big stage would dare put her in a race against Zenyatta now.
I wonder…if Rachel is scratched from the Apple Blossom, how many of those Zenyatta fans that actually cheered for Rachel’s defeat, and who also hold tickets for Oaklawn, will piss and moan about being “cheated” ? That would be priceless! One can only hope they take a healthy dose of egg on their face in some fashion.
That’s what I never understood about this situation. Even if you are the most diehard Zenyatta fan and the most rabid of Rachel bashers – you should’ve been pulling for victories by both horses on Saturday. That would’ve only hyped the Apple Blossom even more, and made any victory over the other horse all the more celebrated. Just as the call for the Santa Margarita implored “if you don’t have goosebumps now, you don’t like horse racing” - well, guess what Californians – right back at you. If you weren’t pulling for both horses, you don’t like horse racing. Period.
I equate this to what I go through during SEC football season. I’m a diehard Crimson Tide fan. I HATE Auburn, Tennessee, and Florida with a passion (to the extent that the color orange actually can make me physically ill) – yet you best believe yourself that I’d prefer to face all of those teams when they are undefeated rather than in some weakened state fresh off a humbling defeat. Anyone remember last year’s SEC Championship game? What made beating the Florida Gators in that game so special was that they were the undefeated, defending national champions – not some weakened foe that many saw as a “paper tiger.”
In fact, there’s a direct comparison we can draw between that SEC Championship Game and the supposed cheering of Santa Anita fans as Rachel was defeated by Zardana in the New Orleans Ladies.
In the final minutes of Alabama’s romp over Florida, the big screen at the Georgia Dome flashed an image of Gators quarterback Tim Tebow crying on the sidelines. The stadium, and most Alabama fans erupted in joy. I’ll admit – for a fleeting moment I smiled, thinking of Alabama’s motto (“make their ass quit!!!”). As such, I think I can relate to what “Zenyatta fans” (those who are exclusively Zenyatta fans rather than fans of both horses) must’ve experienced the past year. Every news broadcast, every College Gameday presentation – all were filled with references to “Gators this” and “Tebow that.” Most announcers seemed to have an unnatural Tebow-fetish. To defeat him on such a big stage was euphoric, if not outright epic.
Within minutes though, I was posting this to Florida fans across the net:
“Hold your heads high, Gator fans. You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of. We know damn well it’s you we’ll have to face next year, and the year after that (and so on) if we want to repeat as SEC champs. While I’m celebrating this victory with everything I’ve got, please know from one SEC fan to another that it pains me to see your magnificent quarterback reduced to tears of defeat. He’s a warrior, and that’s not the way he deserves to go out. Pick those heads up and go knock the tar out of folks in the Sugar Bowl! We’ll see you next year for another epic conference championship.”
Man, what I wouldn’t give to see ONE classy comment from a self-proclaimed Zenyatta fan (and non Rachel fan) out there, if only to reinforce my general belief in humanity that normally defines me. Sadly, all I hear so far is “nah-nah-boo-booing”, which while infinitely entertaining for children under the ages of 5, tends to get old to the rest of us pretty fast.
Wow…this far into the article and I’ve barely got to talk about the races themselves.
Zenyatta’s move was remarkable. Much like Odysseus in the Tampa Bay Derby earlier in the day, it looked for a moment when Mike Smith sent her to the inside that the unthinkable was about to repeat itself. She seemed to have nowhere to go. Luckily some room did open up, and she began to extend those amazon-esque strides when she needed to, inhaling everything in her path. In fact, it almost seemed like someone reminded Dance to My Tune (the off-the-charts longshot who would’ve won, had Zenyatta not caught her) that she wasn’t supposed to win.
Amazing performance? You betcha. But, if I can say one thing – Dance to My Tune had not finished in an exacta since 2008. I’m just sayin’ – we’ve seen Zenyatta beat the best before, and this field certainly was one she was supposed to toy with.
Of course, so was Rachel in the New Orleans Ladies. I actually thought, despite the contentious pace setup on paper, that we’d see more of a Mother Goose style performance rating off the pace and then exploding in the turn. Instead it looked like Calvin Borel was fighting her a bit early in an effort to keep her relaxed, and that she simply had nothing in the tank for the final 16th of a mile when she needed it the most.
In other news, as pointed out over on the TVG Community, take a look at these Google results from yesterday.
Anyone doubt that we could “Take Back Saturday” now (if we’d just get our butts in gear)? Temper a bit of the excitement with the fact that the majority of those “NTRA” searches were from folks like yours truly in mad, rabid bids to attempt to access the promised “LIVE streaming video” that the NTRA absolutely choked on delivering. So much so that I actually felt embarrassed for having spent energy broadcasting to folks all over the internet that the live streaming was supposed to be available.
There they were – no doubt in greater numbers than anyone (including me) had anticipated. Real fans – the kind of fans who go out of there way to organize an entire day around the haphazard channel and multi-media surfing we force them into, if only to catch a fleeting glimpse of our future stars. Real fans – ones who don’t need to quantify the validity of their fanship by categorizing the physical reactions of their epidermis in response to unfolding situations on the track, and who aren’t participating in orgies of celebration over the downfall of a perceived foe. Real fans – folks who just love horse racing. We had them – and we failed to deliver.
Alex Waldrop has already issued a public apology on the matter. Look, I know folks will snicker and laugh, but I’m glad he’s done so. The situation was utterly unacceptable and displayed everything that’s been so damn frustrating for those of us that tirelessly try to promote this game. We aren’t paid marketing staff. We aren’t on anyone’s salary list. We work day jobs, raise families, and spend significant portions of our “home time” thinking up ideas to promote the sport and then firing off posts hoping to attract someone from out there in the vast expanse of the internet. And then, just when we’re on the cusp of making a monumental turning point – we’re failed by technology and those who promised us they had our backs.
It’s disheartening – but having met the folks from the NTRA, I’m satisfied that they understand this can never happen again. I know they are racing fans at heart and I’m sure they are angered that this didn’t go off as planned. Alex is a stand-up guy and issuing a public apology to the enraged masses (heck, even I dropped an “f-bomb” about the situation over on Twitter. I’m only human – and I was PISSED) was the right thing to do. He didn’t waste any time in doing so, either – nor did he fill it with political or party-line mumbo jumbo. Just “straight-up”, we screwed up, we apologize, we’ll fix it. I respect that approach. Now let’s just make darn sure we deliver on that promise next time through. NO EXCUSES!
If yesterday taught us anything it’s that we’ve go what it takes to turn some heads with our marquee racing action on a Saturday afternoon. Kudos to the folks behind the Santa Anita operation that actually got the Santa Margarita broadcast LIVE on ESPN News. That was a much needed pick-me-up following the New Orleans Ladies debacle. Remember folks – accessibility/availability is the first and most crucial component towards growing the sport. ”People will come” – but we have to tell them where to go. :)
As for the other races on the day? How ’bout my boy Odysseus!!!
Who wants on the bandwagon now? Left for dead as the field turned for home in the Tampa Bay Derby, somehow he rallied to fight his way into an EPIC photo finish with Schoolyard Dreams. No matter how many times you watch this replay, it still seems unfathomable that he got there – but he did! Suffice to say, he validated my aggressive top 5 placement in our most recent Kentucky Derby rankings, as did Lookin’ at Lucky and Sidney’s Candy (currently my #10 horse). I also thought Interactif looked “hella” good running second behind Sidney’s Candy. We’ll have our updated Kentucky Derby rankings posted shortly.