Famed Filly Zenyatta A Nose Short In Final Race

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After 19 consecutive wins, horse racing's star Zenyatta came up a head short at the Breeders' Cup on Saturday. Still, Zenyatta has been called one of the greatest fillies who ever raced. The Washington Post's Andy Beyer talks about Zenyatta's untimely loss and the future of the American horse racing industry.

NEAL CONAN, host:

Last week, the great thoroughbred Zenyatta ran for history. In her last race, she put her 19-race winning streak on the line against the best males in the world in the Breeders' Cup Classic. As usual, the big mare broke slowly out of the gate and seemed to be impossibly far behind before her patented late charge.

(Soundbite of Breeders' Cup)

Mr. TREVOR DENMAN (Race Track Announcer, ESPN): Zenyatta on the outside. Lookin At Lucky. Blame. Zenyatta, Zenyatta, Zenyatta and Blame, Blame trying to hold on. Blame and Zenyatta. Blame has won it. Zenyatta ran her heart out but had to settle for second.

CONAN: She came up maybe a stride short. Trevor Denman with the call on ESPN. If you watched the race and have questions about her jockey's tactics or about the legacy of Zenyatta, give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Andy Beyer writes about horseracing from time to time in The Washington Post. He created the Beyer Speed Figures you see in the daily racing form and joins us today from his home in Washington. Nice to have you back, Andy.

Mr. ANDY BEYER (Horseracing Columnist, The Washington Post): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: And jockey Mike Smith minced no words, blaming himself for waiting too long to make the charge.

Mr. BEYER: Oh, he was too hard on himself. I don't think that there was any real excuse for Zenyatta, and I wouldn't second-guess his ride at all. I mean, that's her style. She always comes from far behind. And, you know, I mean, any time a horse rallies and just misses, you could always say, gee, the jockey should have moved sooner. I mean...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BEYER: ...you know, it doesn't work that way. She just wasn't quite quick enough and - but she just got beaten fair and square.

CONAN: That's a bit of a cavalry charge, too, 12 horses in the field.

Mr. BEYER: Right. A horse with that style is always going to have some kind of an issue. If the horse tries to save grand and get through on - toward the inside, he or she is going to, you know, have to pick her way through traffic. If you try to circle the field, you're going to lose ground. You know, being a slow, late-running horse just has some built-in disadvantages. I mean, it's a remarkable achievement that with that style, Zenyatta won 19 races in a row, but, you know, on dirt and against top-level competition, it's a lot harder to do.

CONAN: On dirt, what was the significance of that?

Mr. BEYER: Well, she had ran 17 of her career races on synthetic racetracks in California that - whose nature is fundamentally different from dirt, that racing on the synthetic tracks gives much less of an advantage to speed horses to front-running types than dirt does. And it tends to favor horses with, you know, Zenyatta's late-running style. So she was - she had won twice on the dirt against fillies, against lesser competition, but this was a different game from the one she'd been playing in California.

CONAN: On the other hand, she had also beaten the boys in this race last year?

Mr. BEYER: She had, but that was on her home track, on a synthetic surface. And I think, you know, I felt coming into this race, you know, that she was probably going to be up against trying to make the transition to dirt and, you know, with her style.

Mr. BEYER: She is - got, obviously, that electric style, but also a lot of personality. People really took to her.

Mr. BEYER: She does. She, you know, she really has a presence about her. I mean, she's big. She's got a - you know, she's got a personality. She's a ham. You know, after a win, something - you know, her jockey, Mike Smith, would take her in front of the grandstand and she would just kind of, like, bow to the crowd. You know, people loved her.

CONAN: You talked about her legacy. If she had won that race, would she have deserved to be considered among the very greats of all time?

Mr. BEYER: No. You know, when she was winning those 19 races in a row, a lot of people had extrapolated from her ability to, you know, to make these rallies and always get up at the wire, that she could win anything, that she would have been capable of beating the, you know, the best horses who ever lived. This race put her abilities in proper perspective. It was - you know, it was obviously a very good race. But she's approximately as good as the winner, Blame, you know, who, you know, who beat her in a photo finish. And no, I don't think, you know, anyone would reasonably put Blame on a list of the top 100 horses of all time. So I think that it is proper to rank her as maybe the best or, you know, nearly the best female horse that the U.S. has ever seen. But she doesn't rate up there with the greatest males.

CONAN: So up there with the Ruffians and the Rachel Alexandras of the world?

Mr. BEYER: Yes. I mean, you can make - I mean, you could make an argument - an unresolvable argument either way. I mean, personally, I think that Rachel Alexandra, in her top form of last season, would have beaten Zenyatta. But the Zenyatta fans are equally adamant on the subject. We'll never know that answer.

CONAN: Well, I saw Ruffian run in - barring injury, I was - I loved her. Came again - you never saw that so often on a horse's form, came again - in other words, was passed and then went back and took the lead.

Mr. BEYER: Right. And just in the terms of raw speed, I mean, Ruffian was probably the most gifted of all the fillies and mares. But, you know, she didn't beat males the way, you know, Zenyatta and Rachel did. So it's not an argument we're ever going to get a good answer to.

CONAN: Well, it's a nice to have it with you, Andy. Let's get some callers in on the argument. Bo's calling from Russellville, Arkansas.

BO (Caller): Yes. Can you hear me?

CONAN: Yes. You're on the air. Go ahead.

BO: Thank you. I've been following racing for about 40 years. And when I was 14 years old, Secretariat was in his three-year-old year, and he was like my Peyton Manning. So - and on a good day, I think he was the best ever. But I don't think the loss Saturday should diminish Zenyatta at all. I mean, she came from so far back against a tremendous field, and she almost got it done. So I think that she deserves a place in history, even though, you know, on - maybe on her best day, she's not as good as another horse, but she's awful good. And I tell you, it's really hard at grade-one level to win 19 races in a row.

CONAN: Grade-one level, that's the very top level in horseracing. And, of course, the Breeders' Cup Classic, I guess, Andy, at the very top of that.

Mr. BEYER: That's correct. And I am not putting Zenyatta down. I'm just saying that the race yesterday - whether she won by a nose or lost by a head, you know, that pretty much defined how good she is. And she's a terrific mare. She's no Secretariat.

CONAN: Bo, thanks very much for the call. As a member of the horseracing industry, writes Emily in Cincinnati, I just wanted to know if Andy thinks there's any chance, now that she's lost and has nothing left to prove, that the Mosses will give her a chance to redemption and consider heading to Dubai for the World Cup?

Mr. BEYER: You know, I doubt it. I mean, she is at the end of her six-year-old season. You know, and regrettably, you know, the Mosses and trainer, John Shirreffs have been so conservative in their management of Zenyatta that they -you know, they haven't - you know, for whatever reason, they haven't taken on, you know, on many - you know, many adventuresome challenges, you know, except for the, you know, the two starts and the Breeders' Cup this year and last. So it would be - I think it would be a little out of character for them. And I just don't see it happening to - with her as a seven-year-old.

CONAN: Don's on the line, calling from Milltown in Maryland.

DON (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead.

DON: It's a pleasure to be on the air with Andy Beyer, and you, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DON: I think no matter what happened in that race, with all the fanfare and so forth that's been going on over the last two years, that it's done a great deal for our sport. It's a dying sport in a lot of people's eyes, and I'm afraid that - my home track happens to be Charleston, West Virginia. And if I see a horse that's won three in a row, that's quite a phenomenon. Winning 19 in a row is quite an accomplishment, even if you're talking about Peppers Pride, who raced only against the New Mexico breeds. But I thought it was phenomenal. I thought it was interesting last year when the Eclipse Awards came around between Rachel and Zenyatta. And I think - also, I really enjoyed you, Andrew. I think you must have done well Friday. Your comments in the (unintelligible) were nice.

CONAN: The Eclipse Award, by the way, for the best horses of the year - horses, fillies and colts. Andy Beyer, we were lucky to see her.

Mr. BEYER: Yes. And, you know, she really captured people's imagination. You know, I was in California for her final race out there. And - you know, the - I mean, there was just, you know, an electricity, you know, that, you know, ran through the whole racetrack. You know, and the same was true of Rachel Alexandra last year.

You know, some of - I mean, her races, you know, rank as some of the most exciting that I've ever seen. So I think that both of them have shown that, you know, I mean, horseracing still has a pulse, I mean, that, you know, great horses and great races really, you know, really can, you know, get, you know, not only hardcore fans, but, you know, the average general sports fan really captivated. I wish we had more like them.

CONAN: Don, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

DON: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Andy Beyer about Zenyatta and horseracing. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And Andy, Don called from Maryland, where he said it seems his sport is dying. I wanted to ask you about another piece you wrote: After a little-noticed -outside the state of Maryland, anyway - a little-noticed result in last Tuesday's elections, where the county of Anne Arundel voted to approve a slots casino at a mall, effectively barring it from the racetrack, Laurel, and pretty much, well, transforming the horseracing industry in the state of Maryland.

Mr. BEYER: Well, it's - I mean, this is a tough time for the horseracing business. And a lot of racetracks are, you know, are in a position that, you know, that they feel they can't make money or even survive, you know, without revenue from slot machines. And that is certainly the case at Laurel. The - you know, I mean, business has really dwindled there. It's a money-losing operation. And, I mean, it's not that their fate is - was strictly the victim of bad luck. The track has been the victim of a lot of bad management and bad decisions over the years.

But, you know, they're not a viable operation anymore. Now, Pimlico is because of the Preakness. And so what is probably going to happen is that Laurel will shut down. They'll just have a simulcast facility on that site, and Maryland racing will be shrunk to probably like a two-month meeting at Pimlico that surrounds the Preakness. I mean, it's sad, but, I mean, it is just a fact of life of modern racing that there are a lot of tracks that aren't viable anymore.

CONAN: If New York and California were the major leagues of horseracing, and just a few years ago, Maryland was AA or AAA.

Mr. BEYER: It certainly was. I mean, Laurel has a 99-year history. I mean, there was a, you know, a time when the - when Laurel's great race, the Washington, D.C. International, was known around the world. They had two-year-old races that got, you know, great horses like Secretariat, you know, came to Laurel to run in the fall. And, you know, but the - there's just more competition from other tracks, from other forms of gambling. And just a lot of these once-thriving mid-level tracks and even once-thriving upper-level tracks just can't compete anymore.

CONAN: Let's get one last caller in. This is Sandy(ph), Sandy with us from Columbia, Maryland.

SANDY: Yes. My brother is really the aficionado of racing. He co-owns a number of horses, but - so I got interested because of him and saw Secretariat run his three races to get his Triple Crown. But I don't think I've ever been as excited as watching Zenyatta race her races. And if she'd had two more strides, she would have won.

CONAN: I think maybe one more stride, she would've won. But...

SANDY: Right.

CONAN: ...it was awfully close. She put up a game effort. It was certainly not for want of trying.

SANDY: No. And that's why - I think that's why she's so loved. And I think that women are absolutely behind her because she's so big, she's so flashy and she comes from behind. And right on that stretch, it's just amazing.

CONAN: Plays the same game that was played by the great Cigar or Forego back in the day.

SANDY: Right.

Mr. BEYER: Right. People - you know, racing fans love, you know, two aspects of this game that - Zenyatta embodied one: You know, females racing against males always...

SANDY: Right.

Mr. BEYER: ...excite the racing public. And horses with that style who come from a mile behind, you know, there's nothing more exciting. So she put them together, and people loved it.

CONAN: Sandy, thanks very much for the call. And Andy Beyer, as always, thanks for your time.

Mr. BEYER: Good to talk to you, Neal. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Andy Beyer writes about horseracing from time to time in The Washington Post.

Tomorrow, NPR's Laura Sullivan on her two-part investigation on how Arizona's controversial immigration law was written.

This is NPR News.

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