09 November 2010

Fabulous Losses

Horse racing isn't all about horses; it's all about the finish line.  In some cases, however, the finish line hardly tells the full story.  Two losing efforts stand out in my mind as examples.  In the 1976 Jockey Club Gold Cup, Seattle Slew showed me he was indeed one of the best race horses of all time and in last weekend's Breeders' Cup Classic, Zenyatta crossed the finish line a few inches short and left me wondering how much speed and stamina she actually had.

Both Slew and Zenyatta were clearly running faster than the winners when the finish line ended the race; they both simply ran out of race distance.  However, these two races were vastly different.

In the 1978 race, Exceller's camp had used a legal tactic to bring down Slew; they entered a "rabbit," a horse with great early speed but not capable of going the mile and a half distance to quicken the pace and burn out competitive horses like Slew and Affirmed, the other Triple Crown Winner entered in the race.  The plan worked.  Hall of Fame distance horse Exceller won, but not by much. 

Despite having gone most of the race in blistering fractions, Slew dug deep and battled back to the surprise of most knowledgeable watchers, me included.  Passed by the great Exceller, Slew didn't fold.  Switching his tail in exhaustion, Slew drew on what horse people call "heart," and dug in for a final drive that, like Zenyatta's, carried him in front of his rival just a few strides too late.   

These two losses, however, were vastly different.  While Slew was set up and responded with Spartan determination and effort, Zenyatta lost simply because of racing luck and her heart-stopping racing style.  Running from behind is not an easy style.  Statistically, racing from the front or near the front produces far more winning efforts. 

Mike Smith nobly took responsibility for her loss, but what happened is intrinsic in the late run style.  Here, unfortunately for Zenyatta and her fans, the field split into two groups, carrying her way too far back for a stretch run.  Considering her utterly dismal first quarter and the circumstances that put her something like twenty lengths back, her second place finish was in itself astonishing.  For me though, the major difference between these two losses was that it didn't look like Zenyatta was running all that hard.  

This stretch photo shows Zenyatta wearing her usual, relaxed, floppy-eared expression as she was gaining on Blame.  On the other hand, Blame was the one that had dug in.  He was the one with the switching tail.  He was the one with his ears pinned in determination.  He was the one showing what horsemen call "grit."  The mare was eating up ground, suggesting that Smith was not exaggerating when he said he a lot of horse left.  This photo shows that.  She looks like a horse doing her usual job of running down the front horse in the last few hundred yards.  Nothing special.

Unfortunately, races are absolutes.  Style counts for nothing--except maybe in the hearts of horsemen who like horses more than horse racing.

Here are links to both these races:

1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup

2010 Breeders' Cup Classic