Vic Zast

From the perspective of being an owner, an industry pioneer in corporate sponsorship, a track president and fan, Vic Zast writes the "Destinations" column for The Blood-Horse. His five-star ratings of international events have shed light on racing in all corners of the globe - from England, Australia, Hong Kong, Dubai to Japan.

Vic is a regular contributor to, a columnist for the Illinois Racing News and has written on racing for, National Public radio and The Age, Australia's leading daily.

Vic makes his home in Chicago and lives in Saratoga Springs in August.

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Monday, November 15, 2010

Psycho Talk

(CHICAGO, IL – November 15, 2010) For the better part of the past five years, ever since an ill-fated Kentucky Derby winner broke crookedly from the starting gate at Pimlico, the dialogue within Thoroughbred horse racing has been communicated in a zealot vernacular.

This remark will not sit well with the outspoken legions of devoted followers of Barbaro, Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta; they believe what they’ve said has been sensibly objective. Yet, aside from the dull and persistent insider topics pertaining to takeout, integrity and synthetic tracks, just about all other recent talk has focused on the three charismatic, and somewhat polarizing, horses. And the talk of their exploits, in the main, has reflected an obsessive character.

“Internuts” have dominated the idiom. When Barbaro was sent to surgery, they kept watch of his hospice on the blog sites like guard dogs at the gates of a cemetery at midnight. When the filly Rachel Alexandra concluded her magical three-year-old season, they crowned her the Horse of the Year nearly five months before the balloting took place. The verbal jousting between forces over whether it was Rachel Alexandra’s owner or Zenyatta’s, who prevented the horses from facing off, was amusing and testy.

An inordinate amount of insults demurred to turf writers who dared mention, albeit well intentionally, that Barbaro’s plight was futile from the start. Assumptions of bias were quickly ascribed to anyone who noted that Zenyatta was cautiously campaigned, although that’s clearly the case. In some quarters, the over-promotion of these genuinely admirable competitors produced the reverse effect of what was intended. Undoubtedly, there’s a current of ridicule among writers for readers unwilling to stare facts in the face. Don’t expect anyone to admit it.

Turf writer Bill Nack treaded carefully to address the circumstances in a segment he wrote and narrated for the Breeders’ Cup telecast. Before presenting a litany of knocks against Zenyatta, the author of Big Red of Meadow Stable, no stranger to hero worship, said in one of several well-crafted videos, “There are her doubters aplenty too – those who risk the obvious open hostility of her followers for simply pointing out the obvious.” In comparing Zenyatta to Seattle Slew, Personal Ensign, Cigar, Affirmed/Alydar and Sunday Silence/Easy Goer, Nack also intoned, “Very few horses in racing history have commanded a following as fiercely loyal, passionate and even zealous as Zenyatta. Indeed, in such a way, she’s a phenomenon nearly unique to the sport.” But, enough from the amateur psychologists.

Wendi Gardner, an associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University, believes that the over-the-top fan worship for Zenyatta has to do with belonging. She believes that the Zenyatta fans may have attached to a group and are finding identity within the group. They are, as a matter of fact, not dissimilar from faithful TV viewers who become attached to the characters of a popular show such as Friends, for which the audience would live and die with each challenge that the cast faced.

“Getting devoted either to a person or character, or in this case an animal, is a fairly common phenomenon. It’s called parasocial attachment,” Gardner explained in a telephone interview. When asked why the fans of the once-beaten mare often overstepped the facts when defending Zenyatta, Gardner answered, “We, as humans, throw out logic when evaluating, protecting or defending those we love.” About the insults the Zeniacs lob at people with dissimilar opinions, she then added, “Even though this seems to make no sense because these people have no real relationship with this horse in any way, their emotional attachment to the horse, like you’d have for a child, would explain the over-emotional protection they display in their behavior.”

Gardner further noted that Americans, in particular, love an underdog, and suggested, perhaps, that Barbaro, Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta are underdog archetypes. To wit, the tag can be easily applied to Barbaro – an injured horse that fought for his life against the odds; Rachel Alexandra – a female horse that took on male horses regularly and Zenyatta – a standard-bearer for West Coast racing that excelled despite East Coast detractors.

A reason seldom expressed for why these horses are so revered is that they seemed to possess human traits. Barbaro, upon occasioning trauma, transformed himself from a non-thinking animal to a sensible hospital patient. In holding off Macho Again, Rachel Alexandra exhibited the persistence of the goddess Selene and the daring of Amelia Earhart. Zenyatta pranced to her appointments like a prima ballerina, with an emphasis on prima. She pawed the ground, turned her gaze to her fans and exhibited a showgirl’s personality in the paddock and post parade. By channeling a human dimension, the three horses became subjects of hyperbole.

For purely selfish reasons, the sport loved the chaos. Those were pink and green mass-produced signs that the fans held for cameras. The Breeders’ Cup and NTRA rode the wave of hysteria to effective results – ratings climbed, attendance soared and the sport received rock star attention. In becoming an avatar of unrealized dreams, Zenyatta ascends now to the status of an idol that even life’s losers relate to. There was no risk to having her run in the Classic. Horse racing would come out of top no matter the outcome.

Two weeks into the Breeders’ Cup aftermath, Zenyatta’s tale grows. Her fans won’t give in to defeat; their adoration for her seems unshakable. Can you imagine what might happen if Jerry and Ann Moss don’t say “no mas” and decide to campaign the beloved mare longer?

On the other hand, if Zenyatta is retired as expected, sometime after the crocus bloom, at a point after the embers of debate over Horse of the Year honors appear reasonably doused, the balance of power among the fan base as currently constructed will return to its natural state – a state of day-in, day-out stasis. No horse on the horizon seems suited to replace the fervent, irrational and fun draw of those gone. There’d be peace. But we’d be in for a dull spell.

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Written by Vic Zast

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