Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Zenyatta At Last
LOS ANGELES, January 18, 2011--The night of the Eclipse Awards belonged to two old broads--Marylou Whitney, a latter-day unsinkable Molly Brown, and Zenyatta, who in case you haven't been paying attention is a horse. Marylou, probably richer than the Queen of England, was 85 the day before Christmas, and Zenyatta, who has a few bucks herself, turned 7 on New Year's day, which is getting up there in the hippic world. They both got Eclipse Awards that were a long time coming, Zenyatta's for Horse of the Year and Whitney's for lifetime contributions to the sport. Tears of joy followed the woman and the horse's handlers around a banquet room in the fancy-schmancy Miami Beach hotel.
They stood and cheered when Whitney delivered her acceptance speech, and they stood and cheered again when Jerry Moss and his wife Ann accepted the elusive mounted gold-plated horse on behalf of their brilliant racemare. Zenyatta had won all 19 of her races before inches separated her from an undefeated career in the Breeders' Cup, and there were voters, dozens of them, who reckoned that that was enough to deprive her of the championship. A year ago, a win in the same race hadn't been enough to catapult Zenyatta into the throne room, and her legions of supporters--58,000 alone on Facebook, according to the New York Times--were girding for another disappointment this time. But the final vote was Zenyatta 128, Blame 102, and for the third straight year the winner of the Breeders' Cup's $5-million race didn't capture the title. There must be something about lucre that's a turnoff for Eclipse voters.
For many voters, a ballot for Zenyatta was a vote that made certain she wouldn't become The Best Horse Never To Be Horse of the Year. There are usually some strange results in a breakdown of the Eclipse voting, and the Horse of the Year totals bore this out. One voter abstained, and two cast no vote at all. The remaining five votes went to Goldikova, the French mare who's come to the U.S. and won the Breeders' Cup Mile three straight years.
Zenyatta was probably asleep in her stall, at Lane's End Farm in Kentucky, when the news of her conquest broke in South Florida. Even the tabloids haven't been able to root out the identity of her first suitor in the breeding shed. At the dinner, the Mosses said nothing about pitching woo, but the announcement is imminent, because the optimum breeding month is February, which allows for the standard 11-month pregnancy and a foaling in January. If the newborn amounts to anything, in theory he or she will be as fully matured as the rest of the early foals who make it to the Kentucky Derby. There are rumors that the Mosses are dickering to breed to A.P. Indy, another Horse of the Year, whose advertised stud fee is $150,000. If it happens, that romance would be a May-to-September affair. A.P. Indy is 22 if he's a day.
Standing next to Marylou Whitney as she made her speech was her husband, 40 years her junior. Her late husband, the tycoon C.V. "Sunny" Whitney, received a similar Eclipse 26 years ago. As the song went, I remember it well. That was the night we were up against a tight deadline, and Whitney began his speech about how he had founded Pan American airlines in 1928. By the time he moved along to 1984, and they subsequently made the Horse of the Year announcement, readers of the Los Angeles Times were assured that they weren't going to read about John Henry's title in the next morning's paper.
"My husband introduced me to this sport in 1958," said Marylou Whitney, who has recovered from a stroke she suffered a few years ago. "These horses have given me much more than I could ever give them. I feel most alive when I am around my horses. They are my family." She also spoke of fighting "to insure that there will never be another horse slaughter in America," and caring for backstretch workers so they can "improve their lives" and "we can improve their dignity."
A year ago, at the dinner in California, Jerry and Ann Moss sat at their table in stunned silence when it was announced that Zenyatta had been outvoted by Rachel Alexandra, whose record was impeccable but whose owner kept her out of the Breeders' Cup. This time, the Mosses kissed and hugged at their table before heading for the stage. Jerry Moss collected himself, thanked everybody in the room but the busboys, and eventually read a poignant passage that was written by Priscilla Clark, who runs a sanctuary for retired horses in California.
Behind the Mosses on the stage was Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs. Both she and her men have had no small part in the Zenyatta phenomenon. Dottie has been the Mosses' racing manager for 25 years; her husband John Shirreffs trained Zenyatta; and her son, David Ingordo, was able to buy Zenyatta for the Mosses for the relative chump change of $60,000. At the auction, the unnamed, unraced filly had scared away several bidders because of a bad rash.
At the farm, Zenyatta got over her rash, was broken and was introduced to the clock, the measure of all fledgling racehorses. "You better get a good name for this one," somebody said. "Because either this one is very, very fast or else we've got a farm full of very slow horses."
When Zenyatta's name was called out in Florida, a look of relief filled Mike Smith's face. Smith was the jockey who rode for the last 16 of Zenyatta's 19 wins, but after the Breeders' Cup he was pilloried in some quarters for a faulty ride. Smith had been hard on himself for that ride, and with Zanyatta's racing career over, there was only one absolution possible. "After she got beat, this makes everything okay," Smith said. "Now I'm fine."