February 24, 2024
Garrett Gomez riding Blame, right, beats Mike Smith riding Zenyatta to win the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic.

Garrett Gomez riding Blame, right, beats Mike Smith riding Zenyatta to win the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.

(Morry Gash / Associated Press)

Even when the Mosses decided to run Zenyatta into her sixth year, there was no certainty that that would include another run against the boys in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Only Tiznow had won twice, and Zenyatta was the only female winner then (and now). But Shirreffs had prepared her carefully and logically from race to race and soon it was obvious she was going to give it another try.

This would be her last race. She would finish her career with a 20-0 record if she won again. It was unthinkable: a six-year-old mare, who always let the field get way ahead, who would be facing yet another field of male maulers and doing so on a track that was unfamiliar, and at a twilight starting time in the East that would present her with unfamiliarity and a strange feel. It made little sense to the by-the-book guys on the backstretch.

Zenyatta was by no means a lucky gift to a lucky trainer. Shirreffs was a veteran who already had his share of big moments in racing, including Giacomo’s win at 50-1 odds in the 2005 Kentucky Derby. Smith rode Giacomo that day.

But this wasn’t a Triple Crown race. It was bigger.

While Shirreffs found his quiet spot to watch, Smith was struggling. He had already witnessed her go through a bit of an ordeal in the saddling paddock. It was more crowded than she was used to, even noisier than Santa Anita before big races. She did more dance steps than usual, doing her so-called “Spanish Walk” that had endeared her to so many fans. She almost always danced in the paddock before a race, and lots of times afterward. But Smith knew that at least some of this dancing was nerves, and she seemed to have lots of them this day. His fears appeared to be accurate as the race began.

“She started late,” Smith said, stating the obvious. “She just wasn’t comfortable.”

Garrett Gomez, right, rides Blame to victory ahead of second-place finisher Zenyatta in the 2010 Breeders Cup Classic.

Garrett Gomez, right, rides Blame to victory ahead of second-place finisher Zenyatta in the 2010 Breeders Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.

(David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

“I was waiting for her, expecting her. I could sense she was coming.”

— Garrett Gomez, jockey atop of Blame, which finished just ahead of Zenyatta to win the 2010 Breeders’ Cup

With a half a mile to go, she was 15 lengths back.

Shirreffs saw it, too.

“The light was different than she had ever experienced,” he said. “You never know what will affect a horse. And the field had split into two packs and she was running behind the second pack. I wondered if she thought that was the lead pack and she had plenty of time to go get it.”

Smith said, “I couldn’t get her closer. She just wasn’t comfortable. I even thought, if she didn’t find herself soon, I might just pull her up.”

Then, just as she stated to find her stride, Quality Road (remember him?) stopped in front of her and Smith had to pull up Zenyatta, take her around and regain momentum.

But suddenly, the long and determined stride was there and the crowd of Kentuckians were about to see first-hand the Zenyatta show about which they had heard so much.

On the rail, a Kentucky-bred horse named Blame, ridden by veteran California jockey Garrett Gomez, a friend of Smith’s, had the lead. Gomez said afterward that he had seen so much of Zenyatta and raced against her enough to know that he needed to have Blame save a little for her final dash.

“I was waiting for her, expecting her,” Gomez said after the race. “I could sense she was coming.”

So she was. Smith had a tight grip and was urging her, almost in desperation. She was once clocked in a home-stretch dash at 40 miles an hour. Smith said after one of her mad-dash victories at Del Mar, that she was going so fast he felt the skin on his face peel back, like an astronaut on re-entry.

But this time, one horse in the frantic finish was not just hanging on. Gomez had made sure Blame had something left. And so Zenyatta’s final sprint finally failed. This time by a neck, so close that many thought she had won.

Afterward, Smith was in tears, blaming himself for not getting her started in time. Gomez was apologetic, saying he wished it had been a different rider that wrecked the 20-0. Shirreffs was a bit amazed, saying that in the post-race test barn, the other horses were clearly exhausted, but Zenyatta was perky, playful, with her head held high.

“She recovered so fast,” Shirreffs said. “That made me feel a lot better.”

It was over. Zenyatta finished with a record of 19-1, total winnings of $7,304,580 and a fan base that arguable was the largest and most loyal since Secretariat and Seabiscuit.

A bit surprisingly, the on-site celebration of the victory by a Kentucky horse at a Kentucky track was not as raucous as might be expected. When it was clear that the sport’s queen had not quite pulled it off, that her one final streak to immortality had failed by the length of a yardstick, a quiet, almost a pall, fell over the place.

Jay Hovdey of the Racing Form captured the mood nicely in his story the next day: “There is no joy in Louisville. Mighty Zenyatta got beat in her last at-bat.”

The next morning’s edition of the Louisville Courier Journal said it even better, whether intentional or not. The headline read: BLAME THE WINNER.

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