Falling in love with Zenyatta

Updated: April 9, 2010, 3:52 PM ET
By Claire Novak | Special to ESPN.com

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — It is the nature of the sporting world to challenge greatness. One good win demands another. Records are made to be broken.

Tomorrow at Oaklawn Park, a big bay runner will enter the starting gates to answer that call. Her name is Zenyatta, and in the mere moments it takes to circle the Arkansas oval, she will write her next chapter in history.

Five hundred and seventy-two miles away, the filly that beat Zenyatta for honors as 2009 Horse of the Year will stand in a stall at Churchill Downs. Rachel Alexandra could run in Kentucky on the day before the Kentucky Derby. Whether she'll face Zenyatta sometime this season remains to be seen.

The Apple Blossom, Friday's marquee event at Oaklawn, was to have been the race of the century — a purse worth $5 million, a showdown between the two greatest runners of the millennium. Then Rachel Alexandra lost her March 13 prep by three-quarters of a length, owner Jess Jackson called off the showdown, and the $5 million purse reverted to $500,000.

But Zenyatta, victorious in her seasonal debut in the Santa Margarita Handicap, still had the race on her radar. An event she won in 2008, the Grade 1 test for fillies and mares is held at the site of her sole dirt triumph. Her connections count that win among her career best. Unbeaten before or since then, the daughter of Street Cry rides a streak of 15 victories — including one against males in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic last November — into this year's Apple Blossom. Only four other runners, none of which have ever taken a Grade 1 event, will face her in the 1 1/8-miles test. Still, thanks to her appearance Friday and the running of the $1 million Arkansas Derby on Saturday, this weekend at Oaklawn will hold the attention of the racing world.

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It is known as the "Saratoga of the South," tucked away in a valley on the tail end of the Ozark Mountain Range. Surrounded by verdant forests and graced by picturesque Dogwoods now in full bloom, Oaklawn Park rises gracefully off Central Avenue in the center of Hot Springs. The clubhouse bears little resemblance to the red-striped architecture of the upstate New York oval; it is closer to a well-kept Pimlico, vast and cavernous. But the paint is fresh and the surfaces are clean, and they still sell programs in little booths around the first floor with copies of The Daily Racing Form and vibrantly-colored tip sheets.

It has been Oaklawn's good fortune and goal to attract star runners, specifically at the start of their careers, since the track was founded in 1904. In recent years, Curlin, Smarty Jones, Lawyer Ron, Afleet Alex, Summer Bird, and Rachel Alexandra all spent some part of their 3-year-old campaigns here. The list and the legacy goes on.

That factor may draw dedicated racing fans to Oaklawn, but another comes into play: the demographics of the track's location. "Quaint" is how Arkansas natives describe the town of Hot Springs itself, and going to the races anywhere else in the country is often viewed in the same light — a unique experience, something you'd do once or twice per year, as a special occasion. But the success of a racetrack makes perfect sense in Hot Springs, where retirees spend their days tending the lawn and garden, maintaining memberships to local country clubs, and walking down to the post office and the American Legion.

To them, horse racing is as easily recognizable as the other things that are gradually fading to extinction: hand-written letters and Friday evening dinner parties and cash carried in your wallet and hard vinyl 78 records with the shiny center labels — Glenn Miller Masterpieces! The Fabulous King Sisters! The Tommy Dorsey Band! They remember watching through the hedge back when youngsters were prohibited from entering the track (or sneaking in unbeknownst to less-than-vigilant turnstile operators). They remember the days of runners like 1942 Arkansas Derby winner With Regards, '76 winner Elocutionist, '88 winner Proper Reality. They remember when Alydar was beaten by San Juan Hill in the 1979 Oaklawn Handicap. When, in 1950, C.J. Carter's Phaltup captured the last race on the March 7 card to return $350.80 on a $2 ticket, a pari-mutuel record at Oaklawn. Most of all they remember the entertainment and captivation of a trip to the racetrack.

It's a quality that Charles Cella, almighty ruler of Oaklawn, seeks to cultivate at his facility. Grinning up from the pages of the 2010 Media Guide, the 72-year-old owner recounts to veteran writer Don Grisham, "In our advertising program we never encourage anyone to attend Oaklawn on the premise that he or she might win money. Instead, we invite them to attend and have a good time. If they are fortunate enough to pick a number of winners, consider it a bonus … an extra delight."

Racing has been the main focus at Oaklawn throughout the decades, through good times and bad. It is ironic, then, that a $30 million "Instant Racing and Gaming Facility" could essentially go down in history as the savior of the oval. The casino-like addition, which houses blackjack, poker, and video poker, opened in May of 2009 and was completed in January of this season. Its star attraction, an electronic game called "instant racing" based on previously run races, did $250 million in business in 2008 alone — a figure expected to increase now that the machines, 12 installed in 2000, are more plentiful in the gaming center.

Revenue from expanded gaming enabled Cella and his sons, Louis and John, who serve on the track's board of directors, to boost purses to record highs not once, but two times this season. On March 4, purses were increased to $38,000 for maiden special weight races, with no purses lower than $15,500. Less than one month later, they were bumped once again — to $42,000 and $17,500, respectively. Coupled with a participation incentive designed to increase field size, those levels have the potential to swell up to $46,00 and $21,500.

And the positive trends continued to the end of the 54-day meet. On-track handle was up 3 percent to top more than $50 million, while attendance for the season was expected to reach more than 625,000 — an increase of more than 4 percent. Now two days remain, and the racing world looks to one runner to take the season to a perfect close.

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The talk around town, of course, touches on what could have been. The face-off everyone wanted. A 10-horse field instead of five. A fierce competition. The natives scratch their heads and mutter somewhat gloomily about the biggest sporting event — no, the biggest event, period (well, outside of Bill Clinton's election, anyway) — in Arkansas history, and how it slipped away before their eyes, and how now there are the Masters and the return of Tiger Woods and, oh yeah, this horse race, by the way.

Having thoroughly assimilated such vital matters, however, they are inclined to move on. They'll make the best of it. What else are you supposed to do?

What everyone has automatically done, of course, is fall in love with Zenyatta.

"She shows you how to live," Ann Moss said this week. "She's having a good time, she gives her best, and she's having fun. It's a beautiful inspiration for living your life."

What everyone automatically wants to know, of course, is whether a horse exists that can actually beat her. And what they're all saying is that such a runner will not likely enter the starting gates tomorrow.

"Everybody is formidable," owner Jerry Moss said. "Anything can happen in a horse race."

That's what Calvin Borel figures when he sits inside the jockeys' room at Oaklawn, smoking a Marlboro and looking at the Past Performances going into tomorrow's card. Rachel Alexandra's regular rider, he'll be aboard Be Fair in the Apple Blossom — and to be fair, she ran a heck of a race last summer when she nabbed her Grade 3 win, wire to wire in the Lake George at Saratoga. But that was six starts and nine months ago, and the most recent win by a nose in allowance company on March 4 doesn't hold a candle to Zenyatta mowing down the field in a Grade 1 race.

"She's an awesome mare, and I think (on Friday) you're going to see that," Borel said. "It's a little sad because I'd have loved to see Rachel and Zenyatta run together over here, that would have been the race of the century. But one day we'll hook up and when that day happens, believe me, Steve will have Rachel ready."

"Steve" is trainer Steve Asmussen, who saddles War Echo in the Apple Blossom. The race's other entries are Just Jenda, trained by Cindy Jones, and Taptam, trained by Bret Calhoun.

The annals of racing history are replete with runners who attempted various feats — Triple Crown victories, back-to-back triumphs — and failed. That, of course, is why greatness, so elusive, remains so valued. Perfection is celebrated. Odds are, perfection will be celebrated again Friday.

But here is the fresh and exciting and nerve-wracking and nail-biting thing about horse racing: the fact that everything you figure, hope for, dream of, can happen in an instant — and also might not. For champions, there's always the risk of being beaten. For underdogs, there's always a shot at making that happen.

"Until then, there's one thing about me," Borel concludes, and he speaks for every jockey who will take on Zenyatta in her next big race, and for every trainer who will saddle a starter against her in the days to come. "When I go and I ride, I ride to win. So I'm gonna do everything I can do to be there tomorrow, and who knows?

Maybe we'll get lucky."

Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse magazine, the (Albany, N.Y.) Times Union and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.