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2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic: Zenyatta Won Hearts, Sparked Debate

2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic: Zenyatta Won Hearts, Sparked Debate by Reinier Macatangay– Carrying four graded stakes wins in 2009 and nine previous victories, including the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic (GI), to say Zenyatta came into the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) at Santa Anita Park carrying momentum would come across as an understatement. Fans love a perfect record, and she had one.

Breeders' Cup Classic

Carrying four graded stakes wins in 2009 and nine previous victories, including the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic (GI), to say Zenyatta came into the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) at Santa Anita Park carrying momentum would come across as an understatement.
Breeders’ Cup Photo ©

She just had to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic against males, and take Horse of the Year honors for trainer John Shirreffs and owners Mr. and Mrs. Moss, right?

Well, the 2009 Horse of the Year picture looked a little complicated because of another special horse.

The 3-year-old filly Rachel Alexandra picked up wins in the Kentucky Oaks (GI), Preakness Stakes (GI), Mother Goose Stakes (GI), Haskell Invitational (GI) and Woodward Stakes (GI). She then ended her season.

For her part, Zenyatta decided to make the situation difficult for voters with a memorable Classic win. After lagging towards the back under rider Mike Smith, the superstar mare switched outside for the stretch run, passed turf star Gio Ponti and went on to capture the event, becoming the first female racehorse to accomplish the feat.

Fans cried in happiness after the race. Everyone was in awe of what happened. Almost everyone.

This writer tore up his tickets in an off-track betting facility somewhere in Turlock and tried to forget.

Other less strange observers recall the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic as one to cherish forever, and watch over and over again. With YouTube (replay), this is possible.

To give “real” fans a voice in this article, a few of them from a popular Facebook group were asked to give their thoughts on the mare’s historic victory.

The best parts of their replies are pasted below:

“I think this particular BC Classic is special to a lot of people who are strong fans of the mare. I personally don’t consider it that special to me but in all fairness that doesn’t mean it isn’t. She was, and remains, the only female to win the race. That in itself is significant … even if and when another female wins it, Zenyatta will always be the first.”

“What makes it extra memorable to me is the call – ‘Zenyatta has a lot, a lot of ground to make up, Zenyatta, if she wins this she’ll be a superhorse,’ really made the iconic ‘THIS. IS. UN. BE. LIEVABLE!’ even more chills inducing because it was a defining, crowning moment.”

“When Zenyatta won the Classic, I was sixteen, I’d never seen a Triple Crown winner, and I was too young to have remembered Cigar. So it was one of the first races that I knew for sure would be remembered for all time and being able to actually see it as it happened was really special.”

“It’s not often that everything works out the way everyone wants it to. Everyone was pulling for Zenyatta to win that race, and her competition wasn’t garbage either.”

“She wasn’t my favorite when she was racing, but in retrospect I’ve really come to appreciate the cultural icon she was. No other North American racehorse in my lifetime, including Cigar, Skip Away, American Pharoah, captivated the public like her, and that’s an objective fact.”

“I’m from Spain so things could get a little bit complicated when you want to watch the races because sometimes you don’t have the channel or whatever to watch it but I always found a way to watch Zenyatta.”

“She represented beautifully the ‘girl power’ we all talk about that day, and she gave the fans and her connections a thrilling race. One of those races you will never forget.”

While fans of all ages and backgrounds loved her, she connected especially well with younger women, a demographic the horse racing industry will benefit from.

An inevitable Horse of the Year debate ensued, and Rachel Alexandra eventually won the vote 130-99, although for a long period the argument never ended, and people were downright ugly with each other in online forums.

Part of the discussion included the synthetic controversy, and how Zenyatta’s wins should be viewed in light of a surface top-quality dirt horses with speed struggled over. Furthermore, critics dismissed the foes Zenyatta defeated leading up to the Classic, and pointed out the small fields for most of those wins too.

Also, Zenyatta never ran outside of California in 2009, although she almost did. A wet dirt surface at Churchill Downs during the Louisville Distaff (GII) in early May prompted the connections to scratch their undefeated mare.

Besides those points, Rachel Alexandra simply had an incredible year and one deserving of praise.

Nevertheless, Zenyatta won the hearts of the average racing fan, plus created a plethora of new fans who still follow racing today, and those are not unworthy accomplishments. Plus, she made up for the lost 2009 Horse of the Year award by winning Horse of the Year in 2010 (albeit, with disagreement as well since Blame defeated her in the following Classic).

Female horses tried the Breeders’ Cup Classic before the historic 2009 edition, and more will attempt the race going forward past today. As one person pointed out above though, Zenyatta will always be the first.

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