MIAMI BEACH, FL -- Ann Moss came to the Eclipse Awards at the Fontainebleau Hotel with a small golden object clutched in the palm of her thin left hand. It was a shiny circular foal tag, the kind placed upon halters to identify young thoroughbreds. Simply, it read, "Zenyatta."
In the moments before the Horse of the Year announcement was made on Monday, Moss held onto that tag and to the hand of her husband, Jerry Moss, and together they hoped that their 6-year-old mare would not be denied the sport's top honor as she was in 2008 and 2009.
Third time's the charm.
Honestly, I was a little worried about it. That's one of the things about racing, you win some and you lose some and you want to win the big ones. Now we did.
”-- Jerry Moss, Zenyatta's owner
With five Grade 1 victories in 2010 and an unbeaten 19-race streak that was ended by a head loss to Blame in the Breeders' Cup Classic, Zenyatta, at 6 years old, became the oldest Thoroughbred to win the title since Cigar in 1996. It was the second year in a row that a female runner was selected Horse of the Year. When the announcement was made, a collective shout rang out through the entire ballroom as the attendees sprang to their feet in a standing ovation.
"It's a thrill for her and for us; it's a great big award, a huge thing, historic, and she's worthy," Jerry Moss said. "Honestly, I was a little worried about it. That's one of the things about racing, you win some and you lose some and you want to win the big ones. Now we did."
"Such joy, she's given us so many thrills, she so deserves this, and I think it's a real big vote for the future," Ann Moss told reporters after receiving the award. "We think she's going to pass on her greatness, she continues to inspire."
Zenyatta, who was retired to Lane's End Farm after the Breeders' Cup, has settled in well to her new life as a future broodmare. Moss said an announcement regarding which stallion she will be mated with could be made as early as next week.
The sting of losing the highly debated Horse of the Year honor was most assuredly felt by Blame's co-owner, Seth Hancock, whose Claiborne Farm received an Eclipse Award of Merit and for whom, along with Adele Dilschneider, Blame earned an Eclipse Award as Outstanding Older Male earlier in the night. Hancock left Al Stall Jr. to do most of the talking with members of the media following the awards ceremony, and while the trainer diplomatically praised Zenyatta, he did nothing to take away from his colt, the only runner to ever defeat her.
"We did what we could do, we did everything asked of us," Stall said. "Of course you'd like to win something like that, but it doesn't always work out. They did an excellent job, you've gotta give Moss credit for bringing her back as a 6-year-old. I'd have to say she'd have been a big favorite to win this award, that's what we thought coming in.
"If Blame had come back and run two more years, being the good horse and the sound horse that he is, he might be every bit as popular, but you deal with a male [retiring to stud] and this game doesn't work that way. He ran his race every time, really, he had that demeanor around the barn that was very peaceful and on the racetrack he was a killer. I hope he'll take that to his next career. I read a lot of articles saying, 'Nobody's going to know who Blame is in 20 years,' but I really beg to differ. In four or five years [when his runners hit the track], I think people will know who Blame is."
The award was no walkover: 128 voters chose Zenyatta, 102 selected Blame. There were five votes for Goldikova (who was named Female Turf Horse), one abstention, and two "no votes" that were not counted. But the overwhelming sentiment of those in attendance was that the big bay mare deserved the honor 100 percent, not only for her accomplishments on the racetrack but for the vast amounts of attention she drew to the sport.
"It's so great that the people around the world got to know her a little bit and got to know what we do here," Jerry Moss explained. "[Horse racing is] such a niche on the sports network, and the fact that she transcended all that, tripled the ratings and people were interested -- she was a crossover hit, a big crossover hit."
Perhaps jockey Mike Smith summed up the feelings of "Team Zenyatta" the best with his brief but ebullient statement.
You know, that last [race] was a tough one to take, so to go ahead and pull this off vindicated it. Everything's fine now.
”-- Jockey Mike Smith
"I just really believed," he said. "I tried not to think too much, I just wanted to hear her name called. And when I heard it started with a 'Z,' man, I was already making my way up there. This makes everything OK. You know, that last [race] was a tough one to take, so to go ahead and pull this off vindicated it. Everything's fine now. That's pretty much it."
Zenyatta's Horse of the Year award capped an evening when the common theme was appreciation for the fans and the great runners the sport had seen in 2010.
"We've been remarkably blessed and on a remarkable ride for the last three years and we can't thank everybody enough, especially her fans," Jerry Moss said when accepting a Special Eclipse earlier in the evening. "To the 45,000 people that showed up on Friday at Oaklawn Park, to the biggest Vanity [Handicap] crowd I think in 10 years at Hollywood Park what she did for TV ratings and all the letters and postcards and photos and trophies and things we get every day from people all over the world -- we've gotta thank these fans. Zenyatta has left the track, but I hope as an industry we can keep them we have to welcome them, we cannot turn them away."
Owner Mike Repole started the trend while accepting 2-Year-Old Male championship honors for his Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Uncle Mo, now the early favorite for the 2011 Kentucky Derby.
"I want to thank the fans, who are the backbone of the racing industry," Repole said. "You're the backbone of the industry, and without you there would be no sport. I'm a racing fan who owns racehorses, and we have to do more to make the horses accessible. I promise you, if Uncle Mo lives up to my expectations, he will live up to yours."
Todd Pletcher accepted his fifth Eclipse Award as Outstanding Trainer, thanking the owners.
"The racing fans are obviously the backbone of our racing industry and then for a great trainer the lifeblood of what we do is the owners," Pletcher said. "We've been really blessed, we've had a tremendous backing. Without these people there are no Uncle Mos, no Quality Roads, no Super Savers, no opportunities like that."
And co-owner Dr. Mark Dedominico, who accepted 3-Year-Old Filly honors for Blind Luck, thanked his fellow industry members for sticking with the sport for another year.
"As we look out over this audience and [think of] the audiences at home listening to this broadcast, every one of you deserve an award for sticking through this year, this economy, and this racing season," he said.
But the most inspiring quote for those looking forward to 2011 came from longtime racing owner and sportswoman Marylou Whitney, who accepted an Eclipse Award of Merit and was honored with multiple standing ovations for her many contributions to the sport.
"Racing is not just about betting," Whitney said. "The beauty, the pageantry and the flair are what separate our sport from any other. As we look to the future, we must also pass on the passion and excitement of the sport to the next generation. It is our obligation."
Complete Eclipse Award Results
2-Year-Old Male: Uncle Mo
2-Year-Old Filly: Awesome Feather
3-Year-Old Male: Lookin At Lucky
3-Year-Old Filly: Blind Luck
Older Male: Blame
Older Female: Zenyatta
Female Sprinter: Dubai Majesty
Male Sprinter: Big Drama
Male Turf Horse: Gio Ponti
Female Turf Horse: Goldikova
Steeplechase Horse: Slip Away
Owner: WinStar Farm
Breeder: Adena Springs
Jockey: Ramon Dominguez
Apprentice Jockey: Omar Moreno
Trainer: Todd Pletcher
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the Thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.