LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Her coat is thicker now, fuzzy with the changing seasons and with winter coming on. Days shorten and temperatures dip at night across the bluegrass. The foal inside her rounding belly grows.
Twelve short months ago, Zenyatta went charging down a sandy strip at Churchill Downs in the race of her life, an unprecedented bid to repeat her historic score in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Her incredible run from far behind the field on that cold November evening was not quick enough to catch a gusty colt named Blame -- but their performances resulted in Eclipse Awards, with Blame earning Champion Older Horse and Zenyatta taking home honors as Champion Older Female and the 2010 Horse of the Year.
Racing fans recall the buildup to that showdown, the duel beneath the lights, the announcer's frantic call as he himself urged them on -- "Zenyatta, Zenyatta, Blame and Zenyattaaaa!" -- as if it were yesterday. They remember debating over which was the better runner after Blame came out ahead by a nose, and some of them drove from across the country -- from Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Colorado, New York -- to visit the two before they were sent off to retirement safe and sound, Zenyatta with a special ceremony at Keeneland and a record of 19 wins, just one loss.
Here at Churchill as the 2011 Breeders' Cup approaches, there's no shortage of buzz around current Classic contenders. But memories of last year's two top finishers are still alive and well, as are the horses that made history. Even in retirement, Zenyatta and Blame continue to impact the sport of thoroughbred racing. They will for generations to come.
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Blame still gets letters. Stallion handler Kevin Lay keeps one tucked up in the visor of his pickup, a note from a little girl, you tried real hard written in 8-year-old hand along with a rendering of a horse race.
People come to see the former runner every day, between 40 and 50 fans, several breeders. They visit Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky., because of its legacy to the racing world, because of runners like 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat (who Seth Hancock syndicated for breeding purposes and who was buried on the property after standing stud at Claiborne Farm for 16 years). Now, many of them are drawn by Blame, the only horse to ever beat the practically undefeatable Zenyatta.
Walking shady paths between quiet paddocks, Lay remarked upon the connection visitors feel with Blame, whose charming nature wins over even the harshest skeptics.
"We get a lot of people," he said. "Some of them ask about him because of the Breeders' Cup Classic, him defeating Zenyatta. Some ask about him that aren't really fans, but they still want to see the horse that beat her. He's got a good personality, so he wins over a lot of hearts. He puts on a show and starts begging for peppermints. It's pretty neat to see the excitement on their faces when you bring him out."
Great horses are a family affair at Claiborne, and Blame, bred by the farm in partnership with longtime friend Adele Dilschneider, is a product of five generations. Down just a few paddocks from the one he was assigned when he came here last fall is a big blackish beast, his sire, Arch. Across the way his dam's sire Seeking the Gold is living out a pension in idyllic content. Blame's dam, Liable, is turned out with several other broodmares in a paddock that is a short drive over the 3,100-acre farm. A friendly bay mare, she is again carrying a foal by Arch.
The 5-year-old Blame arrived at Claiborne about a week after he won the Classic and was given around a month to settle down and get into a routine. During the breeding season, he's brought into the barn around 6:30 a.m., where he is groomed and fed before he's taken to the shed to cover his first mare. Afterward, Lay leads him directly to his paddock and turns him out there. He'll stay outside until 1:30 p.m., when he is brought back in for an afternoon cover before being turned out for the night.
Now, in the off season, the compact bay thoroughbred spends most of his time in the sunny paddocks resting up before it's time to produce his second crop in February 2012. His first foals are expected to be hitting the ground around then as well.
Six of 11 Triple Crown winners were conceived on this farm, 23 Kentucky Derby winners, and the Hancocks hope Blame will produce a runner to carry on the tradition. The breeding shed is where dreams begin, and those who aspire to plan the perfect thoroughbred rarely grow tired, because they're always thinking that special horse will come along.
In his first season at stud, the freshman sire covered 109 mares and got 97 of them in foal. Of those, 94 were either stakes winners or stakes producers -- like Cloud Break, the dam of champion sprinter Lost in the Fog. With ideal conformation, a multiple-Grade 1-winning resume and his deep pedigree, Blame is quite the ladies' man. Breeders pay $35,000 for one session with him, which stands to reason after his dramatic Classic score.
"It was just like your Super Bowl or World Series," said Lay. "You want your top teams to get together, and when your best horses get together, there are always going to be people who choose sides. That's part of any sport, I guess. I don't really see that the race detracted from either one of them. They both ran their hearts out."
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Zenyatta hasn't changed. She still pricks her ears and arches her neck with uncannily human vanity whenever she hears a shutter click, and photographers have seen her pose with the presence of a supermodel exactly as she did when campaigning under the silks of owners Ann and Jerry Moss. Those lucky enough to visit the former racemare at William S. Farish's Lane's End farm are rewarded by gentle nuzzles; she thrives on the attention and saunters over to greet newcomers across the black board fence with bright and gracious curiosity.
The farm walks a fine line between making Zenyatta accessible to her many fans and maintaining a sense of normalcy for the new mother-to-be, who is seven months in foal to 2006 champion 3-year-old male and hot new sire Bernardini. The broodmare managers and veterinarians try to keep everything quiet and normal as possible, to let her be a horse, so they don't include opportunities to see the mare in the regular tours (although fans are permitted to schedule visits to the Lane's End stallions).
For the most part, Zenyatta is turned out at night, unless inclement weather strikes. Along with her pasture buddy, a gray named Tasty Temptation, she is brought up in the morning for a few hours to eat breakfast, sleep, get groomed and get checked over. The Mosses receive regular updates from the farm on the pregnant mare's condition. They have chosen not to know the sex of the foal, and are anticipating a late February or early March arrival.
"It's very exciting for everyone," said Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs, racing manager for the Mosses and wife of the man who trained Zenyatta, John Shirreffs. "Anything would be fine, a colt or a filly, as long as it's healthy. I feel like I'm talking about a girlfriend or a family member. We've tried to average close to once each month to visit her ourselves, and any time we're in Lexington for Keeneland or the sales, we always go out to see her. John said, 'I think she's still looking at me waiting for me to check her legs whenever I see her.'"
While fans can't see Zenyatta on an independent basis, tens of thousands still follow her through Facebook and through updates issued by Ingordo-Shirreffs via her website, zenyatta.com. Her connections have donated several special visits to charity as well, and the donations raised money for the local YMCA, to benefit muscular dystrophy research, for the bluegrass chapter of the Ronald McDonald House, for the Living Arts and Science Center in Lexington, for thoroughbred retirement, and for Central Kentucky Riding for Hope, a therapeutic riding center at the Kentucky Horse Park. Winning bidders (six of them thus far) have been permitted to bring up to five additional people along. Some laughed. Some cried. They all took pictures and reached out to touch the big mare's soft brown coat.
"We try to keep her a broodmare and still honor some of these other situations," Ingordo-Shirreffs said. "She's used to a lot of personal attention, so she loves people and as long as she's happy, that's our priority."
To the uninitiated this may sound ridiculously unexciting. But somehow, something as simple as meeting the legendary racemare with the tornado-white blaze touches people somewhere inside. Those who have met her instinctively understand.
"She's one of us in a lot of ways," Ingordo-Shirreffs said. "I think a lot of people bonded with her because they were part of her life when she was racing, a part of the team, so to speak. That's what we were hoping, that everybody could get involved in some way and enjoy the sport as much as those of us who are in it daily do."
The accomplishments this now 7-year-old daughter of Street Cry achieved on the racetrack are symbolic of many challenges we face in life, Ingordo-Sherriffs said.
"In so many ways, she's so many people," the racing manager remarked. "She had to work to become what she was. She sold at the sale for $60,000, not $600,000, and achieving what she did, I think, means a lot to people. She never gave up. Even when her record was perfect and it still wasn't good enough, she just kept trying. She was no different from any human athlete; she had to work, watch her diet, train, deliver a consistent performance. That's just like us. If you're going to be a good athlete, a good professional, a good student, you have to work hard and keep on trying."
This Friday, the Breeders' Cup will work in conjunction with the Mosses to host a special Zenyatta-themed day-long celebration at Churchill Downs. Owners and trainers have boxes and suites and places to go, the racemare's connections said, but the fans have always made their own way. This party is to honor and include them, and for many the biggest treat of all will be seeing Zenyatta appear via live video feed from her paddock at Lane's End.
"We hope people will get caught up in the spirit of the Breeders' Cup," Ingordo-Shirreffs said. "Anything that can be done to bring the fans closer to the sport is a positive thing. We want people to love it as much as we all do, and it's hard to love something if you don't get close to it, but the more you're around it, the more you understand and appreciate it."
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If the Breeders' Cup were to change its logo, many believe a likeness of Zenyatta would be the fitting image. Through a Ladies' Classic score in 2008, by becoming the first female to win the Classic in 2009, and in spite of missing her return victory by a nose in 2010, the bold racemare captured the hearts of thousands. Others will always admire Blame, and for good reason -- along with his other Grade 1 scores, the incredible feat he accomplished will live on forever in the history books and in the hearts of those who love him.
This is the thing about racehorses: you try not to get attached to them, but you can't help it. They draw you in, and before you know it they become a part of you. Throughout the ages, humans have gathered and created a sense of warmth and love and heroism from these animals because of their pure-hearted interaction with us. We sense something glorious in their regal bearing and in the way they run, and forge bonds with them of the strongest form.
The lesson we take away from Blame and Zenyatta's Breeders' Cup Classic is a simple one -- never give up and never give in. That's the legacy both runners left behind, and as the one-year anniversary of their thrilling race comes upon us, those who were privileged enough to witness that moment are grateful.
We're grateful because we saw history in the making, and because the horses who made it are alive and well today. The anticipation of their offspring gives us hope. The circle of life continues.
The sport is better because of them.
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.