Most influential horses of the decade

My run on ESPN.com began in 2000 with the opening of the new millennium and it's hard to believe there have been 10 years of bylines. Over the decade, we've had the chance to share many stories of intrigue, entertainment and titillation. But when you water horse racing down to its purest core, you always come back to one thing and one thing only: It's about the horses.

Which horses have had the most influence on the racing game we love so much over the past decade? I'm not talking about the most talented -- the Ghostzappers of the world -- but rather the most influential horses in determining the history made during the decade. Here's one observer's take, listed alphabetically. I'd love to hear about yours.

BARBARO: No more gut-wrenching public display of affection could possibly ever play out again like the saga of the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner. His brave attempt at recovery from a serious leg fracture and its subsequent complications was a mainstream news stand-by for months. Barbaro changed the way even we hardened racing fans look at the health of a horse, not to mention opening the public's eyes as to how much the racing industry can potentially care for one of its own.

Veterinary advancements off the track certainly will be part of Barbaro's legacy, and on the track his careful preparation up to the Kentucky Derby and performance on the first Saturday in May single-handedly changed the way the nation's trainers looked at how they would space the prep races of their future Derby contenders.

CURLIN: Privately purchased on Super Bowl Sunday of his 3-year-old season, the son of Smart Strike would go on to win the 2007 Preakness and Breeders' Cup Classic, as well as the 2008 Dubai World Cup. When the dust settled, Curlin had earned a North American record $10.5 million, surpassing the legendary star of the 1990s, Cigar.

But Curlin's legacy extends to the humans who campaigned him. He took dominating trainer Steve Asmussen's career from exceptional quantity to exceptional quality. Asmussen got a chance to prove what he could do on the world's biggest stages after dominating regional circuits for years. Curlin also put owner Jess Jackson on the map of players with world-class horses, no doubt fueling the purchase of Rachel Alexandra in 2009 and forever changing history without him even knowing it. Because without Curlin, the '09 campaign of Rachel Alexandra would have looked far different in the tutelage of Hal Wiggins and Dolphus Morrison, no matter what you think of any of the human parties involved.

EIGHT BELLES: Tragedy and the Kentucky Derby were strange bedfellows until the 2008 run for the roses, where the star 3-year-old filly finished second to Big Brown and then collapsed during the pull-up after catastrophic leg fractures. Much as we remember Ruffian for her brilliant career, it's her tragic ending that always underscores the memories. Eight Belles will live on in that vein.

Eight Belles set off a firestorm of debate, both helpful and hurtful, about racehorse safety, track safety and more. She forced the racing industry to take a cold, hard look at itself, its medications and its standards. Her Derby conqueror, Big Brown, was mired deeply in the discussion of steroids and raceday medications as well, and their co-starring roles in the angrily dramatic spring of 2008 will forever be linked for both good and bad reasons.

Perceived or real, Eight Belles' story also pushed the focus of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association in a completely different direction, from marketing and TV arm to safety advocacy group.

RACHEL ALEXANDRA: Her story continues, God-willing, with a 4-year-old campaign in 2010, but the meteoric 2009 of this amazing filly re-wrote the history books. Both on the track and off, Rachel carries a racing legacy of remarkable clout.

Her 20-length victory in the Kentucky Oaks introduced her as a superstar in the rarest stratospheres. Her Preakness Stakes win welcomed her to the mainstream public, excited millions of female fans and potential fans worldwide, and legitimized her for all-time. Everything she did the rest of the summer was icing on the cake, and she spread the frosting with thick and delicious strokes: the Mother Goose, Haskell and Woodward in complete style.

Rachel Alexandra also may eventually be credited with the demise of all-weather racing surfaces. While the decision was not hers to avoid the Breeders' Cup, her connections played her starpower like a dominating pawn in a political game of chess.

SMARTY JONES: Easily the most mainstream horse of the decade, not only was he an undefeated 2004 Kentucky Derby winner and a few yards from immortality at the Belmont, but he struck a chord with the public. He drew 120,139 fans to Belmont, a whopping 17,000 more than any other race in the series' history.

Sunday school classes made greeting cards for Smarty Jones, and the entire state of Pennsylvania changed its perception of horse racing and voted for expanded gaming to help it survive. Breeding farms continue to pop up all over the Keystone State.

Smarty Jones was rags to riches, and the ultimate feel-good story without a detractor. He was a cover boy on Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine in the same week. Everyone rooted for Smarty Jones on the track. Those kind of athletes, my friends, come along once in a lifetime in sports.

The fleeting fame lasted only about five weeks on the racetrack, but there's no doubt Smarty Jones became a "forever" kind of horse in racing history.

ZENYATTA: No horse defined the East-West debate or the all-weather vs. dirt debate more than Zenyatta during the decade of the 2000s. Single-handedly, without a rival, she became what both Easy Goer and Sunday Silence were in the 1980s to the world of racing fans' debates. And through it all, she delivered perfection, never losing, and remarkably had to prove herself at every stop in the minds of many.

Finally, in what figured to be her final career start, Zenyatta closed the decade in the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic with a performance of the ages. She overcame pre-race drama and a field that included every important runner on the season not named Rachel Alexandra. And maybe for legacy's sake it was best that way, since Zenyatta's lasting legacy always will be her perfect record and subject of scrutinizing debate.

Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra rose to the fore in the new era of Internet media in horse racing. They blazed the trail across cyberspace, and Zenyatta's career-defining points of perfection and intense scrutiny figure to last forever.

Honorable Mention

Funny Cide, like many before him, proved in 2003 that anyone can own a great racehorse. His Kentucky Derby and Preakness wins filled the yellow school bus with his lovable ownership group known as Sackatoga Stable. He also showed that state-bred stigmas were a thing of the past; that rules in what constitutes a state-bred (he was by Kentucky-based sire Distorted Humor, after all) were not as limited as in the past.

Medaglia d'Oro proved that Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel could, indeed, compete on the Triple Crown level during the 2002 Belmont when finishing second to Sarava. Later that summer, Medaglia d'Oro would win the Travers, and Frankel's Triple Crown fever eventually would be realized just one spring later with Empire Maker in the Belmont. Medaglia d'Oro rightfully put Frankel front-and-center during racing's most viewed time of the year. Medaglia d'Oro truly cemented his equine legacy later in the decade when siring none other than Rachel Alexandra.

Afleet Alex won the Preakness in most memorable style, stumbling badly at the top of the stretch when cut off by Scappy T, forcing jockey Jeremy Rose to be part acrobat. Rose got personal redemption after a maligned Derby ride where critics vowed he moved too soon when finishing third. For good measure, the duo came back and dismantled the Belmont Stakes cast as well, all the while raising spirits and dollars throughout mainstream America with the horse's dedication to the Alex's Lemonade Stand charity.

Other horses considered included the likes of Rags To Riches, heroine of the Belmont Stakes in 2007, who inspired the filly runs of future stars like Eight Belles and Rachel Alexandra; Tiznow, the two-time Breeders' Cup Classic winner who raised patriotic pride post 9/11 and went on to prominence as a sire; and Giant's Causeway, an international superstar who opened the decade in a photo-finish loss to Tiznow in the 2000 Breeders' Cup Classic and has gone on to become this country's leading sire of modern times.

Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000. You can E-mail Jeremy about this topic or anything racing-related at Jeremy@Horseplayernow.com.