Zenyatta Can't Retire After Saturday

For years, horse racing has been irrelevant to the general public, save for the three days the three legs of the Triple Crown are run each year.

The sport, which fell much in the way boxing did, achieved great relevancy for a month at a time when horses over the years have won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and entered the Belmont with the chance to win the Triple Crown last accomplished by Affirmed in 1978.

But when the trifecta fell short, the conversation about horses like Real Quiet, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones and Big Brown halted. When a Triple Crown wasn't on the line? Well, just look at last year, when neither the Kentucky Derby winner nor the Preakness winner even raced in the Belmont, ABC saw record low ratings.

What makes this Saturday so surprising is that it's the first weekend in November and the Kentucky Derby is still five months away. But on the very same track where that race will take place, Churchill Downs, a horse that never ran in a Triple Crown race has arguably become the biggest star in the sport in three decades. That it would come from a horse who started her career at three, the age at which Triple Crown horses are in their prime, makes the story even better.

"There's no question that we were looking to the left and she came from the right," says Greg Avioli, Breeder's Cup CEO.

Zenyatta with jockey Mike Smith aboard.
Gabriel Bouys | AFP | Getty Images
Zenyatta with jockey Mike Smith aboard.

She, of course, is Zenyatta, a horse who has a remarkable record of 19-0 and is already the first horse to win two different Breeders Cup races.

Zenyatta has been honored by Oprah, written about in almost every mainstream publication and profiled on "60 Minutes,"a sure sign that this horse has crossed over beyond the horse racing junkies. And if you want a physical sign, look down if you leave Los Angeles in a plane over the next couple days — the top of Hollywood Park has a huge sign that says "Good Luck Zenyatta."

Avioli said he believes the casual fan, that usually only typically sits in front of the TV for horse racing just three a times year, will appointment watch at 6:45 ET for the $5 million Breeders Classic, when Zenyatta bursts through the gates against the men for what is expected to be for the last time.

Avioli's staff has ridden the Zenyatta wave, selling a Breeder's Cup record $10 million worth of tickets (the previous record was $6.9 million). Avioli said an attendance record (100,000 people over two days) and perhaps a wagering record (passing the $200 million threshold) is possible.

And the way Zenyatta tends to run makes the horse even more exciting to watch. While most consider Secretariat's ridiculous 31-length victory at the 1973 Belmont as the greatest race ever ran, total domination isn't Zenyatta's thing. But the horse's consistent last to first move is also fun to watch.

"It's no secret that our sport lacked its big star," Avioli said. "It was like the PGA Tour in the early 1990's. There were some great players, but not anybody that was going to take the sport to the next level."

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime horse and it would certainly benefit us to have Zenyatta on the track longer." -CEO, Breeder's Cup, Greg Avioli

But for everything Zenyatta is, there's a whole lot of what it could have been. Most of her races haven't been on TV and there's an argument to be made that the fact that some people in this country don't even know her name proves that even a horse racing star can't bring the sport back to where it once was.

The argument could also be made that Saturday may be the biggest day of horse racing and, as another bad twist of fate, plans are for Zenyatta to then fade away to the breeding shed. It's not like the days of old when great champions would run until they couldn't run any longer.

"For the first time this week, there was a slightly obtuse comment made that might leave the door slightly open," Avioli said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime horse and it would certainly benefit us to have Zenyatta on the track longer."

In many ways, I feel Zenyatta has to stay out on the track for the good of horse racing. And there's a more sound financial argument for it too. Being a filly is certainly less profitable then being a great stallion who can command stud fees over and over again, so it's possible that the industry could band together to make sure Zenyatta stays out there past Saturday. For all that's on the line, it has to happen.

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