The silence by ESPN broadcasters prior to the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic spoke volumes about the moment and the mare.
No one said a word for four minutes and nine seconds as defending champion Zenyatta did her signature “dance,” parading in front of an admiring Churchill Downs crowd of 72,739. The millions who tuned in to the primetime telecast soaked up the atmosphere like they were there, too.
“The last time I saw an entrance into an arena like that was for Muhammad Ali, by an athlete, the way she pranced, the way she knew where she was,” analyst Hank Goldberg told viewers a few minutes later.
Despite having beaten the boys in the 2009 Classic, many observers doubted Zenyatta could do it again and finish her career unbeaten in 20 starts.
“Trainer John Shirreffs has given Zenyatta an ultra-conservative campaign this season, racing her four times on the synthetic tracks she loves, always against small fields of overmatched fillies and mares,” wrote columnist Andrew Beyer in the Washington Post.
Of course, there were others who believed Zenyatta would rise to the occasion no matter the circumstances, as she had in winning every previous race leading up to this historical swan song.
As the Classic began, at least to the casual observer, it appeared the skeptics would prove correct. Zenyatta always lagged behind in the beginning of a race, but she wasn't even in contact with her 11 male competitors, trailing the second-to-last horse by half a dozen lengths heading into the first turn.
“Zenyatta is dead last,” said announcer Trevor Denman. “At this stage, Zenyatta's gotta be a good 18-20 lengths off the leader.”
Even though jockey Mike Smith gradually nudged her closer, Zenyatta would still need to navigate the entire field as they rounded into the stretch.
The crowd was in a frenzy as the mare shook the ground with her run, passing rival after rival, taking aim on one final foe in the last strides of her career.
“Zenyatta, Zenyatta, Zenyatta is flying!” Denman cried. “Blame trying to hold on. Blame and Zenyaaaatta… Blaaaame has won it a head,” Denman's voice capturing the heartache of the collective yearning for her.
“Zenyatta ran her heart out but had to settle for second.”
Moments later, Smith appeared inconsolable, his face caked in dirt, head hanging as he jogged out with the 6-year-old mare.
“I guess I got beat, huh, Jerry?” Smith asked ESPN's Jerry Bailey. “I'm a little devastated now, Jerry, I'm trying to pull myself together.”
“It's my fault,” Smith told reporters that night, tears streaming down his face. “She should have won, and it hurts.”
Five years later, the pain still hasn't gone away. In a Los Angeles Daily News interview earlier this year, Smith said he doesn't watch replays of the race.
“It's in my mind so vivd, I don't need to see it,” he said.
Any second guessing of Smith in the days following the Classic was overwhelmed by those paying respect to the mare's performance in defeat — skeptics included.
“Zenyatta's performance overshadowed everything that happened at Churchill Downs,” wrote Beyer. “And people in the sport will be talking for a long time about (this) Classic and about the mare's place in history.”
They say no one remembers who finished second, but it's hard to imagine anyone forgetting Zenyatta's last dance.
This is part of a special series of Breeders' Cup Moments the Paulick Report will detail in the weeks leading up the World Championships at Keeneland Oct. 30 and 31. Click here for more Breeders' Cup longshots, photo finishes, oddities, milestones, and heartbreak as we look back on the history of the event.
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