Comparing Havre de Grace to Zenyatta Ignores Who Zenyatta Was

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Comparing Havre de Grace to Zenyatta Ignores Who Zenyatta Was
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

First, let's not ignore the facts: Havre de Grace was very impressive in defeating males in the Woodward Saturday at Saratoga, never looking in doubt while almost toying with the field.

Sure, it was a comparably weak group of males, an unestablished congregation paraded in front of the grandstand under the illusionary title of a Grade I on national television. But Havre de Grace was too good, and she showed enough to make us think that even had this been a worthwhile field, even if one or two of these horses deserved to run on the same day that she ran, she still would have taken top honors.

And for that, I must congratulate her. It's now safe to say she is a legitimate contender to become the second female to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. At the very least, she deserves a shot at the continent's and possibly the world's best males.

“Y’all don’t realize this, but this thing could be Zenyatta,” trainer Larry Jones told Blood-Horse's Steve Haskin last winter. Her legacy has only grown since.

But to compare Havre de Grace to the first mare to win the Breeders' Cup Classic, to compare Havre de Grace to Zenyatta is to ignore what made Zenyatta Zenyatta, namely that Zenyatta captured the nation's heart by winning the first 19 races of her career.

In the modern era of racing, there are only two things a horse can do to garner real, mainstream support: a horse can win a Triple Crown race, a feat that at least one and as many as three sophomores accomplish every single year; or a horse can win the first race of his or her career and continue from that point unbeaten for a period of two or more years.

Zenyatta, who didn't make her first start until after the Breeders' Cup of her three-year-old year, was from the latter school of greatness, and it was only through winning every race that she became a superstar.

Her 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic triumph—race 14 of the mare's career for those keeping count at home—propelled her almost to superstar status, an undefeated mare who overcame insurmountable odds turning for home to beat the boys. For the first time, she made nationwide headlines, the undefeated mare who beat the boys, no doubt aided by the dramatic effect of her come-from-way-behind-late-running-heroics. The American Dream is built off of the same emotional principles: start from nothing, get dirt kicked in your face, keep fighting, and eventually, by your own merits, surge past everyone into the lead.

But undefeated was a key word to building her legacy.

Azeri was a superstar within the racing world in 2002 and 2003, reeling off 11 consecutive wins—eight Grade Is and three Grade IIs—but never did she pierce mainstream attention. Not even when she scored at Arlington Park in the Breeders' Cup Distaff to clinch Horse of the Year honors did Azeri really cross that threshold.

No, Azeri had a loss on her record, one mere loss, a loss by one length, beaten by one horse, after she broke poorly, struggled to find good position off a slow pace, and had to come four-wide turning for home. And this came eight months earlier.

A loss, as far as the public is concerned, is a loss, at least until you become a superstar.

Zenyatta, already truly a superstar after 2009, returned to the track at six, extending her unblemished mark to 19 fantastic performances. That she lost the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic, or, as most will remember it, came dramatically close to winning the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic, didn't change her legacy. If anything, it enhanced it, made her more human, made her more iconic, because even the best of the best eventually fall, the Gatsby of the turf.

But if you don't win a Triple Crown race, you have to get to the top before you can stumble.

Havre de Grace hasn't yet reached the top: she hasn't even come close to the top. She's lost four times, and that's only considering races against Blind Luck, her prime rival. Overall, she has one fewer loss, six, than she has wins. She's already finished third more times in her career than Zenyatta finished anywhere but first.

While none of this precludes Havre de Grace from being a better horse than Zenyatta; while none of this prevents Havre de Grace from leaving a grander memory to those inside the sport than Zenyatta ever could; while none of this diminishes what Havre de Grace is trying to do this year and maybe next, to compare her to Zenyatta, to pretend she can be compared to Zenyatta is ignoring what made Zenyatta Zenyatta.

And no matter how much as Larry Jones and the entire Havre de Grace team want to believe it's possible, it cannot ever be.

Havre de Grace can never be the racehorse Zenyatta was, even if she becomes twice as good as Zenyatta. It just isn't possible. She could win the Breeders' Cup Classic the next three years, and still her mainstream legacy will lag behind Zenyatta's.

The emotional appeal of her victories will never equal Zenyatta, and the fact that Havre de Grace lost already detracts considerably.

Zenyatta was the requisite mix of drama, showmanship, and perfection that racing needed to break into the mainstream outside the Triple Crown season. That breakthrough is integral to any understanding of the big mare. It is integral to the mare herself.

To ignore it, to pretend like it isn't important, is to make believe that Zenyatta can be defined solely by accomplishments and awards. It's too much of a part of who she is.

On the ice, the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team wasn't all that special. Yet it's not what those men did, but how they did it and what it meant to everyone who watched it that made them so memorable. It's that special cluster of accomplishment and fanatical emotion that builds true legends.

Havre de Grace can't emulate that, no matter what she does from here out. There's no way she can draw such devotion.

As such, she can never be another Zenyatta.

There's no point pretending otherwise.

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