ZENYATTA AND DEFYING CONVENTIONAL WISDOM

Both “conventional wisdom” and the morning line say California super mare Zenyatta will increase her record to 20-0 with a repeat victory in Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. Almost everybody inside and out of racing will be rooting for the popular star.

Almost everybody.

Here in Virginia, a lot of people will be pulling for native son Quality Road to end his career with an upset of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. I am one of those people.

Let the hate mail begin.

Look, I love Zenyatta. I like the rock band reference (the powder room in my house is decorated floor-to-ceiling with framed album covers and I’m sure there is a Police record in there somewhere.) I love her towering good looks, her pre-race dance routines and her amazing undefeated record. That said, I’m sticking with the locals and pulling for Quality Road for a whole Commonwealth of reasons.

I also have two gripes about the great Zenyatta and neither is her fault.

First, I’ve heard a bunch of folks say recently that it will “be good for racing” if Zenyatta wins the Classic and goes to 20-0. Of course, on many levels this is true and certainly nothing bad will come of her winning the race in terms of publicity for the sport.

However, what is REALLY important to racing is that she is running in the Classic. The outcome isn’t that important, and the notion that her victory will somehow bolster the popularity of the sport is misguided. Zenyatta has already bolstered the popularity of racing by simply racing again this year after beating the boys last year. If she retires Saturday night, a large portion of her fan base will retire with her.

My gripe is that this notion demonstrates once again industry insider’s inclination to embrace “conventional wisdom.” We constantly hear that one horse or another over some defined period of time is going to revitalize racing. He or she is not. Let it go, people.

But for years we have heard that the superstar horse engages the public and converts fans to bettors to the overall benefit of the racing and breeding industry. We hear about engaging younger fans, we hear about technology’s role in our game and we hear about quality racing with high purses fattened by alternative forms of gambling. Only the technology piece of the puzzle is moving forward with minimal downside and that may well be because outside agents are the driving force.

The “superhorse myth” is flawed for two reasons. First off, it has never worked over the long haul. That could well be because the “super horses” aren’t ever around long enough to fully cultivate new fans and bettors. Give six-year-old Zenyatta’s connections some serious credit on this one (or maybe credit the big mare for keeping herself sound as Mike Smith alluded on 60 Minutes last Sunday.)

Secondly, getting new fans interested in what many people would call the “tedious” act of handicapping horse races is difficult, if not impossible, in a world that is full of competition for our every waking minute and that is measured by things called terabytes and 4G.

Here are a couple of unfortunate things not happening at kitchen tables around the country these days. Families aren’t talking about “animal husbandry” and that’s bad for the horse breeding business on so many levels, and the all-important twenty-something and thirty-something demographic isn’t waiting in line to analyze a bunch of six point type in the Daily Racing Form so they can place a $20 exacta box.

So, here’s my pitch for “propositional wagering” and I’ll get off my “damn conventional wisdom” stump and back on Zenyatta. After all, she (and her connections) can carry the weight and handle the pressure.

Wouldn’t handle increase in every jurisdiction on Saturday if new players, part-time fans and veterans could wager that Ms. Zen will be last at the half-mile pole or that Quality Road will beat Blame or vice versa?

That said, I think such wagers would also appeal to neophyte Baby Boomer bettors as well as to the youngster demographic. To me, again in defiance of conventional wisdom, the Boomers are important to our game for the simple reason that they already have two things that are critical for either going to and/or wagering on horse races – time and money. But, I digress…

My other gripe is not so much with Zenyatta but with owners Jerry and Ann Moss and trainer John Shirreffs. Surely, between them they had enough frequent flyer miles to move their fabulous mare freely about the country? How about a trip to Arlington or Keeneland? Wouldn’t she have garnered national media attention by running (win or lose) at Saratoga or Churchill Downs?

You have to believe the answer, damnation of conventional wisdom aside, would have to be “yes.” Yes, the rest of the country would have loved to have seen Zenyatta in person, but her connections kept her California most of the year making it difficult to analyze her form.

(OK, other than the simple fact that she beat everybody they put in the gate with her! But you know what I’m saying, racing primarily in California against a limited talent pool on synthetic tracks makes it hard to know just how good she really is when compared to the top handicap horses and some pretty darn good three-year-olds.)

As a result, other major racing markets never saw this amazing racehorse in person. The fans and bettors in those places never got to say to their non-racing friends, “Hey, lets’ go to the track on Saturday and see Zenyatta.” “Who’s Zenyatta,” the non-initiated would ask, leading to a complete explanation and subsequent eye-opening trip to the racetrack. 

That piece of conventional wisdom is still sound. Take neophytes to the races and give them a great experience, they will most often like what they see. Not to mention all the young kids that turn up at the track when Zenyatta is running. Such a trip to see such horse could easily make any youngster a fan for life.

Enough complaining, back to Zenyatta.

She may well be the best mare to ever look through a bridle. Jockey Mike Smith, who is headed for the Hall of Fame and has won every major race we can think of and some 4,000 more, recently used her name in the same sentence with Secretariat. That’s heady praise.

With her resume, conventional wisdom may be right. Simply put, Quality Road has his work cut out for him on Saturday evening.  The daunting task recenlty prompted trainer Todd Pletcher to say “Thus far it’s been impossible to beat her. We’re hoping a dirt track will help us. You have to get a little bit lucky and have a good trip.”

Hopefully, both will get good trips and run good races, and, when it’s all over, both old and new fans will be talking about this race for years to come. – Glenn Petty