THE FRONT ROW with Jim Litke Nov. 5, 2010
The argument over where Zenyatta ranks among the best thoroughbreds of all time, male and female, won't be settled for decades.
But the chance to see the sport of kings hijacked by a queen comes along only so often. So take a break from the marathon that is a typical college football Saturday and tune into the Breeders' Cup Classic. In a racket where the top trainers need luck to win a quarter of their races, you know something special is on the line when even they start pulling for a rival.
"We're here. We're supposed to try and beat her," trainer Bob Baffert said Thursday along the backstretch at Churchill Downs.
Yet calling him conflicted barely tells the half of it. In another 48 hours, Baffert will send out Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky in a bid to end Zenyatta's 19-0 streak.
"It's not the kind of thing where you're going to be woofing (if you win)," he added. "If I beat her, I don't know how I'm going to feel."
That's because horse racing needs stars in the worst way. The state of the sport is such that thoroughbreds don't light up the sporting firmament the way they used to. They don't merit the equivalent of a state funeral anymore, as Man O War did six decades ago. Nor are they credited for saving the republic, as Secretariat was, when the big red colt's 1973 Triple Crown triumph gave a nation slogging through the summer of Watergate something to cheer about.
But in Zenyatta's case, it won't be for lack of effort. Along the way to an 19-0 record, the 6-year-old mare hasn't ducked any competitors and already captured last year's Classic against one of the most impressive field assembled in the last decade.
Just as important, Zenyatta loves the spotlight and exudes as much charisma as an athlete can without talking. Her pre-race dance routine puts Ray Lewis to shame, which is only one facet of a personality that's big enough to cover a segment on "60 Minutes" and a few pages of "O'' magazine.
And then there's those late-closing runs. In the same way that her career gained momentum slowly - Zenyatta didn't start piling up wins until she was a 4-year-old - she tends to lay back at the start of her races and overtake everything in her path.
"She's puts on a show for everybody with her little antics," Baffert said, "and she's a really smart mare. I mean, she knows where the wire is. ... it's almost like a game to her.
"She's like a killer whale," he said finally, "playing with the seals."
Her trainer, John Shirreffs, is a lot more conservative about her chances, but the hype is nothing new. Zenyatta drew plenty of attention early on because she stands 17-plus hands high, big as just about any of the boys, and then backed it up by winning. But it wasn't until a year ago, after Zenyatta captured the Classic, that Shirreffs realized what a strong hold she held on fans.
It was dark by the time Shirreffs walked out into an empty parking lot, but waiting for him there was Susan Bower, a fan. She asked Shirreffs if he had an extra ballcap with the filly's name on it for a friend. Two weeks later, he got a note from that friend, who was battling cancer.
"The last line was something like, 'Zenyatta's a fighter. So am I,'" he recalled recently. "The amazing thing is how often people pass along stories like that."
Her final chapter will be written after one final go-round at what, fittingly, is the most-storied oval in the sport. Zenyatta will take off as the favorite, despite running on dirt for only the third time.
No doubt Shirreffs could have chosen a smaller stage or a cushier scene for her finale - against fillies and other mares, for example. But it is precisely that willingness to risk everything - to run after greatness instead of away from it - that won both trainer and horse the admiration they will bask in when the starting gate opens.
"I get goose bumps just watching the replays of her races," Baffert said. "I think once she passes you in the stretch, everybody starts rooting for her.
"She means that much to everyone."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org