One of the cardinal rules of the vocation of sports reporting is that there is no cheering in the press box, and the scene made me wonder whether the filmmakers, who played with the facts of Secretariat's life, misrepresented Nack, too.
But in the aftermath of Keith Olbermann's faux pas and the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit: I was jumping up and down Saturday evening in the Churchill Downs' press tribune cheering for Zenyatta as she thundered down the stretch closing on the leaders after the track announcer pronounced her "dead last" at least twice in the first half of the two-minute Breeders Cup Classic. I'm not ashamed, either.
The race record showed in the end that Zenyatta -- the six-year-old mare who captured the imagination by entering the Classic, her career-ending race, 19-0 -- lost by a head to Blame. But the manner in which she so nearly won made for the most exciting sporting event I've ever witnessed in person.
In fact, if every major horse race promoted to the public were as great as the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic, the sport of thoroughbred racing wouldn't be talked about as a dying sport. It would be thriving. Tickets to big days like Saturday's would be on the scalper's market. TV ratings would be through the roof. All because of the way Zenyatta competed and nearly did what was thought to be impossible. For that alone she should win Horse of the Year.
Jockeys in Fight | Full Breeders' Cup Results
"I take no pride in beating Zenyatta," Seth Hancock, the head of Claiborne Farm, which owns Blame, said afterward in a voice quivering with emotion. "She is what she is. She's awesome. She's been great for racing.
"I'm sorry that we had to beat her, because she's something special."
It wasn't just her perfect record that elevated her above the rest. It was her demeanor, her star power.
When I first saw her Friday morning being paraded around her barn, she stopped a couple of times, raised her head above her tall body and surveyed the audience she'd attracted, seemingly making eye contact with each of us looking on. Digital cameras were raised to capture the moment. She appeared to oblige before moving on.
After she was bathed down out back of her barn, where a chain-linked fence and barricades kept the curious at bay, she was allowed to walk closer to her admirers and appeared to enjoy it.
By the time she was brought to the paddock early Friday evening to prepare for the Classic, there was a mob waiting and cheering. Flash cameras popped. Little girls squealed. Men looked on in awe at a filly that was as big as a small Clydesdale, just over 17 hands.
Zenyatta made for imagination, which is what horse racing's most compelling stories -- Secretariat, Man O' War, Seabiscuit – are all about.
If there was one thing people around horse racing's most famous track chatted quietly about the past few days it was their fear that Zenyatta would not live up to her legend and that her legend would be exposed as some sort of fraud. They worried that the toughest field she'd ever been in would blow her away. For most of the observers, it was a foregone conclusion that she wouldn't win. They were just concerned about how much she'd lose by.
Even in the barns, competing trainers openly doubted her bonafides -- an unprecedented undefeated record after 19 races -- as the horse to beat. She'd run mostly in California and on synthetic surfaces, they pointed out. She'd raced mostly against other girls. Her last-to-first style wouldn't work on the dirt at the Downs, they whispered, because she'd never had to deal with so much muck flying back up in her face.
And right out of the gate Saturday, those worst fears looked to have come true.
"Zenyatta is dead last," the track announcer said when he first called her position.
A collective sigh cascaded down the press tribune and washed over the stands. It was as if in a few seconds the life breath of the Classic was lost with Zenyatta, whom most everyone had come to see attempt history, looking to be out of her class.
"I was just having a rough time of it going underneath the white wire the first time," her jockey, Mike Smith, explained, his eyes watery with tears. "She just wasn't leveling out like I wanted to. The combination of the dirt, of course, hitting in her face was a lot of it. She just wasn't used to it. Just left her with too much to do."
Things didn't appear to get much better down the backside, but she did close the gap a little on the herd.
But on the turn to home, Zenyatta's magic awakened.
She dropped to the inside, then swung to the outside and started passing horses one by one. The life that was sucked out of the stands earlier was resuscitated. The track announcer pronounced Zenyatta back in the race and it was the last time he was audible until the winner hit the wire.
Down the home stretch Zenyatta closed on Blame with a rapidness that made Blame look like he was a rock rolling back downhill. A fever pitch took over the Downs, and then two absolutely amazing things happened.
With what looked like her next to last lunge, Zenyatta completed her improbable comeback. She appeared a nostril ahead of Blame as the photo-finish camera was exploding.
Then Blame took his ultimate lunge. Zenyatta's head went back to gather herself. And Blame hit the wire first by his nostril.
Zenyatta's loss felt like a win.
"It hurts more than you, than I can explain," Smith said later, sitting alone at a podium, softly pounding the table with a fist as tears rolled from his eyes. "It was my fault. She should've won."
I'm not certain that she didn't win what was most important.
For outside the chain-linked fence on Longfield Avenue behind her barn when Zenyatta made it back was a throng of fans, old, but certainly new, too, chanting, "Long live the queen."
We won't soon forget.