LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Put the blame on Blame for breaking Zenyatta's magnificent winning streak - and a lot of hearts, too.
Jockey Mike Smith wept. Owners Jerry and Ann Moss stood in stunned silence. Trainer John Shirreffs trudged slowly back to the barn, hands in his pockets.
Nineteen times the people behind Zenyatta led horse racing’s superstar to the track. Nineteen times they’d celebrated with her in the winner’s circle.
Not this time.
Blame beat Zenyatta by a head in a thrilling finish at the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday night, handing the 6-year-old mare her first defeat.
Zenyatta threaded her way through traffic from last place while the crowd of 72,739 urged her on as she unleashed a monstrous closing kick under the lights at Churchill Downs.
It was so close, a matter of inches, the result had to be resolved by a photo – a picture that saddened not only Zenyatta’s owners and trainer but also millions of fans around the world.
It was so close, Ann Moss said she was hoping her horse had “stuck her tongue out” at the finish.
Smith blamed himself for the loss. He walked off the track with his head down, dirt stuck to his face.
“It was my fault,” he said, sobbing. “She should’ve won.”
Blame went to the front in mid-stretch, then fought off another gutty run by the massive mare, who lagged well behind 11 rivals – all boys – in her customary style.
Sent off at 5-1 odds, Blame ran 11/4 miles in 2 minutes, 2.28 seconds and paid $12.40, $4.40 and $3.80. Zenyatta returned $3.60 and $2.80. Fly Down was another 31/2 lengths back in third and paid $8.60 to show. Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky finished fourth.
Zenyatta proved she could beat the boys last year when she rallied from behind to win the $5 million Classic at Santa Anita. It was one of her 17 wins on synthetic surfaces in her home state of California.
This time, though, she was facing the deepest, most talented field of her career on a surface where she had limited experience.
And Blame had home-court advantage. He won twice before on dirt at Churchill, where Zenyatta had never raced.
“She ran an excellent race and just came up a little short,” Shirreffs said. “She ran her heart out.”
But Zenyatta’s late-running style proved her undoing this time. She got away slow from the starting gate and spotted early leader First Dude 15 lengths over the opening half-mile.
At the back of the pack, Smith was coaxing Zenyatta to start making up ground. But it was a struggle. She was getting hit in the face with clods of dirt, something that doesn’t happen on a synthetic track.
“She wasn’t used to it,” he said. “Although she’s run on dirt twice, they were really short fields and really never got nothing in her face before.”
When Zenyatta finally kicked into gear, Smith had plenty of horse left. She started her rally turning for home, dropping down to the inside rail with 3 furlongs to go and Blame on her outside.
Smith then angled her to the outside for clear running room, and the crowd exploded.
Zenyatta charged through the lane, gaining on Blame with every stride of her powerful legs. Gomez, aboard Blame, knew only Zenyatta could deny him the win.
“I was asking him as much as I could without asking him for everything,” he said. “I was trying to save just enough so if she did get to me I had something and some kind of response.”
It was just enough.
In other races Saturday:
In the $2 million Sprint, Big Drama led all the way to win. Atta Boy Roy, owned by South Kitsap couple Roy and Ellie Schaefer, tired at the end and finished 10th. He injured his right foreleg during the race and was vanned off. Dr. C. Wayne McIlwraith said the horse suffered a superficial cut on the upper leg.
European import Goldikova successfully defended her title in the $2 million Mile for the third consecutive year. Dangerous Midge won the $3 million Turf, and Pluck won the $1 million Juvenile Turf.
Chamberlain Bridge won the $1 million Turf Sprint; and 37-1 long shot Dakota Phone won the $1 million Dirt Mile. Uncle Mo won the $2 million Juvenile, giving trainer Todd Pletcher his third win of the weekend.
In the Juvenile Turf, Rough Sailing was euthanized after breaking a major bone in his upper leg when he slipped and fell going into the first turn.