The Breeders Cup was run at Churchill Downs this past weekend and aside from the heart pounding final race, it was an eye-opening experience for me. That horse to the left is Zenyatta. She came into the weekend 19-0 in races run during her amazing career and quickly became the focal point for the ESPN crew covering the Cup.
The racetrack. What I imagined was a room full of men down on luck or addicted to gambling, drinking, smoking, and avoiding their families to yell at horses simulcast from hundreds or thousands of miles away. Just thinking that they crave the quick rush of a few mile long races before they headed back to their real lives, navigating floors covered in losing tickets and spilled beer. Boy, was I wrong.
So on the first day of racing at Churchill, my roommate Jake decided to invite me to the local track at the old fairgrounds with his father to bet on some horses. My initial reaction was that of surprise, Jake has not only been to the track, but he was an active bettor. Jake has been going to the track with his dad for years now, and has fallen in love with a sport many are unfamiliar or judgmental of.
On the elevator to the betting room, Jake joked that he had always worried that the elevators would break down as they were so old. The slow moving doors open to reveal a 70′s decor, including a well preserved gold couch and some awful carpet. We headed into the room, revealing hundreds of people talking with friends, having a few drinks, and enjoying the races. A few betting windows remain as in the old days, but technology has made betting self serve on easy to use touchscreens.
Comfortable, friendly, clean. This place felt like someones home. In my head my time the act of betting would be easy. But betting was the only hard part, and even then the patrons of the track step up to help a fellow bettor. This didn’t feel like gambling. This felt like a chance to watch amazing horses and passionate jockeys do what they love alongside people just as passionate about the sport.
Saturday, during what was billed as the biggest race of her life, Zenyatta started out of the gate dead last. Staying last for a good two-thirds of the race, she seemed to be the biggest bust of the race day. Then, as if both jockey and horse thought together, deciding that it was time to make her move. From back of the pack she broke to the outside, every stride closer to the finish line, moving up only 200 yards remain, she breaks outside harder. Zenyatta jolts into 2nd place. Blame is the only horse in front of her as 20 yards remain. Just as her stride finally matches and beats that of Blame, the race is over.
Zenyatta loses by a nose, literally. 19-1. Her legacy would have been tarnished if she were in any other sport. But this horse, know for winning, becomes a legend in a loss. She ran so well that her loss seems like a victory. I have to say in my opinion, this was most impressive late run in any sport, and in doing this, Zenyatta exemplifies the love of horse racing. She saw straight ahead, looked around, took the outside, she ran like hell, and hammered her name into history.
I went to the track as a judgmental outsider. I left the track as a fan of horse racing. So what changed?
I took the blinders off.