There has been an American Horse of the Year since 1887.
Part of the Eclipse Awards, the end-of-year-honors that are bestowed to every class of horse from Female Turf Horse to Two-Year-Old Male, this is the ultimate title of champion in the United States.
The Eclipse Award nominees are decided upon and then voted upon by the same group: members of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the Daily Racing Form, and the National Turf Writers’ Association.
It’s an insider’s group, racetrack operators, turfwriters, horsemen. Arguably, I suppose, the only ones that care sufficiently to spend the time on voting for something as arcane as horseracing.
Racing doesn’t matter to anyone – you’ve heard that before. It’s all about money, it’s not about the horses – you’ve heard that before. And God help you if you take your child to the track – well, if you’re okay with cigar smoke, and swearing of a particular volatility that I doubt even a Navy ship deck could equal, then it’s perfectly acceptable.
This is racing in 2010 – it belongs solely to horseplayers and the people who stand to make money (somehow) in the game.
Or, it did.
Two horses, this year and last, have captivated the senses of the horsey and non-horsey alike. Rachel Alexandra made Vogue (and you can see her, cut out and taped to the bedroom wall, in the girls’ room on ABC’s sitcom Modern Family). Zenyatta made Oprah and 60 Minutes. Rachel, though extraordinary in heart and running style, didn’t make it until the end of her fourth year as a racehorse.
But Zenyatta – Zenyatta has achieved three beautiful seasons, to the end of her sixth year, not just as a sound, happy horse, but as a champion with unmatched charisma, an extraordinary win record, and a reputation for pure joy in her power.
Zenyatta is loved even more for her heart as she ran up to that nose-long defeat. She’s loved for her depth of character, her charisma. You can put a poster of her on your wall and dream about her. She’s a Thoroughbred heart-throb, she’s a feminist hero, she runs past boys and sticks out her tongue (literally!) as she does so.
Oh, no one can save racing, you’ve heard it all before, and to be sure, our current model of parimutuels funding purses to keep busy all the horses that were bred with no purpose but to make money at the sales, this ceaseless vicious circle, eating its own tail, is unsustainable.
But maybe you don’t bet the horses. Maybe you just love horses, in all their power and grace and beauty, in all their kindness and all their joy. Maybe you watch them gallop and rejoice in their perfection, and that is enough for you.
For us, for those of us who love racing because we love to see a Thoroughbred do what a Thoroughbred does best, do what a Thoroughbred loves to do, Zenyatta is our Queen. Zenyatta is our Horse of the Year.
The fans have spoken, and whatever the professionals say, she is our champion.