Nov 3rd 2010 07:00 pm |
On Sunday, 60 Minutes asked: “Is Zenyatta the greatest ever?” For the purpose of clarification, I think (and maybe I am giving them too much credit) what they meant to ask was, “Is she the greatest filly or mare ever?” Now, that is certainly a more reasonable question. Considering all she has done in her three seasons on the track, I think its worthwhile to ask where she belongs in the pantheon of American female racers.
The problem with the question is that “ever” is, well, a long time. To give an honest answer, we need to look beyond her perfect record and historic win in last year’s Breeders Cup Classic (and possible win this year). Answering the question (if it is answerable) requires a close look at the great fillies and mares of the past. Steve Haskin did just that in a review of the last fifty years for the Bloodhorse over the summer. In this post, i’ll take a look at a list of the top ten fillies and mares as it looked in the 1950s.
One thing I mentioned in last week’s post about Exterminator, was the idea that some opinions about ranking the all-time greats, carry more weight then others. Especially opinions of those who actually saw some of the all-timer’s race. So, I thought then, it would make sense, in looking at fillies and mares to compare with the great Zenyatta, to use a ranking compiled by Delaware Park in the 1950s. The “jury” was made up of members of the American Trainers Association, no doubt an organization of veteran horsemen or, at least, those whose opinions were shaped by veteran horsemen at the time. Their top ten created in 1955 is posted below with my annotations about each.
My question in revisiting this old list: Can we say that Zenyatta belongs above all of these fillies and mares? Take a look, and let me know what you think:
Gallorette (1944 to 1948) — She ran seventy-two times in her career, only seventeen of those starts were against females. She finished in the top three fifty-four times with twenty-one wins. As a three-year-old, she won the Acorn, Pimlico Oaks, and Delaware Oaks, as well as, a second place finish in the Wood Memorial. Among her wins include the Met Mile, Carter, Whitney, and the Brooklyn Handicap where she beat Hall of Famer Stymie (a horse she ran competitivelty against a number of times in her career).
Twilight Tear (1943 to 1955) — Ran twenty-four times in her career winning eighteen starts and finishing second or third four times. She was voted Horse of the Year as a three-year-old in 1944. At three, she ran seventeen times, won fourteen and had an eleven race winning streak. She ran against males ten times, with seven wins including the Arlington Classic and the Pimlico Special against Devil Diver, a future Hall of Famer, in 1944. She easily beat older females in the Queen Isabella at Laurel Park during her championship season.
Regret (1914 – 1917) — The first female to win the Kentucky Derby in 1915. Regret won the Derby in her three-year-old debut and the fourth start of her career. She won nine of eleven career starts. She only raced twice against females (she won both). In addition to the Derby, she beat males in the Saratoga Special (her first ever start), Sanford, Hopeful, and the Saranac. Regret finished second by a nose in the 1917 Brooklyn Handicap.
Top Flight (1931 to 1932) — In two seasons, Top Flight won twelve times from sixteen starts. She was a perfect nine for nine against females, including wins in the Acorn, Coaching Club American Oaks, the Alabama, and the Ladies Handicap. She won three of seven starts against males with wins as a two-year-old in the Saratoga Special, Belmont Futurity, and Pimlico Futurity.
Miss Woodford (1882 to 1886) — A mare who raced near the start of the modern racing era, she raced forty-eight times and won thirty-seven. She finished out of the top three two times in her entire career. She ran prior to the invention of past performances so detailed statistics about her are hard to come by. We do know she won the Ocean Stakes and Monmouth Cup multiple times each against males. She retired as the richest race horse in American history with $118,270 in earnings.
Busher (1944 to 1945, 1947) — Busher raced twenty-one times and had fifteen wins. She finished out of the top three only twice. Her three-year-old season earned her the Horse of the Year Award. She raced against females fifteen times and won eleven. Her record in open company was four wins from six starts including the San Vincente, Arlington Handicap (against older), Washington Park Handicap, and the Hollywood Derby. She did not race at four and finished a disappointing fifth in her lone start as a five-year-old.
Beldame (1903 to 1904) — Beldame raced during the heyday of racing prior to the New York gambling ban and three year closure of the state’s racetracks. She raced thirty-one times in three years of racing. She won seventeen starts, winning eight of ten against females and nine of twenty-one against males. Among her wins include the Carter, Gazelle, Alabama, Saratoga Cup, and the Suburban.
Princess Doreen (1923 to 1927) — Raced ninety-four times in five years of racing — winning thirty-four times and finishing second or third thirty-two times. At three, she won the Coaching Club American Oaks, the Kentucky Oaks (via disqualification), and won handicap stakes against older males at Latonia, Hawthorne, and Churchill Downs. She also finished third, just two lengths behind the Kentucky Derby winner Zev in 1924. After her three-year-old season, all but one of her races was against males — among her wins are the Bowie Handicap and Saratoga Cup.
Bewitch (1947 to 1950) — Bewitch counts a win against the great Citation among her twenty career victories from fifty-five starts. She won fifteen of her thirty-one starts against females and five of twenty-four starts against males. She won the first nine races of her career, her first loss came in the Belmont Futurity (finishing third behind Citation and Whilrling Fox). It was her only loss as a two-year old. In one of the last races of her career, she finished second to Citation in the 1951 Hollywood Gold Cup.
Imp (1897 to 1901) — In five seasons of racing, Imp ran an incredible one-hundred and seventy-one times. She won sixty-two and finished second or third sixty-four times. Only fifteen of those races were against restricted company, the large majority of her races were against males. Her first three seasons were spent in the midwest before moving to the east, where she spent the remainder of her career running competitively in many significant stakes races against males.
Where would we place Zenyatta in this list? Mike Smith had a point when he said “you can’t argue with perfection” but a perfect record can’t be the sole criteria for placing Zenyatta above all others, right?
Personally, I think you could make a compelling argument to put Zenyatta somewhere on this list but I would have a hard time ranking her above Gallorette, Beldame, Miss Woodford, or Imp. As I stated in the last few posts, I give extra points for longevity and durability. Those four had long and competitive careers — taking on all comers and racing frequently against the best males of their generation. When taking the long view, that is the one hole in Zenyatta’s resume, she will retire with only two starts in open company. Yes, those two starts will come in one of the toughest races in the world, the Breeders Cup Classic, but it is still only two starts.
I don’t mean this as a slight, it’s simply a statement of fact. Zenyatta will go down as one of my favorite horses ever but I think it’s OK to be a fan and have a realistic perspective on where she belongs among the list of all-time-greats. For what it’s worth, she is the best filly or mare (and maybe the best horse) I have ever seen and I will be rooting hard for her this weekend!
SOURCES, NOTES, AND OBSERVATIONS
Delaware Park Press Guide, 1955.
Thanks to Ron Micetic for supplying the program pages from the 1948 Met Mile (the program had a beautiful cover that i’m sure I will use in a future post).
I highly recommend Steve Haskin’s, “Best Fillies of the last 50 years”. Steve is one of the best historians in the business and this is a great piece of writing and research
If you missed the 60 Minutes piece on Zenyatta, it’s available via the CBS website.
I will be flying out to Louisville on Thursday afternoon and will be in-the-house for this year’s Breeders Cup. Really looking forward to it — hope to see you there!
THANKS FOR READING AND GOOD LUCK!