Psychologists know that people who suffer from bad self image are often jealous of those whose careers, lives or personal traits they envy. Their jealousy is due to poor self esteem–they don’t realize that genuinely healthy self esteem comes from within, ergo, the achievements of others should not affect their feelings about themselves.
But not everyone is capable of this logical assessment: it’s much easier to express insecurities by putting down someone who is perhaps an easy target because of their apparent superiority, and because the media has refused to defend that person from inappropriate and cruel scrutiny. Australians have a phrase, “the Tall Poppy Syndrome,” for this need. Anyone in Oz who’s made it big; struck it rich or otherwise risen above the crowd–a poppy whose red head is visible above the others in the field–must be struck down, so that mediocrity is once-again the norm. If no one rises above, all others appear to be equal.
This phenomenon has rarely been a vehicle in Thoroughbred horse racing: in general, ours is a very congenial sport. Trainers, owners, jockeys and others who work in the sport may be mortal enemies for the minute-and-change that their horses race against each other–but after the race, friendships are resumed, careers respected. Sportsmanlike behavior is valued in racing. This is one of the things I treasure about our sport. We are not given to painting our bodies the colors of our favorite team’s silks, getting drunk and acting out in an unbecoming manner toward the team which threatens to usurp our athletes’ status. Generally we speak well of the other guy. We never–ever–wish ill on a horse (if for no other reason than that we know that Karma is a powerful tool for equalizing the playing field). We scream like mad for our horse, but never, ever against the other team.
The tallest poppy in North American racing is Rachel Alexandra, and it saddens me to see
that this spectacular star and her owner–who loves her passionately–have become the victims of jealousy’s great threshing machine. I won’t go into too much detail, why Rachel Alexandra deserves to be named Horse of the Year–I wrote all that in an article on Horse Race Insider last month (http://www.horseraceinsider.com/blog.php/the-alpha-mare/rachel-alexandra-is-horse-of-the-yearcauseits-for-this-year-folks/). Brian Zipse, Mark Hoffman and David Grening all wrote compelling evidence, factual reasons why Rachel is the uncontested HoY. Were they attorneys, they’d win the case in the Supreme Court, itself.
It’s no secret that I’m an unabashed Rachel Alexandra fan: not since Alydar have I been this surprised by my love for a horse. I love Curlin–I mean, I adore Curlin–so I could not have predicted that any other horse could have come along in my lifetime and taken his place in my heart and in my soul. (And believe me, I understand the passion in the soul of a Zenyatta fan: when a horse captures your imagination and your spirit, itself, you willingly go to the mat for that horse. That’s what makes this sport so great: these equine athletes grab us by the throat and throttle us into submission, headlong into a love affair that will last for the rest of our lives. I do, indeed, know why Zenyatta fans love her, for my girlcrush on Rachel Alexandra is permanent. If I live to be 100, I’ll wear a Rachel baseball cap in my chair in the home.)
And then I met Rachel Alexandra. I have never encountered a horse like her, in this world or that realm in which archetypes dwell. In Plato’s Land of the Forms, Rachel Alexandra is the perfect representation of “horse-ness.” (Those of you who’ve had too much education in Philosophy will get this reference.) I wrote about my first encounter with the great archetype in Saratoga TODAY newspaper (https://www.saratoga.com/today/2009/07/alexandra-the-great/ ).
But as addicted to Rachel Alexandra as am I, I would never–ever–write anything to wish ill on Zenyatta, or her connections. Until today, I was disinclined to speak even a tad negatively about any of this. I will not speak ill of the horse, herself–she has done nothing wrong. She’s a horse. A great horse. A big, beautiful Thoroughbred. Precisely because she is a horse, she is guileless, and innocent of any wrongdoing.
But I am suspicious of her owner’s agenda, announcing today that Zenyatta is un-retired, after a five-minute retirement (during which she worked out thrice). I suspect that Mr. Moss has un-retired his mare for two reasons: yet-another publicity ploy (remarkable timing, to un-retire his horse nanoseconds before the Eclipse Awards announce Horse of the Year); and mammon. Money. Cash. Dinero. Shekels. AED. More on this in a few paragraphs.
For those of you new to this debate, here’s how it stacked up in 2009 (the year for which the Eclipse Awards will name a Horse of the Year):
In one corner, weighing 1,200 pounds and sporting a flirtatious wink and killer instincts, the
greatest Thoroughbred in the hemisphere, Rachel Alexandra. Winning eight gold medals–like Michael Phelps, she could not be stopped, she would not be denied. Eight races, eight wins. Eight wins in six different states, on seven different tracks. Five Grade I victories. Three wins against males–the Woodward against older males, a race which had never been won by a female. And the Preakness, a Triple Crown race. Rachel Alexandra’s average margin of victory was eight lengths.
In the other corner, weighing about the same, Zenyatta. A great horse who had a spectacular 2008. In 2009, however, she managed only to repeat four of her victories from 2008, plus a Breeders’ Cup Classic, which she ran on her home court against male horses who didn’t stand a chance on that surface of ground-up tires and carcinogens. (One big race doth not Horse of the Year make.) Four Grade I wins. Unlike Michael Phelps and Rachel Alexandra, this adds up to, say, four silvers and a half-gold. Zenyatta’s average margin of victories was 1 ¼ lengths.
Rachel Alexandra proved herself to be a warrior woman, made of steel and guts, superior genetics and otherworldly fortitude, traveling around America–and subjecting herself to the rigors of shipping and becoming familiar with new surroundings and surfaces.
Zenyatta got into a trailer and traveled a little bit up and down the SoCal coast during her campaign of repetition. Not much of a shipping challenge there.
Zenyatta’s fans and the turf writers–those creatures whose fickle natures are second only to their hunger for The Next Big Story–had the primo opportunity today to be the “class act” they claimed as Jerry Moss’s primary trait. Fans and writers alike were presented with the news that Zenyatta had been un-retired, and would race in 2010. Were they gracious, getting excited about Zenyatta? No: the news of the great mare’s un-retirement was met, instead, by those whose keyboards and pens immediately took a turn for the nasty. Rather than penning pro-Zenyatta blogs and articles, punctuated by exclamation marks and little hearts over their letter i’s, they chose instead to trash Rachel Alexandra and Jess Jackson.
(And that is when my trigger got tripped. It’s never smart to poke the bear.)
And for some reason, the sacred name of Curlin was also taken in vain in the flurry to be named The Most Obnoxious Zenyatta Fan or Turf Writer. Magazines which claim to be serious works of journalism turned into tabloids, as they promoted the trashfest. Television networks proved themselves to be as sleazy and slanted as we’ve always suspected.
It appears that this Rachel/Jackson bashing comes from a place of deep insecurity on the part of the Zenyatta fans–that “red-headed stepchild” thing of Southern California looms largely in the West Coast psyche–and from the turf writers and TV reporters’ willingness to sell their souls to make a buck. It matters not if it’s real news, if throwing kerosene on the fire of childish name-calling will sell more rags or ad time on TV–it’s fair game.
So Jess Jackson–a wonderful man, who genuinely loves his horses–is being treated like a pariah. Which, of course, makes me think: had he retired Rachel Alexandra after her Woodward victory, these same magpies would have jumped all over him with claims that Rachel had no-doubt been injured in the Woodward, and that he never should have raced her against older males, and now she’s retired because that man abused that horse. But he didn’t retire her. He’d charted a three-year-old campaign that rivaled any in the last century–and for this, he is being castigated by Zenyatta fans who call him names and claim to “hate” him. (Referring to our psychologist friends again, it’s impossible to hate someone with whom you do not have a relationship. If you don’t even know Jess Jackson–you cannot hate him.)
I am a fan of Mr. Jackson. I respect him as much as I do his horses. It happens that I met him in April, 2008, at the Keeneland Sales. I was 20 minutes late meeting friends, and was trucking along the hallway outside the sales pavilion, when I spied him going in the opposite direction. I turned on my heel, extended my hand and said, “Mr. Jackson! I’m Marion Altieri–and I LOVE Curlin!!!!” He graciously stopped, shook my hand, and then placed that same hand over his heart. He told me that he, too, loved Curlin–“I mean, I love him.” And he then went on to promise me that Curlin would be raced, as long as the horse wanted to run. He said that the sport needs to see its heroes race as long as they can.
And I came away from the conversation knowing that this man–this Good Man, in the classic sense–genuinely loved his magnificent horse, and would never, ever do anything that could potentially hurt the great Champion. I admired Jess Jackson before our meeting–after that day at Keeneland and this last Year of Rachel, I adore him.
(I fantasize often, that I get to write the screenplay for Rachel Alexandra’s story, or perhaps the Curlin/Rachel/Jess Jackson story–for the innate goodness of this man’s heart, in concert with his insightful approach to racing, has brought him two of the greatest horses ever to grace a racing oval, surreally perfect Thoroughbreds whose names will be uttered 200 years hence. This story must be told, and, as any writer with solid self-image, I imagine myself to be the only one who could do justice to it. [Grin.] I doodle notes on paper the way a would-be lover doodles the name of the object of her affection. It may be a bit of an obsession, but, hey, it keeps me off the streets.)
Today, the first thing that came to mind was that, had Mr. Jackson retired, and then un-retired, Curlin or Rachel Alexandra, he’d have been treated like a porcocane, a pig-dog, as my Italian ancestors sputtered. A blot on the entire sport of Thoroughbred racing. And yet this same action on the part of Jerry Moss–un-retiring a six-year-old mare–is heralded as if he were the Second Coming of Christ. I’m confused, as to why one owner is worshiped (it’s almost embarrassing to see other writers fawning on him)–the other, treated like dirt.
There’s absolutely no contest between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta: far-and-away, Rachel Alexandra achieved far more than Zenyatta in 2009. This is not subject to public debate, this is a matter of record. And today, the announcement that Zenyatta is un-retired has been greeted by turf writers and Zenyatta fans as if the sport, itself, has been saved, because this one great mare will be racing this year. The only viable explanations I can see for Zenyatta to race in 2010 is:
a) the aforementioned filthy mammon: it seems fairly transparent that Jerry Moss’ motivation is to rack up more money and knock Curlin out of his highest-earner status, and
b) for a big publicity push just before the Eclipse Awards.
And these reasons I find to be neither attractive or horse-friendly. I fail to believe that Mr. Moss is motivated because he is head-over-heels in love with Zenyatta, and cannot bear to see her relegated to broodmare status.
But I don’t know the man, so I’ll merely question his motives. I won’t go the way of his fans and worshipers, and call him inappropriate names, and bash his reputation and his genuinely great horse. (It’s not her fault that her connections didn’t step out during her 2009 campaign and race her in anything that truly challenged her.) Name-calling is a nasty thing, unsportsmanlike and, well, childish.
That the media would not only condone this Rachel Alexandra- and Jess Jackson-bashing in order to make a buck I find to be extremely distasteful. Watching my peers–racing writers and reporters who should know better–giving a forum to the hate speech and fanning those fires, not only saddens me–it embarrasses me. If racing media has become nothing more than tabloid journalism–I’m grateful that I’m just a racing essayist, and not a real turf writer. Turf writers should know better than to sell their souls and throw good people and Champion horses to the wolves. And fans should concentrate their words to praising the horse of their choice, not tearing down the competition. Zenyatta is a great horse–she deserves fans who are better sports than those who took up so much CyberSpace today. Childish displays of rage against an owner or horse will not help build Thoroughbred racing, and the marketing wonks who encourage this immature, mean-spirited behavior are doing more harm than good to the desperate need to grow the sport that we all love so well–Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta fans, alike.