Sporting events large and small over the course of the past few days got me wondering about the nature of greatness. What separates the good from the great, the historic from the fleeting, the moments of collective memory from smaller instances of personal victory? It’s too simplistic to say it’s just about numbers. The most victories, the largest scores, and most copies sold are all measures of a certain kind, but are they the most important ones? I think there’s another yardstick, one with no numbers, which is a vital component of greatness--heart.
A huge heart--literally in horse racing legend Secretariat’s case--is for me the unifying thread among so many of my heroes and heroines, literary and athletic, human and equine. It is the act of recognizing in another being an iron will, a divine spirit, or a heart for battle. Heart is the intangible, unquantifiable nugget that elevates the good to great and the ordinary to extraordinary.
I realize none of this is particularly revelatory, but I think every now and then (not unlike Ferris Bueller) it is worth stopping, looking around, and assessing just to be sure we don’t miss something important. It’s easy to throw stones or snicker derisively at another’s accomplishments, but it’s far more interesting to step back and take a moment to appreciate moments of greatness. It’s the road less traveled and that path is almost always the more scenic and more enlightening. Records come and go, statistics will be asterisked and analyzed, wins and losses quantified, but when all is said and done, I don’t think that’s what remains with us. And that brings me to Zenyatta.
Anyone who was fortunate enough to be in attendance at Hollywood Park for her penultimate race yesterday got to see a genuine beauty in whom beats the willing heart of a champion. I have to say that for me, while her 19-0 unblemished record is damned impressive, what I love about this majestic soul has less to do with her statistical place in history and more to do with the manner in which she’s raced to such heights. It’s the same thing I love about so many horses, their grit and determination, their will to win…but add to that her natural ability and you know you have a once-in-a-lifetime athlete. Special and amazing are overused these days (and I’m as guilty as anyone) but Zenyatta is, simply put, a great horse. She is the kind of horse that people in the future will look back upon and say they wish they’d had a chance to see race in person. As the neighborhood nostalgic--to my mind, anyway--witnessing one of her victories will be the equivalent of having seen a race run by Seabiscuit, Secretariat, or Man o’ War during their glorious salad days. The best of the best, those who embody the word great, find ways to win and Zenyatta has always found her way to the wire like a perfectly calibrated heat-seeking missile. It is a privilege to watch truly great athletes compete and to see her run a race without turning a hair or sweating a drop--all the while toying with her competitors--is to witness greatness amplified by heart and elegance. I won’t ever see Zenyatta race in person, but I'll look forward to visiting her in the coming years and seeing her beautifully dappled bay coat glistening in the sun as she dances across a field. As time passes I’ll likely forget whom she beat in which race or by how many lengths she won, but I will never forget--nor cease to be in awe of--her love of running, her exceptional heart, and her classic beauty. And I’ll leave the comparisons and rankings to those with minds more mathematically inclined than mine.