California thoroughbred proves her greatness — and perfection

Perfection fell short by 6 inches on Breeders’ Cup Saturday when Zenyatta lost by less than the length of one hand. She brought with her a lifetime record of 19 wins and no losses, including her win in the Classic a year ago when she became the first female to ever beat the world’s greatest males.

She left it with her record impaired and her reputation enhanced by one of the greatest stretch runs in history. The near-perfect Zenyatta is the best horse to come from California since the imperfect Seabiscuit, and their legacies are two sides of one message — while Zenyatta speaks to the drive for perfection, Seabiscuit embodies the drive of the flawed to surmount limitations.

Together, they teach us a critical lesson: Perfection and greatness are two different things.

In Depression-era America, Seabiscuit’s lack of perfection was the key to his charm. “Americans were down and out,” Laura Hillenbrand says. “They wanted a hero that came from the wrong side of the tracks, that was beat up like they were.”

Seabiscuit obliged. He was built like a “cinderblock … blunt, coarse, rectangular,” with bent knees and an odd sideways gait.

Misunderstood by his original trainer, he was a certified loser on the lowest rungs of the sport when he was spotted in 1936 by the trainer who saved him, and his subsequent glories played off his unfortunate past. But if he looked like, and sometimes lived like, a peasant, Zenyatta looked like and lived like a queen.

Seventeen hands and 1,200 pounds of glorious muscle, she was lavished in love by her doting connections, who carefully plotted her every career move. Seabiscuit was raced 35 times as a 2-year-old, and lost most of these races. Zenyatta was brought along slowly, nurtured and paced.

When he won, he was dissed by the eastern establishment; she was treated like royalty. She had the longest unbeaten streak in racing history. He lost a staggering 56 times, most in the first years he was running.

Perhaps the main thing that the two horses have in common is that each lost by inches in the greatest race that each ever ran.

Seabiscuit’s losing performance in the Santa Anita Handicap in 1938 — following his whisker-thin loss the year prior — is still regarded as one of the greatest runs ever seen.

“Never before had a racehorse been so widely praised for losing,” the narrator in PBS’s documentary on Seabiscuit said. “Fouled early by a hopeless long shot, he’d catapulted from 12th place to first in just half a mile, only to wind up in a fierce homestretch drive against a horse toting 30 fewer pounds.”

Zenyatta’s loss in the Classic this year is now seen as greater than her win a year earlier, which was hailed then as one of the all-time great races — the field deeper, the track much more difficult, the ground to make up even more. Seabiscuit won the Santa Anita in 1940, and retired a winner. Zenyatta followed a win with a loss, and spoiled the Hollywood ending. But perhaps she did not.

She lost with her streak broken, but her reputation enhanced, and her mystique even stronger, proving perfection is sometimes superfluous.

“Mrs. P had only one fault: she was perfect; otherwise, she was perfect,” Truman Capote wrote of Babe Paley.

Purged of her fault, Zenyatta is … perfect. Now more than ever before.

Examiner columnist Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of “Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families.”

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