It is not very often that you can compare and contrast the radically different sports of horse racing and football, but that is exactly the context of this debate.
Both the 2007 New England Patriots and the horse Zenyatta flirted with immortality before it was cruelly ripped away from them at the zero hour. For the Patriots, they stood on the cusp of becoming the only team in NFL history to cap off a perfect 16-game season with a Super Bowl victory, while Zenyatta entered her final race with the hopes of being the only horse to retire at a perfect 20-0.
Both performed spectacularly. While they may have fallen short of becoming legends, their respective destinations should not overshadow their brilliant journeys.
If we hopped into the way-back machine, and were to assess the 2007 Patriots BEFORE the Super Bowl matchup against the Giants, then compare that to the career of Zenyatta BEFORE the 2010 Breeder’s Cup Classic, whose performance would history deem as being greater?
On history’s behalf, allow me to answer – Zenyatta.
What ultimately won the day for Zenyatta (and vicariously for Optimist Prime) is the fact that Zenyatta’s career was legendary BEFORE her final race. The fact that she lost to Blame at the 2010 Breeder’s Cup Classic is an unfortunate close to her legacy, but she had already established herself among the greatest horses ever to run – win OR lose.
Over her career, as Optimist Prime points out, Zenyatta significantly changed the sport of Horse Racing. In a sport where notoriety traditionally comes from success at the fabled Triple Crown races, Zenyatta blazed a new path to horse racing superstardom.
Thanks to Zenyatta, no longer is a Kentucky Derby victory a pre-requisite for horse racing greatness.
Think about the greatest horses in racing history – Secretariat, War Admiral, Affirmed, and more. Each was made great by their performance in the Triple Crown. Likewise, consider the horses of modern racing who have reached superstar status – Barbaro, Big Brown, Smarty Jones, and more. Just as with the former group, it is their respective Triple Crown performance that give them notoriety.
Zenyatta was different.
Instead of hoping to catch superstardom at the spectacle of the Kentucky Derby, she was the first horse to win two separate races at the Breeder’s Cup, was the first Mare to ever win the Classic, and no other horse has more consecutive Grade/Group One victories than Zenyatta. She became a celebrity by virtue of her outstanding CAREER, rather than her performance in three individual races.
Not since Man o’ War had a horse so captured the public’s eye without racing in the Triple Crown, and that is only because Man o’ War’s time came BEFORE the Triple Crown.
It is true that the New England Patriots also set many records. As Babe Ruthless mentions, they remain the only team ever to complete an undefeated 16-game regular season. But the NFL is always evolving. As it evolves, the statistical accomplishments of previous eras lose relevance. For the very same reasons that Babe Ruthless mitigates the 1972 Dolphins’ perfect season (because it came over a 14, rather than 16, game season), folks will one day mitigate the records of the New England Patriots as we now move closer to an 18-game season.
What does not lose relevance, though, is the fact that there has already been a perfect champion in the NFL. No matter how great the statistical achievements of the 2007 Patriots (as pointed out by Babe Ruthless), they were attempting to REPEAT history, not make it. Yes, it is true that the 1972 Dolphins played two less games, but they were nonetheless perfect champions.
Unlike the 2007 Patriots, Zenyatta was a pioneer.