LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Put the blame on Blame for breaking Zenyatta's magnificent winning streak — and a lot of hearts, too.
Jockey Mike Smith wept. Owners Jerry and Ann Moss stood in stunned silence. Trainer John Shirreffs trudged slowly back to the barn, hands in his pockets.
Nineteen times the people behind Zenyatta had led horse racing's superstar to the track. Nineteen times they had celebrated with her in the winner's circle.
Not this time.
Blame beat Zenyatta by a head in a thrilling finish at the Breeders' Cup Classic on Saturday night, handing the 6-year-old mare her first, and most likely last, defeat. The race was expected to be Zenyatta's last before retirement.
Zenyatta threaded her way through traffic from last place while the crowd of 72,739 urged her on as she unleashed a monstrous closing kick under the lights at Churchill Downs.
The finish was so close, a matter of inches, the result had to be resolved by a photo.
It was so close, Ann Moss said she was hoping her horse had "stuck her tongue out" at the finish.
Smith blamed himself for the loss. He walked off the track with his head down, dirt stuck to his face.
"It was my fault," he said, sobbing. "She should've won.
"It hurts more than I can explain."
Blame went to the front in midstretch, then fought off another gutty run by the massive mare, who lagged well behind 11 rivals, all boys, in her customary style.
Sent off at 5-1 odds, Blame ran 11/4 miles in 2 minutes, 2.28 seconds and paid $12.40, $4.40 and $3.80. Zenyatta, the sentimental even-money favorite, returned $3.60 and $2.80. Fly Down was another 31/2 lengths back in third and paid $8.60 to show. Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky finished fourth.
Zenyatta proved she could beat the boys last year when she rallied from behind to win the $5 million Classic at Santa Anita. It was one of her 17 wins on synthetic surfaces in California, her home state.
This time, though, she faced the deepest, most talented field of her career on a surface on which she has had limited experience. Still, trainer Shirreffs had said she preferred it to synthetic tracks.
This was the third time she had run on dirt, and in the two previous races, she had beaten other girls at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas.
But Blame had homecourt advantage. He had won twice before on dirt at Churchill, where Zenyatta had never raced.
"She ran an excellent race and just came up a little short," Shirreffs said. "She ran her heart out."
But Zenyatta's late-running style proved her undoing this time. She got away slowly from the starting gate and spotted early leader First Dude 15 lengths over the opening half-mile.
At the back of the pack, Smith was coaxing Zenyatta to start making up ground. But it was a struggle. She was getting hit in the face with clods of dirt, something that doesn't happen on a synthetic track.
"She wasn't used to it," Smith said. "Although she's run on dirt twice, they were really short fields, and (she) really never got nothing in her face before. Just left her with too much to do."
Smith furiously tore through six pairs of goggles to keep a clear view of things.
"I just wish I would have been in the race a little earlier, because I think the outcome would have certainly been different," the Hall of Fame jockey said.
When Zenyatta finally kicked into gear, Smith had plenty of horse left. She started her rally turning for home, dropping down to the inside rail with three furlongs to go and Blame on her outside.
Smith then angled her to the outside for clear running room, and the crowd exploded. Zenyatta charged through the lane, gaining on Blame with every stride of her powerful legs. Gomez, aboard Blame, knew only Zenyatta could deny him the win.
"I was asking (Blame) as much as I could without asking him for everything," Gomez said. "I was trying to save just enough so if (Zenyatta) did get to me, I had something and some kind of response.
"I knew she'd be coming. She's the best I've ever seen."
The loss might have cost Zenyatta a shot at horse of the year honors. She lost out to Rachel Alexandra last year. This year's vote, announced in January, will come down to Blame vs. Zenyatta.
"I thought the battle for horse of the year was fought about a half-hour ago, and Blame won it," said Seth Hancock of Claiborne Farm, which co-owns Blame.
Zenyatta's 19 consecutive wins tie her for most all time with Peppers Pride, who retired last year after running against much-lesser competition.
"Zenyatta didn't lose anything," winning trainer Al Stall Jr. said. "It was just two very good horses.
"We were fortunate to have the right horse on the right day at the right time."