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David Beckham, you're no Zenyatta

GRAHAME L. JONES / ON SOCCER

Major League Soccer hasn't been able to break through without a star to reach the fans on an emotional level.

October 02, 2010|Grahame L. Jones | On Soccer

I went out to Hollywood Park on Saturday afternoon to see what soccer in this country could be.

That might sound like a ludicrous notion, but consider this: Major League Soccer can build all the stadiums it likes, sign all the players it wants and enter all the competitions it can, but it will still be missing one key component.

What MLS really needs is a Zenyatta.

The league has been around for 15 years. Zenyatta has been around for only six, but she has done more in the last three years to keep horse racing in the newspaper and on the evening news than MLS has done for soccer since its inception.

That's not a knock on MLS. It is merely the realization that something is missing. Something called emotion, and it can't be manufactured.

On Saturday, the unbeaten Zenyatta won her 19th race in a row, in dramatic fashion as usual, winning the Grade I, $250,000 Lady's Secret Stakes by a half-length to the enormous delight, not to mention relief, of her fans.

One of those fans was the now-retired Chris McCarron, one of racing's all-time great riders. I asked him what he thought of the dark bay mare.

"She has been such a boon to racing the last years," McCarron said. "Her following just gets larger and larger and larger. I'm just thrilled that I could be here today to watch her get her 19th in a row. I haven't seen anything like her since Ruffian."

Even McCarron, who can read a race like no other, said Zenyatta's finish again astonished him.

"One hundred yards from the wire I didn't think she was going to get there," he said. "But she did, like she always does."

The affection that flowed from the crowd at the Inglewood track was unmistakable. There was a buzz of anticipation before the race, a thrill of excitement during the 103 seconds it took to run, and a warm and happy glow afterward. The smiles were bigger than Zenyatta's margin of victory.

It was one of those "I was there when" moments.

Too many MLS games go the full 90 minutes without producing a single frisson of excitement, with or without David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Rafael Marquez or any other of the league's high-priced imports.

Something is missing. Something called emotion.

Zenyatta and her jockey, Mike Smith, made the most of the moment. This was the mare's next-to-last time on the track, and her final race in California.

In the paddock before the race, the fans crowded against the railing and lined the grandstand's balconies, craning for a glimpse of one of racing's true legends.

Artist Fred Stone, on hand to sign his book of racing greats and prints of his latest Zenyatta painting, sold out both in no time.

There was a nervous murmur when the horses made their way onto the track. The gate sprang open, the race was on. Zenyatta stayed back, trailing the field, as usual. Then, at seemingly the last possible moment, she made her move, catching the leader in the final strides.

Fans in the crowd of 25,837 looked at each other as if to say, "Can you believe that?"

"She just runs as fast as she has to," Smith explained. "If they run faster, she runs faster. If they run slower, she runs slower. They could have set the world record today and she probably would have won by a neck."

Smith led her slowly back to the winner's circle, raising his helmet to the sky in a moment of silent prayer, posing Zenyatta in front of the fans, pointing at the mare and bringing the volume of cheers and applause to a new level.

The answer was right there, but I asked trainer John Shirreffs anyway. What does Zenyatta mean to racing?

"I think people got to know her a little because of her racing record and all the wins in a row," he said, "but somewhere along the way I think people started seeing her as more than a racehorse, as a dancing horse, as a performer, as a personality."

There is a key word in there for MLS, and it isn't dancing. It's personality. That's what soccer is missing in the U.S., personality. Making a connection with the audience is what it's all about. Soccer has not made it yet.

"You saw the crowd today, 98% of them were probably here to see her," said Smith, sporting new diamond cufflinks bearing the letter Z, a gift from Zenyatta's owners Jerry and Ann Moss. "It's pretty amazing."

Saturday's crowd was the biggest at Hollywood Park in nine years and Zenyatta loved it.

"She was a ham out there today," Smith said. "She handles it better than I do. She just dances a little more if it gets loud."

In MLS, they're still waiting to dance.

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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