Winning Isn't Anything

Lovable loser Zippy Chippy takes the lead.

Before it's over, maybe they could match him up against a '58 Edsel. Or the Hindenburg. Or Michael Dukakis. Something. Because Zippy Chippy, whose papers say he is a thoroughbred racehorse, has never won versus his own kind. In eleven long years of trying (and sometimes not trying), the thirteen-year-old bay gelding, bred in New York, has gone to the post an even 100 times, and failed to visit the winner's circle on every occasion. Zero for 100. The son of Compliance (out of Listen Lady) reached that dubious milestone September 10 at the Three-County Fair in Northampton, Massachusetts, when, in the second race, he finished dead last in a field of eight. Now, his owner/trainer reports, the end may finally be near. Out to pasture.

"I don't know," 61-year-old Felix Monserrate said by telephone last week. "I just don't know. He's training good. He's happy. But I don't want to take a chance of him getting hurt. This could be it."

The Secretariats of the racing world fly forever through memory, and magical upstarts like Smarty Jones always wear blankets of red roses in our mind's eye. John Elway finally earned his Super Bowl rings, and the expansion Diamondbacks took out the mighty Yankees in seven. But who will hold a brief for Zippy Chippy? Who will remember him ten or twenty or fifty years from now? The horse that couldn't run straight. The plodder who so often dwelt in the gate at humble Finger Lakes Racetrack in upstate New York that the stewards finally banned him. Who drifted wide in the turn. Who stopped cold on the backstretch. Who lost what were probably the last two races of his futile career by a total of 41 lengths.

Ethan Wenberg

Actually, a lot of people will remember.

Like the '62 Mets and Rodney Dangerfield, Zippy Chippy has attracted a following over the years -- and not among just the lame, the halt and the delusional. He gets fan mail from many countries. His trainer, who has been running cheap horses at bush-league tracks for forty years, has become a minor celebrity. When the old racehorse materialized again last month at the Northampton Fair -- which may be the only race meet in the country where he's still allowed to, uh, compete -- dozens of fans showed up wearing Zippy Chippy T-shirts and Zippy Chippy lapel pins. Despite the horse's woeful record, they sent him off at respectable 6-1 odds on September 4 (he ran seventh, 32 lengths behind the winner) and as the 7-2 second choice in his hundredth race, six days later.

To call him the sentimental favorite is to understate the case. Horseplayers bet on the world's most famous maiden so they can keep their losing tickets as souvenirs. Children want to pet him, although Zippy is anything but docile. Except in the company of Monserrate's fifteen-year-old daughter, Marisa, he's a terror. He throws riders, savages other horses on the track and does major damage to his stall. He's even nipped a few chunks of flesh from his long-suffering trainer. Still, Monserrate says, he loves Zippy Chippy like a wayward son.

"He give motivation to people," the Puerto Rico-born horseman says. "To keep going. Three years ago, I even get a call from London, England. The guy tells me they using Zippy in a TV campaign to keep kids who wanna quit school in school. They say: Look at this horse in America that no matter how bad he run he keep trying." Zippy has finished second eight times (once by just a nose, Monserrate says) and third twelve times, but his only "wins" were publicity stunts -- a race against a trotting horse at Freehold Raceway in New Jersey (he spotted the slower standardbred a twenty-length lead and caught him at the wire) and two scores in sprints against minor-league baseball players in Rochester, New York. Don't let this out, but one of the defeated Homo sapiens was Aurora native Darnell McDonald, then playing for the Rochester Red Wings.

On this continent, only a fellow gelding named Thrust has surpassed Zippy Chippy in the annals of equine failure. In the 1950s, Thrust managed to get beat 105 times in just five years. But he never got the kind of sympathetic publicity the Zipster does. Perennial presidential candidate Harold Stassen would have been thrilled with so much ink. Likewise the Broncos' Steve Tensi, dropping back to pass, bouncing the ball off his knee, then inadvertently knocking it into the end zone behind him. Remember Lloyd Ruby? He was the plain-talking Texas race driver whose bad luck at the Indianapolis 500 became legend. Many times, he led the great race only to have things go disastrously wrong. In the 1970 500, Ruby was driving a red, white and blue car sponsored by Denver cable-television pioneer Bill Daniels when, more than halfway home, he surged to the front. What's more, he said later, on the very lap he took the lead, he glimpsed a flight of white doves over turn three -- a sign of good luck in Ruby's part of Texas. Great, except that when he made his final pit stop, he misread a crewman's signal and screeched away from the pit box with the fuel nozzle still in his tank. Tore the side of the car off. Never again led the 500.

Lloyd Ruby, too, might have to nod in silent acknowledgement of a 0-for-100 racehorse. After all, Monserrate acquired the horse in 1995 in exchange for something automotive: his beat-up Ford van.

"Say you have three children," the trainer explains. "One is a lawyer, doing well. The other a doctor, very, very successful. But the third one, not so smart, so he working at McDonald's. What do you do? Ignore him? Course not. He's the one who needs your help. That's Zippy."

Now that Zippy Chippy's on the verge of retirement, what are we to think? That a kind of perfection has been preserved? That failure has been elevated to sacrament? That something vital canters off into oblivion? Maybe all of the above.

He is the Tattaglia brothers messing with Sonny Corleone. He is the inventor of the eight-track stereo and the producer of Gigli. He is the Cubs, the Red Sox, "new" Coke and the 1997-98 Denver Nuggets (11-71, in case you've forgotten) all rolled into one. He is the fuzzless tennis ball. Compared to Zippy's travails, Napoleon's trip to Russia and the CIA's sleuthing in Saudi Arabia start to look pretty good. Given enough chances, the average Budweiser Clydesdale could win a claiming race at Finger Lakes. Not Zippy Chippy. He lost seventy races at his owner's home track before the weary stewards ruled him off in the name of the public good.

After the horse's 100th failure, jockey Willie Belmonte told a bemused reporter from the Baltimore Sun: "I think he just got tired. I also think he's a smart horse. He knows he's going to get fed no matter what."

Exactly. In view of his failed striving, Zippy Chippy will remain a member of the Monserrate family forever. No glue factory for this lovable loser, no dog-food plant. "I don't want nothing to happen to him," Felix Monserrate affirms. "He will stay with me, he will never leave my side. I enjoy real good with him everywhere we go together. And what he means to people. He gave them enjoyment."

Like Susan Lucci gave enjoyment. Like the Jamaican bobsled team. Like...well, okay, maybe it's not the same kind of enjoyment Mike Hampton and Marcus Nash and Nick Van Exel gave to Denverites. In the end, consider John Bunyan, who never bought an exacta ticket, never saw the Zipster run and never had to sit there while the Rockies blew another six-run lead in the ninth. But the author of Pilgrim's Progress knew all about failure. "He that is down," Bunyan wrote in the seventeenth century, "need fear no fall."

Case in point: When we talked last week, Felix Monserrate was getting another one of the twelve horses in his barn, a five-year-old mare named Ava Marisa, ready to run in a modest allowance race at Finger Lakes. Little matter that Ava Marisa has won just four times in four years. Or that she's a bit sore-legged. Or that Monserrate bought her, back in 2001, for exactly $10. "Ava Marisa a pretty good one," the trainer said. "She have a good chance Saturday."

Ava Marisa ran second.

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