By Elizabeth Whitney
In 2009 Associated Press voted her the Number Two Female Athlete of the Year after Serena Williams. In 2010 she found herself on Oprah’s Power List of 20 Most Influential Females. This month she has a full page spread in the fashion magazine “W.”
Who is she? A great tennis star? An Olympian medal winner? A derring-do mountaineer or teenage yachtswoman? Here’s a hint. She’s 6 years old.
If you don’t know by now, I’m here to tell you she’s Zenyatta, a thoroughbred racemare racing toward her destiny. She’s about to carve her name into the record books as one of—if not the—greatest female racehorses of all time. On November 6 she races her last race before retirement, the Breeder’s Cup Classic in Louisville, Kentucky. She won the same race last year against all-male contenders, becoming the first female to win in its 25-year history. If she wins again, her record will stand at 20-0. That beats all records—even Man O’ War lost a race and Secretariat and Seabiscuit lost a bunch of races.
There is more to her than her record, as astounding as it is. She is a spectacular being that is captivating the entire (albeit shrinking) racing world from its crusty trainers to veteran turf writers to goofy girl fans treating her like a rock star. She’s referred to as the Queen, a title that sits easily on her majestic shoulders that are six feet from the ground—she’s 17 ½ hands high.
She not only wins every race but she wins in heart-stopping fashion, coming from the back of the pack and closing at the stretch with a drive that seems impossible to everyone except her. If that weren’t enough, she also has developed, all on her own, a prancing/dancing performance in the paddock before the race that is pure show business. It may be how she intimidates her rivals or how she warms up her legs, but from the human fans’ point of view, Zenyatta’s dance is proof that she is sublimely aware of her charismatic power. From the moment she emerges from the barns she gets the spotlight and never gives it up.
Out of the dying embers of horseracing’s former glory comes this heroic symbol that has transformed the southern California tracks where she has raced all but two of her races. At her 19th race at Hollywood Park last month the crowd of 25,000 was the largest in 10 years. A week later it was barely over 2,000. The irony of a horse like Zenyatta arriving on the scene when racing everywhere—but particularly in California—is struggling for survival is not lost on anyone in the business.
The reason you don’t know about Zenyatta is because there is virtually no coverage of horseracing anymore outside the handful of still prestigious and fashionable racing centers in the East Coast and Del Mar for a few short weeks. Covering Zenyatta in The Point Reyes Light may seem like a stretch but this is not a sports story. This is a story of the light cracking through the dark, of beauty and power and female essence triumphing in a transcendent display of primal emotion. People cry—men cry—when she does her thing, when she wins for the joy of winning and then soaks up the mad applause.
Her jockey claims she was sent from God. Her owner acknowledges she’s “given from a higher source.” Her trainer says over and over that she is a gift, a blessing, that they are so fortunate to have her. They love her, they are proud of her and they are in awe of her. The upwelling of fan love delights them and humbles them. “I love you all,” said owner Jerry Moss after Zenyatta won the 2009 Breeder’s Cup Classic to the uproar of the fans.
This is a story for and of our time. I think the story of Zenyatta belongs in every newspaper and YouTube clips of her races should circulate madly. Zenyatta fever needs to reach epidemic proportion. She is mythic—call her a wonder horse or a goddess and or Gaia herself. It all seems plausible.
I’ve been following her for six months and seen races #18 and #19, the last one with my 11 year-old granddaughter along for the ride. I told her it would be like meeting Elvis. She was dubious but she went for it and had fun. Now I’m going to Churchill Downs to see her run in the Breeder’s Cup Classic on November 6. Once again the field will be all male muscle horses, the best of the best. She will put on her last pre-race dance. The media will be crawling all over her. The stands will be packed as if it were the Derby. The excitement will be unbearable. It will be the Queen’s day and winning is all she knows how to do.