Minutes after Zenyatta’s heart-breaking, valiant run at Blame—a run that didn’t quite make it by a breath—the words came pouring out. Jockey Mike Smith, more noble in defeat than he could possibly imagine, faced the cameras and faulted himself for strategic mishaps in the early part of the race. Eminent turf writers pulled themselves together and posted eloquent commentaries capturing the mixed dimensions of a race that showed both the heroic depth of Zenyatta’s will-to-win and the cruel truth of the words win and lose. Zenyatta’s Facebook page was inundated with postings expressing love, pride and encouragement. Around the breakfast table at my Louisville B&B the men were angry and the women were sad. Around the Internet, “comments” evoked respect and love for the Queen but also reprised old arguments, squabbles and, well, blame. Headline writers had fun with Blame and some writers recalled Man O’ War’s only defeat to Upset. Words, words, words.
I didn’t make my pilgrimage to Louisville from California for the Breeder’s Cup Classic at Churchill Downs because I am a racing fan or even very horseracing literate. I saw Zenyatta’s 17th race on a YouTube clip posted on an old friend’s page in June. It blew me away. I dove in. I watched all the races over and over again. I researched all the members of Team Zenyatta and my respect for them grew and grew. There was a moral flavor to them that was refreshing and magnetic. I read everything I could about racing. I studied its history; I devoured the books on the great horses and soberly took in the harsh critique of thoroughbred racing by James Squires, Headless Horsemen. I started a daily routine of reading all the turf writers I could find, getting to know this lively and gritty band of characters who want to tell a story that, in reality, few people care about anymore. Like any passion, however, from the inside it colors everything you see.
None of my friends knew anything about Zenyatta, but one by one, they caught the fever. We called it “witnessing for Zenyatta” when we brought our laptops to parties to show her races—“Got two minutes to have your mind blown?” It always worked. Because she raced in Southern California, I could get there by car, and my ancient Volvo proved as valiant as she when I hit the road south to get to Hollywood Park. Thanks to a welcoming exchange with Zenyatta’s trainer John Shirreffs who happened by when I was at the stable gate with my friend, we met the Queen one foggy morning when there was no one else around. She was sleeping. Then she woke up and looked at me and the experience was transfixing. At that moment I was aboard the ride wherever it was going to take me. I saw race #18 at Del Mar and met the track’s kind media man Mac McBride who gave me a $10 pass and wished me luck with my writing aspirations (a query to Rolling Stone magazine). Seeing her racing in person was electrifying. I saw in her body language the absolute assurance that she would win, something I couldn’t create from desire mixed in with ego. It came from her.
I became more fascinated by her capacity to reach into each of us and awaken something ancient and deep and spiritual. Is she part of this thing that we feel that is coming, the spirit of the feminine that is rising out of the dying age to reconnect us with holiness and sacred love? It was quite easy to entertain these lofty thoughts, to think of her as a miracle, a sign, a Goddess. And, by golly, those words were also on the lips of Mike Smith, owners Jerry and Ann Moss and John Shirreffs—people who ought to know. She is not of this realm. She is given from another source. She is a filly from God. She is a blessing. The higher her star rose in the firmament, the more humble and reverent were the words that came from them, not exactly typical sports lingo. The snarky arguments in the land of comments on the Internet were an unbearable contrast to what I was seeing from those closest to her. More impressive were the respectful remarks from trainers and jockeys of her rivals and potential rivals who rose above comparisons and noted that they, too, saw something extraordinary they were honored to witness up close.
For race #19 at Hollywood Park I had my 11-year-old granddaughter by my side. Dubious at first, she gradually got drawn into the racing spirit and the thrill of seeing the Queen pass Switch right in front of us. We have our souvenir hats and will have our souvenir memories of those two minutes forever. Hollywood Park was fun and relaxed that day. It cost $7 for me and was free for her and we had great seats among friendly company. The next stop on this cruise ship was Louisville, Kentucky, where she was entered in the Breeders Cup Classic, the culminating race of her three-year career and the showdown with the best of the best of her racing peers. This meet moves around over the years; in 2009 it was in Santa Anita in Southern California and in 2010 it was scheduled at Churchill Downs, the one racetrack everyone has heard of.
Churchill Downs in my imagination was the temple of racing, the golden apple in the green pasture of Kentucky’s famous breeding grounds of noble thoroughbreds, the over-the-rainbow of every horserace dream. In reality, it’s pretty darn ugly. Once upon a time it had a charming integrity with picturesque spires and sloping roofs, but two big blocky add-ons on either side of the old building dwarf this charm and give the whole place an industrial look. “It looks like they saved money by not hiring an architect,” I emailed a friend. It is close to major thoroughfares, other sports venues and your basic urban commercial decay. It was shocking to come upon it without seeing any landscaping; it didn’t fit any of my preconceptions.
Nevertheless, the tickets to the Breeders Cup races were top dollar, something that had concerned me from the beginning of this adventure. To make a long story short and sweet, I got lucky and befriended a talkative gentleman from Louisiana who sold me two standing room passes for the two race days for $100 that would put me in the stands at the level where I could see the whole race, including the backstretch. I discovered in the previous two races that seeing Zenyatta race live was where I got intuitive information about the shape of the race and its outcome. I needed to have my eyes on her, not the big video board.
Speaking of eyes on her, from the moment she arrived by plane from LA and was dramatically vanned into the barn area with full police escort, all eyes and cameras were on her. Herds of professional and amateur camera persons followed her every move from barn to track for morning workouts to the back lawn on Longfield Avenue outside her barn where she came out several times daily to graze and be washed down. You knew where Zenyatta was by the cloud of people in her wake.
All the promotion was about Zenyatta. It had finally come to a crescendo, this three-year long career of chalking up win after win until the numbers began to look—well, the phrase always ended up—unbelievable. “This is un-be-lievable!” was the cry of race caller Trevor Denman one year ago when she ran in the Breeders Cup Classic and came from behind to beat the all-male field and become the first female horse it its 25 year history to win it. (The year before she had stuck to the distaff side of the ledger and won the Ladies’ Classic.) She was here in Churchill Downs in Kentucky’s chilly November weather to defend her title in the same race with another powerful all-male field. She was the exotic diva from Southern California who brought her entourage, her bodyguards and her publicity machine with her. Just because her home at Hollywood Park isn’t in Hollywood, doesn’t man she’s not a Hollywood star. She is the epitome of female stardom: beautiful, talented, rich, powerful and radiantly healthy. She has great legs, a gorgeous chest and an ass to die for. Her trainer John Shirreffs, not given to hyperbole, considers her the perfection of 300 years of thoroughbred breeding. She’s also kind and gentle and intelligent.
Through her owners’ guidance, she has generated lots of money for racing’s causes: thoroughbred rescue, jockey benefits and scholarship funds for back barn families. Zenyatta, named for the Police album Zenyatta Mondatta, is a made-up word, but it contains the root syllable for the word “zenith” and Mondatta contains the root syllable for the word “world.” She arrived from her triumphant California-based career at the Mecca of thoroughbred racing at the top of the racing world. From the obscurity of virtually no mainstream media about horseracing outside of the Kentucky Derby, she was within a few weeks featured on 60 Minutes, in Oprah’s O magazine, illuminated in the fashion rag W, and the object of a sizeable feature in Sports Illustrated. Zenyatta had finally leapt out of the intimate world of racing aficionados into the public eye. If she won her race—billed as her last race—achieving an unprecedented record of 20-0 she would certainly have a shot at the front page of the New York Times. There was a lot more than Mike Smith riding on the mighty Queen.
There were millions of devoted female fans all over the world who knew about this race and there were thousands who had managed to get themselves to Kentucky to see her in person. It was the effect on women that created the Zenyatta phenomenon. It crossed all ages and attitudes. Mothers shared the devotion of their teenage girls; economic strata and what you did for a living had no bearing on her appeal. Zenyatta’s hoofs pounded on the common ground of women from all stripes of society who projected themselves into her courage and power. A particularly deep chord was struck among women who own, ride, train and care for horses in every rural pocket of America. They saw who Zenyatta was and wanted to witness her prove to the world at large that a great mare was in a league of her own, one that transcended the record-book boundaries of the sport of kings. The love of women for a female horse was the wave that gave Zenyatta wings of glory.
One reason I admired the quality of writing that came out of the race coverage by sports writers and columnists and bloggers all over the land was the challenge of putting into words what the experience was and doing it within minutes of the experience. The race took me through an existential disintegration and back. Oppositions collided into each other and fractalized into patterns my mind couldn’t recognize. Night and day. Win and lose. Good and bad. Hope and fear. Inner and outer. Alone and connected. Real or a dream? Whatever had happened in those two minutes was so overwhelming I surrendered to a loss of words. It was easier that way. Now it is possible to tell my tale.
By race time, the sun had set after a long brilliantly sunny but cold day of observing races, people and a variety of rather strange anomalies at the track. An interference move that set off a brawl between jockeys that stunned the crowd. A horse that couldn’t run, that probably should have been scratched but wasn’t. A horse that fell and a girl jockey that rolled out of harm’s way. Was this unusual? I didn’t know. I wasn’t betting. I wasn’t socializing. I was waiting for the last race and it arrived as twilight descended and the palette before me changed into night tones. Suddenly it was Halloween eerie, Ichabod Crane spooky. On the screen came yet one more promotional video of the great Zenyatta and I cringed. Enough already with the hubris!
Zenyatta was prancing mightily as she came past the stands and into the paddock. The crowd was roaring. She was indeed worked up, more than I’d ever seen, her forelegs pawing at unseen energies. What alchemy was she having to do with this roar flooding over her, she who was always so aware of a camera clicking or her name called out? In all her races there had never been this intensity of drama with darkness descending and floodlights replacing the sun. In the stands cameras everywhere were flashing points of light like twinkling stars. I was a tiny spectator up in the back of the Third Floor Grandstand with my binoculars, one of 72,000, finally arriving at an appointment I had made with destiny six months ago. The roller coaster ride was about to begin. Being in the moment was never more palpable.
From the second she came out of the gate, I felt something was wrong. She was caught in a cobweb of energy that she couldn’t shake loose that was wrapping itself around her legs. It was like the dream you have when you are trying to do something but can’t, can’t make yourself move or punch those numbers on your phone or get your clothes on. It was excruciating. She was in another race on another dimension, a race to free herself from limitations that had descended on her. The rest of the field was drew further and further away, leaving her alone with her internal struggle, leaving us alone with her internal struggle. The pack of eleven other horses became two clumps far ahead of her; her figure going around the backstretch was poignantly far behind them, like someone chasing a bus they had missed. Nothing made sense. You wanted Mike to do something, but knew of course he was doing everything he could, that he alone was in communion with her struggle and that her struggle was not his, but hers. And then she found herself.
The catch-up started at they came toward the far turn and the crowd’s voice became one unified roar of relief. The distance closed between her flying black silhouette and the horses in front of her. As they came around, my view was telescoped and I couldn’t see who was where. It was Trevor Denman’s voice who told us she was making her heroic stretch run and was now free of the pack and bearing down on Blame. 72,000 souls were locked into the same dream chanting Go! Go! Go! in tune with her thundering stride in front of us all, catching up with every leap to the only horse left, Blame. Every heart leapt as the miracle was suddenly possible. Then we were dropped into the precipice of disappointment. The wire had come too soon, the mighty Blame hadn’t folded, her in-breath pulled her head back and his exhale extended his neck and nostrils. We didn’t need the photo finish. We saw it. We heard the call. “Blame has won it by a head. Zenyatta has run her heart out and had to settle for second.” A blanket of silence fell from the heavens. Only when she turned back toward us did it become another cheer, one that came from the depths of our heartbroken hearts, the cheer for the noble vanquished.
She lost by a breath but won by a measure that is deeply human. She won over whatever net had descended over her great powers and, like the mythic creature that she is, she brought her courage and invincibility to a level that every seasoned horserace watcher recognized as, well, unbelievable. Her achievement transcended the scorecard and the realm in which the scorecard rules. We wanted the coronation of the Queen for all the world to see and the mad happiness of unequivocal victory. Instead we got a cosmic paradox: the majesty of defeat. At Churchill Downs we didn’t get what we wanted; I guess we got what we need.
The rest of the night was strange and uncomfortable. I walked back to my B&B with a small group of people who had gathered for a bus that never came due to the cordons the police had set up for traffic. We talked quietly about everything except the race as the blocks rolled by. It had been a long cold day in the elements, walking around the stands people-watching with brief respites on cold metal seats. Sustaining the momentum of the hours—and days—before the Classic was hard work; a victorious final chapter was my formula for making it all worthwhile. I didn’t get my happy ending. In actuality, no one did. Even those who cheered or owned Blame were emotionally impacted by the furious assault that almost succeeded. I was drained and lonely. I emailed loved ones that I wanted to wake up at home tomorrow. I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to watch reruns of the race on YouTube, but I trolled the Internet for any crumbs of digestible coverage. The fleeting images that I caught of Jerry and Ann Moss, John Shirreffs, groom Mario Espinoza and the broken-hearted Mike Smith in tears let me know that we were all in this together, all withdrawn into our own hearts and sorrows.
With my laptop on my lap as I slouched under the covers, I managed this post on my Facebook page and then went to sleep:
You can talk about winning and you can talk about losing and then you can change the subject and talk about triumph. Triumph involves incorporating defeat into victory. The triumph of Zenyatta’s spirit was unmistakable even if her nose didn’t touch the finish line first. Long live the Queen.
By morning it had some “likes.” That helped. In fact, morning helped a lot. First of all, the day turned out to be about 20 degrees warmer. The time had changed but by then clock time was irrelevant anyway. There was no schedule and I had not even thought about what I would feel like doing after the race. I wandered around the Internet for a while, reading eloquent and emotional posts by the writers I had come to know: Joe Drape of the New York Times, Bill Dwyre of the Los Angeles Times, Jennie Rees of the Louisville-Courier plus bloggers who appear at Thoroughbred Times, Blood-Horse and the Daily Racing Form. Later there would be more and more sports writers and just plain writers chiming in, echoing the naked emotions that this event had revealed. Finally, there was a cryptic post by one of my favorites, the passionate and dedicated race reporter Claire Novak, whose Facebook page I bookmarked months ago. It read: “going to the barn to see the Queen.”
Of course. That was the thing to do, and do immediately. I had been part of several gaggles of fans standing on the outside of the fence on Longfield Avenue looking in to view Zenyatta outside her barn in the days before the race. It was here that the people came to see their Queen, folks who probably could barely, if at all, pony up the money necessary for the inexpensive seats. The word was out that she would come out to graze, and people poked cameras and cell phones through the wire fencing to get souvenir pictures, to ooh and ahh and sometimes even wipe a tear away. They often washed her out there, lots of fun to see, and walked her in loops near the fence perfectly aware that the folks outside were just as important as those inside with passes or the press with their monster motor-drive cameras and flapping credentials. She was the people’s Queen after all.
As I waited for my bus in the warm sunshine I shuffled the dry leaves at my feet, leaves that looked beautiful and sounded deliciously crunchy. We don’t have these leaves where I live, so I had been photographing them as well. I got the idea that I could make a heart out of local leaves in the fence down there and that would be my statement. I picked a few flowers that were blooming in the park and when the bus came there I was with my bouquet and my mission. My mood was changing by the minute.
When I got to the fence, sure enough the public was there and this time it was Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs, John’s wife and the race manager for the Mosses, who was at the fence talking to people. Questions were asked back and forth and gratitude poured out of the fans and was reciprocated by Dottie. These women were horsewomen, probably local, and they complimented the team for the incredible care given to Zenyatta. One woman wanted to know how they cured that ringworm that was on her when she was purchased, the reason perhaps Zenyatta wasn’t such at hot item at her yearling auction. “I’ve had horses all my life, but I’ve never seen ringworm on one of ‘em. I’ve sure had it on my kids, though,” she laughed. The mood was relaxed, friendly and, of all things, happy.
Dottie said they would bring Zenyatta out at three, in about an hour, and people drifted off to park cars safely away from the blue meanies and their parking tickets and to gather up children and friends for the afternoon visit. I started trying out my Andy Goldsworthy heart, as I called it, and found that I could carefully weave the brittle brown leaves into the fence and use its grid to make a respectable heart pattern with my flowers in the middle. No need for a coat anymore as the sun was warm. In a while, people from team Zenyatta began appearing from the barn. Jerry Moss came out and photographed the heart, which made me very happy. In the process of trying to develop a story for Rolling Stone—which they ultimately turned down—I had talked to him but never met him. Instead he took a picture of my heart. That was just fine. He talked to people, smiling, and soon his wife Ann appeared in a Zenyatta baseball hat and long down coat. She was smiling, gracious, thankful, and as natural as can be, willingly accepting hats and posters to autograph, the latter of which she did by getting down on the ground on her hands and knees. She wears wild looking diamond rings on almost every finger, including her thumb, and the newest one is a “Z” inside a diamond pattern. On her hands and knees with diamond rings smiling and laughing and signing people’s posters! I loved it. They posed for pictures together; everyone called them Mr. and Mrs. Moss and thanked them copiously. I think that was when someone asked Jerry, “Who was higher maintenance, Sting or Zenyatta?” (In his A&M Records incarnation, Jerry Moss produced Sting and still is a pal of his.) He laughed and put his arm around Ann and answered, “This one.”
Finally, out came the Queen, absolutely dazzling in the low autumn light. Her dapples were golden and her coat was shiny as a polished boot. She did all her characteristic moves, lifting her head and posing with pricked ears and happily chomped carrots poked through the fence. (“These are or-gan-ic,” said one woman, clearly communicating that when it comes to the best horse in the world you buy the best.) A little girl had an apple that was handed over the fence that Zenyatta chomped half of. The other half came back over the fence to the little girl. People wanted her to save it somehow. I told her to eat it. “Your lips can touch where her lips touched. You’ll get Zenyatta DNA.” That got a laugh. Earlier there had been a carrot cake (she ate it) and soon another cake came over the fence. The clump of people watching moved like iron filings following a magnet as Zenyatta was led along the fence chomping grass as she went. She came close enough so that her ear was brushing the fence and we who were near were able to poke a finger through and feel the soft hairs at the end of her ear tips. The banter on both sides was friendly, sweet and kind, the Mosses always responding to the comments of gratitude with gratitude of their own. Ann kept signing until it seemed as if everyone was satisfied and only waved good-bye when her part was complete. They were off that afternoon as would be Zenyatta, back to California and home. There were good-byes, waves and more thank-yous, and then the Zenyatta entourage was gone.
Meetings on the fence were as synchronistic as everything else. I mentioned that I had tried to get a piece in Rolling Stone and a woman piped up, “I’ve been trying them on this story for two years and I used to work there!” I zeroed in on her immediately. She’s from LA, she has tried magazines just like I did to no avail. We rolled our eyes at the state of the media we once were part of. “They said it wasn’t a music story,” she said. Jerry Moss was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with partner Herb Alpert in 2006. He’s a music story! Oh, well. What can you say? We tried; we didn’t get backing; we made it here anyway.
Lingering after our great day as the light got lower was Steve Haskin, eminent horserace author and columnist, a household name in the sport. He and Larry Schulman co-host a video show for BloodHorse.com that is full of horse lore and racing knowledge. Steve is the kind of guy who knows who won what race in what year for who knows how many years back and probably who placed and showed as well. When he began his livelihood as a handicapper and writer, horseracing was popular and mainstream. His biographies of great horses are required reading for serious lovers of the sport and his columns are elucidating and eloquent. He had been there all afternoon and got his photo taken with Zenyatta by Ann Moss. He is just as besotted as anyone and now we have the evidence for it. Zenyatta nuzzled him and he kissed her on the nose. She works her charm equally on the crustiest hearts and the cutest kids. It’s all a big love-in to this magnificent being.
A mother and daughter showed up late in the day who had been in communication with Steve Haskin through the daughter’s art and graphic work. Steve was impressed with her portfolio and recommended her to an editor. Now she has a publication assignment for the next Derby. Once again, much mutual gratitude was expressed and lots of story telling. Steve is a raconteur with a million stories of his life-long passion for the races and has seen horseracing slowly sink beneath the sea of public awareness. “Our sport,” as the race lovers like say, is one they yearn to share with people simply for the moments such as we had seen the day before. The excitement, the emotions, the heartbreaks and the victories are compressed into a few minutes in horseracing, minutes that are punctuated by the thundering of horse hooves and the rasping breathing of the horses, underscored by people yelling themselves hoarse, so to speak. The mystique of the animals and the multifaceted relationship between human and horse that is the heart and soul of the sport produces emotions that defy description. It seems to be mostly about a kind of love that either you feel or you don’t. If you feel it, you understand it in those around you, no matter how different they are from you or each other. This relationship has been plumbed in racing literature, factual and fictionalized, and yet is, at the end, a mystery.
Zenyatta brought all that back in high definition in her race toward destiny. The sports pages had her on their front page and turf writers who were turned out to pasture in recent times got their bylines back for a few days. It felt like the old glory days to the elders of this sport and for a few glorious days it was possible to feel that the good old days lived again. As the sun touched the burnished tree tops in the shabby neighborhood on Longfield Avenue, only one little cluster of Zenyatta fans were left by the barns that backed up to the great Churchill Downs track. When we said good-bye—Steve Haskin on his side of the fence and four women from four walks of life on our side of the fence—it would be over. The whole time we had been talking through the heart of leaves. I called it the heart line. To me, that was the story—the triumph of the heart. If Zenyatta is all those mysterious things that are beyond this world, if she is a gift from God, if she is more angel than mortal, if she is a sign of miracles to come, if she is one of the Awakeners, if she is simply an embodiment of the deepest yearnings of our hearts, if she is the Great Goddess returning…if she is any of these things, then she has succeeded in her mission. She took us on a ride around the Wheel of Fortune and into the vortex of love.
And, by the way, according to Dottie, Zenyatta thinks she won.