Of course the Queen of Thoroughbred racehorses would live in Los Angels California, and of course she would live at a place called Hollywood Park. After all, L.A. and Hollywood go hand in hand with glamour and star power. I will never forget the day I saw her race. The weather was perfect; warm and sunny with a slight, cool breeze. I paid the $8.00 it cost to get in and remember thinking, only $8 to see her? That’s so unbelievable. But then again, everything about this mare is un-be-lievable. I was invited to sit with a couple sweet ladies in the grandstand and the seats were just before the finish line. A perfect spot to watch Zenyatta kick it into gear. I was surprised by how few people were in the grandstand when I got there. Many people were on the inside of clubhouse, watching screens and placing bets. I considered placing a bet or two but decided against it. I got to watch a couple really exciting races and as Zenyatta’s post time crept closer, the grandstand began to fill. Zenyatta t-shirts, ball caps, and posters began to show up. Everyone from little children, to elderly couples were there, buzzing with energy, to see this mare. When it was time for her race, the grandstand and lower section of the track were jam packed with people. The atmosphere was electric. When Zenyatta emerged out of the tunnel and onto the track, the reaction was instant. Instant cheers. Instant gasps. Even instant tears. Camera flashes were blinding. And Zenyatta acknowledged her fans in her own Zenyatta way.
She danced. Oh, did she dance. She arched her powerful neck and pawed the ground with her long front legs. She is graceful, she moves like a dancer. As she danced her way down the stretch to warm up, people followed her along the fence, snapping pictures and calling out encouragement to her and her jockey, Mike Smith. I could not tear my eyes away from this mare. The other horses, Moon De French, Emmy Darling, Switch, and Satans Quick Chick, were barely a blip on my radar. Sure they are beautiful horses, groomed to perfection, but they just don’t have that star power that Zenyatta has. They don’t make you stop in your tracks, feeling breathless. They don’t bring instant tears to your eyes. They don’t dance.
The small field of five were loaded into the gate without any drama. And then, “Theeeere off!” Honestly the race, up until the stretch run, is a blur to me. I remember Zenyatta stalking the field in her normal fashion. I remember Mike easing her closer to the pack as they came around the far turn, but I don’t remember any specific details. Then it becomes clear. They pass into the stretch and Zenyatta begins to move up, passing three of the horses with ease. But Switch, the game little bay filly is making her move as well. She extends her lead courageously as Zenyatta barrels down behind her. There is an audible gasp from the crowd. The finish line is looming and Zenyatta isn’t catching Switch. The next final seconds tick by as if in slow motion. The drumming of the horses hooves on the track reverberate across the stands and my heart pounds so hard and so fast I feel as though I am running the race. Something clicks and impossibly Zenyatta shifts in to another gear just before crossing the line. She shoots past Switch and wins, her ears pricked as is her usual style as the announcer yells into the microphone, “…just another perfect day for the Queen! Zenyatta!”
The stands erupt. There is cheering, screaming, tears, laughing, hugging. Complete strangers are grabbing each other up in wild bear hugs, grinning with joy and relief. “She did it again!” “19 for 19!” “That horse is amazing!” Zenyatta canters out past the stands and they cheers follow her down the rail. Mike Smith is showering her with praise, running her hands down her neck and talking to her. Her ears flick back to him every so often. Then Mike parades her in front of where I am. Cameras are flashing, people are cheering, and Zenyatta is calmly taking it all in. She turns her head from side to side and when she looks in your direction you feel like she is looking right at you.
She knows how good she is. She knows people adore her. And she loves it. She begins to dance again, and the crowds cheer louder. Mike turns her so she can be draped in the winning flowers. As they make their way to the winners circle, Mike removes his helmet, clutches it to his chest, looks heavenward, and closes his eyes. Zenyatta struts along, ears forward, and eyes alert. They make a beautiful couple.
Zenyatta is cloaked in the flower blanket and lead into the winners circle where she poses for pictures. I, along with many people, scramble down the stairs to get a better picture of the Queen in the winners circle. She arches her neck and dances a bit as everyone settles in around her. Her owners, Jerry and Anne Moss are beaming at her, like proud parents. Her trainer, John Shirreffs and his wife Dottie are grinning from ear to ear. Mike is stroking her neck, smiling down at her. Her groom, Mario, places his hand on her rump and the great Penny Chenery, owner of the legendary Secretariat is gazing at her with adoration. This horse is just surrounded by love. And her connections are just so proud of her.
After the winning shots are taken, she is unsaddled and Mario leads her back up the stretch to her stall. As was the case when she was warming up for the race, crowds of people follow her down the fence line, shouting out their love for her and taking more pictures. She dances along for them, giving them what they want.
After she is gone the stands clear out a bit.
I stay to watch a couple more races, but the buzz, the electricity in the air is gone. And there are some amazing horses running. Awesome Gem, Crown of Thorns, Twirling Candy, and Richards Kid are all racing, but it’s different somehow.
It has been almost a year since that race and I still remember it like it was yesterday. Now Queen Z is going to be a mommy. She is in Kentucky getting nice and fat with what I hope is a nice big healthy baby. But unlike some horses who retire, Zenyatta hasn’t faded into obscurity. Her defeat by a nose in the Breeders Cup made her even more loved, if that is possible. Dottie maintains a website devoted to her so her fans can see pictures and know how our dancing queen is doing. The Moss’s visit her. Mike visits her. Mario has been to see her. Her connections still love and adore her. She danced her way into our hearts, and I miss seeing her tear up the track. I hope her baby will a dancer like it’s mama.
Seeing Zenyatta race was on my bucket list, but just seeing her race isn’t enough. Now that I have seen her race, I want to visit her at Lands End. I want to meet her, touch her, and thank her. She re-awoke my passion for horse racing. She made me remember why I wanted to be a jockey. She confirms my belief that horses are God’s favorite animal, and I’d like to tell her that.