12/02/2010 12:10PM

Zenyatta a reminder to celebrate life


I finally understand. It took only three years, Dottie and John Shirreffs, Ann and Jerry Moss, a girl, a woman in a wheelchair, thousands of fans, and a gentle behemoth of a mare.

When I first saw Zenyatta, she was schooling in the paddock just days before the 2008 Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita. She’d won eight straight races, including three Grade Is, and California racing fans were already enamored of her. But when I asked those around me what Zenyatta was doing - why she walked and stretched her legs, as if pawing the ground - they didn’t know. I thought something might be physically wrong with her. 

By the next year’s Breeders’ Cup, her dance was so well-known that the race telecast featured it in a segment modeled after ‘Dancing With the Stars.’

As her victories mounted and her fans grew to love her unusual rhythms, Zenyatta’s popularity soared. Fans, mostly women, began following her back to the barn – fans whose childhood dreams of the perfect racehorse paled in comparison to this real-life 17.2-hand mare. Along the way, Zenyatta became The Queen, Queen Z, Z, Zenny.

Fans yelled her name when she passed, carried signs to her races, dressed in green-and-pink. When she schooled in the paddock before the ’09 Breeders’ Cup, they “ooed” and “ahhed” whenever she glanced their way. They laughed aloud when she yawned, scratched her leg, or pushed her large head against groom Mario Espinoza.

By this spring’s Apple Blossom at Oaklawn, the worship was intense. Her connections allowed unprecedented access, at least in my experience, to their dappled superstar. Having photographed Secretariat to Rachel Alexandra – and 17 of Cigar’s last 20 starts - I’d never seen anything close to this.

Zenyatta grazed for hours daily with either Mario or assistant Frank Lael holding the shank. Anyone who managed to get into the backstretch – and they numbered in the hundreds – could watch and be photographed with her. Exercise rider Steve Willard usually orchestrated, leading people up to Zenyatta for the photos. John Shirreffs often stood off to the side, unnoticed, a knowing grin on his baseball cap-shaded face. And if a visitor missed grazing time? Someone from the barn would likely lead them down the shedrow to Zenyatta’s stall. 

When posing with her public, too, Zenyatta differed from “normal” horses. She had near-limitless patience, picking up her head, time and time (and time and time) again, for photos. She’d sometimes check her visitor for treats but, often as not, she’d simply strike a perfect pose, her long ears aimed just the right way. If a person’s camera wouldn’t work or a fan simply didn’t know when enough was enough, she might paw at the ground. Her handler would give her a turn, and she was game for another go.

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And Zenyatta’s gaze…..well, it’s also unlike anything I can recall. Many horses pick up their heads while grazing and some stand out on the track before morning exercise, soaking in the view. But with Zenyatta, it’s more than that. She stares directly into your eyes for long periods of time. She seems genuinely interested, as if trying to make a connection. Should she speak, she’d ask, “Where are you from? What do you do?”

Even I relished the chance to be photographed with Queen Z. Steve Willard brought me close and I felt like a school kid, pointing at the mare with a goofy grin on my face.

The idolatry peaked at this year’s Breeders’ Cup, when fans lined up several rows deep to watch Zenyatta graze each day. They stood behind sawhorses, but Mario let Zenyatta wander and she generally chose to graze along the perimeter, near the people. Police cars parked on an adjacent street, the officers sometimes moving traffic but, just as often, peering through the chain link fence. Who didn’t want to see the mare so famous that she’d been featured on 60 Minutes?

And not just 60 Minutes embraced racing's shining star. O: The Oprah Magazine, in its 2010 O Power List, featured “20 women (and one amazing horse) who blew us away this year.” Zenyatta’s power, according to O? “The power of heart.”

I’ve seen Ruffian, Genuine Risk and Lady’s Secret, and I had seen enough already to recognize the greatness in Zenyatta. I couldn’t understand how some seemed to take pleasure in belittling her, calling her just a synthetic specialist, when her two most dominating victories came on Oaklawn Park’s dirt – one in which she defeated the champion Ginger Punch.

And so Zenyatta’s heroic effort in the Breeders’ Cup, while heartbreaking in a way, was a comfort to me. Finally, after four seasons of winning efforts that - to some - meant little, no one could now say that she was not great.

The crowd the morning after the race was larger than ever, and fans ignored the sawhorses as they clamored for closeness. Countless people posed with Zenyatta, creating more lifetime fans and memories. 

Yet I still didn’t get the whole picture until I visited Hollywood Park on November 16 and 17.

I’d visited the Shirreffs barn twice last winter to photograph Zenyatta - an inviting barn with its contented cats and small patches of flowers. Each morning was quiet.

But now? I’d read enough stories to know that I’d have company, and lots of it, as Zenyatta awaited her new life in the Bluegrass State. Some mornings, as many as a hundred people show up, per Zenyatta herself on her blog at www.zenyatta.com (Dottie helps with the blog, as Zenyatta’s hooves are too big for the computer keyboard).

My first morning there, it was quiet until Zenyatta finished exercising on the training track. Granted, a few visitors watched her gallop, but what I didn’t realize was that most waited until her training was over.

And then they came, in groups of two, three, some with families, and others alone…as if Mecca awaited them. They came bearing gifts – boxes, bags, packages of carrots, Guinness, peppermints…. Thanks to internet forums, fans learned that backstretch access was easy, as the Shirreffs’ barn had opened their arms to visitors.

Perhaps thirty people showed up the first morning I was there, each eventually lining up to be photographed. Mario was ever patient, allowing Zenyatta to graze between sessions as fans giggled.

One woman stood out from the rest. I did not see her arrive - it seemed she was just suddenly there. Cloaked in white from top to bottom, her eyes were shielded by oversized, dark sunglasses and she held a sippy-cup. Her wheelchair was reclinable and, according to the gentleman who’d obtained her a day pass, she was terminally ill.

She was quiet, with a trace of a smile as she watched Zenyatta. Steve Willard slowly brought the big mare closer, allowing Zenyatta to absorb the unusual scene. While Steve might have been a bit concerned, he needn’t have been. Zenyatta dipped down and touched her long nose to the woman’s cheek, and, as the woman beamed, their heads rested together a long moment.

Willard smiled broadly and said, “Now, there is a photo to remember.”   Visitors wiped tears from their eyes.

Afternoons are generally quieter at the barn – a time for Zenyatta’s team to relax a bit – but on this afternoon, a few people wandered by - a few California women, a couple from near Sandy Downs in Idaho, a couple with their young granddaughter, and Jack Van Berg - who was visiting John Shirreffs but who stayed to watch Zenyatta. The mare was led out for a short grazing session.

The mood among those who gathered was, as always there, so light. Ann Moss put it so beautifully, and accurately, when she said times with Zenyatta are “joyous.”  

When someone at the barn noticed the couple photographing their granddaughter, with Zenyatta in the far background, they beckoned her closer. The shy girl was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed five-year-old named Madison Wade. Her T-shirt, made by her grandmother Jane, featured a photo of Zenyatta and read, “Zenyatta’s biggest little fan.”

The child was too shy to speak to strangers and she put her hand up to her mouth, with eyes aimed downward, when people tried to make her smile.  Zenyatta absolutely towered over her.  Yet when the mare began toussling the girl’s hair with her lips, Madison beamed. Click, went the family camera.

The next morning, fans showed up again. Crumpled backstretch stickers stuck to their shirts, and laughter came easily as they all awaited their chance to pose with Zenyatta. And they got it. Finally, before Zenyatta was led back to the barn, Steve looked around and said, “Did everyone get their picture taken?” They had. Zenyatta disappeared into the barn until her next appearance.

I hated to leave Hollywood Park and the reigning queen. I wanted to hold onto the infinite positive energy, the unprecedented kindness shown us by Zenyatta’s connections, the otherworldly grace of the mare herself. I didn’t want to return to my regular racing world, where barns are sometimes plastered with “NO VISITORS” signs and guards argue against valid press passes. I wanted this to last forever.

Was it just happenstance that this once-in-a-lifetime mare ended up where she did? Or was Zenyatta destined to be watched over by John Shirreffs, a man known for his laid-back nature and infinite love of all things ‘horse’? Was she meant to be “the one,” when the Mosses began her name with “Zen” - defined as “enlightenment by direct intuition through meditation”?

Even the Mosses’ subtle and artistic silks' colors, according to Ann, represent heart and protection.  The green is the color of The Heart Chakra - the center from which feelings of love, and pure joy, emanate - combined with the divinity of white.  And the soft pink is a blend of red - the color of protection - again, with white. 

Certain words Ann Moss has used when describing time with Zenyatta have come back to me time and time again - words like “joyous” and “magic.”  “She is a reminder," Ann says, "a reminder to celebrate life.”

I can’t claim to be religious and realize I risk ridicule by suggesting that my time spent with Zenyatta was spiritual. Yet she moved me in a way I could never have expected. When I was around her, it seemed as if everything was right with the world. Then, multiply me by the thousands who have spent time with her and had photos taken with her. 

Yes, I finally understand. Letting go is so difficult because we may never see the likes of her, and the generosity of her handlers, again.

To see many of these photos in print, pick up DRF Weekend in Saturday's Daily Racing Form.