12/02/2010 12:29PM

The final and deepest gift from Zenyatta

Barbara D. Livingston

The idea of a horse retiring undefeated has an enormous appeal which ultimately, I think, does a disservice to all of the deeper connections that have been generated between the people who are privileged one way or another to participate in the horse’s career.

If you identify the emotion that one feels in the aftermath of, say, a horse’s first victory, the impulse is to feel, “Well, I’ve now been associated with unalloyed, unqualified, excellence.” But as time goes on, problems show up, and some of them are inherent in the horse’s excellence. That both liberates the capacity for adoration and, if we are humble enough, reminds us that the feeling of being in the presence of unalloyed, uncompromised excellence is an illusion – but it’s the most wonderful illusion to have.

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It’s the same sort of illusion felt if we are lucky enough to be blessed with children. When you see a baby you feel that whatever tragedy will ensue, at that moment tragedy is a stranger. The longer we are able to sustain that sense of a horse’s uncompromised, unqualified, transcendent excellence the more we become aware that it is an illusion, and every time that the horse seems to transcend the limits we know ultimately will express themselves, the more deeply we feel simultaneously joy and the sense ultimately that joy, for all its genuineness, is predicated on a sense of being and feeling which life will not sustain.

Very infrequently is there a horse who so utterly and wholly seems to embody excellence, but if you spend time with animals you learn to appreciate particular sorts of excellence which don’t inform the animal’s whole being. I once had a cheap horse named Marvin’s Policy. If you look up “ugly” in the dictionary there is a small picture of Marvin’s Policy. He had the worst action you ever saw, and one could not help loving that horse. He got beat, but he never liked it, and he won more often than he should have. He was always getting hurt and always coming back, so in that case one learned to feel that sort of uncompromised appreciation for bravery and for persistence, and for a kind of indomitability.

Zenyatta is a horse who transcends in her excellence every limiting category, including the category of gender. She is that extraordinary. Not only is she a girl, who at the end was running against boys, but she always came from out of it so she was always in effect conceding luck as an important variable. No matter how good she was, if she had enough bad luck getting around horses, she wasn’t going to win. And the more variables one can introduce and still sustain a sense of absolute indomitability, even as one is brought to experience with absolute certainty that that sense of indomitability is an illusion, the more precious the illusion becomes.

In watching Zenyatta, going into a race there was almost a sort of perverse gratification that you felt – “Good, now she’s going to show just how much better she is than them.”

But knowing she was going into was her last race, one allowed oneself to hope: “Let her get the best of it for once.” And of course she didn’t.

In the course of her moving down the stretch the first time, her action was very choppy. It seemed like she couldn’t get hold of the track. And yet, as the race progressed, she seemed to enact exactly the same course that she enacted in every one of her previous races. Although the jock had to wait a bit before he got out, once he did, at the head of the stretch, it looked as if she had enough ground left to run that she could make it. And she closed beautifully. She had dead aim on that horse that beat her. He is a very, very good horse, period, and he needed every bit of racing luck that he had to put him at an advantage against her.

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We had been working all day that day on the third episode of the show, and working seven days a week for a long time. In terms of the transferability of high-emotion, if you’re tired, when you begin to feel a different emotion you feel it with the same extremity that you feel tired. I really started pulling for that filly the last eighth of a mile even as one had the sense that it didn’t look like she was going to get there. And yet, one remembered, even from her previous race, it was precisely that flickering doubt that was one of the last and best ingredients of the experience of watching her run. Every time you thought, “She can’t get there,” one felt too, “When she does, it will be even that much more wonderful.”

Of course she didn’t get there, and in the aftermath I was bawling like a baby and had been from the head of the stretch in gratitude for the opportunity to appreciate what she was doing. It seemed to me in the aftermath of the race, the last gift which was given had to do with the separation of that feeling of appreciation from the illusion of invincibility. The final and deepest gift that she had to give was the opportunity to accept all the qualifications of our finitude without having that dilute or alloy the joy she made available to us.

In other experiences, if one is lucky, we get that same last chance to distinguish between what joy comes to us and what I imagine is the laughter of the gods. I forget who it was that said, “Every victory leaves something drastic and bitter in the cup.” In that sense, it took all of her races and the conclusion of her career to come to the last draught of what was in the cup. And to realize still, that in what one experienced as drastic and bitter for a moment was the final essence of victory. The victory was in the flowering of humility as the last component of the mix of feelings that she had made available, and how absolutely irrelevant her defeat is to the experience that she gave us, for all that period of time.

David Milch, the Emmy Award-winning creator of the HBO television series “Deadwood” and “John From Cincinnati,” is the owner of two Breeders’ Cup winners and an Eclipse Award champion. He is currently at work on a new HBO series set in the world of horse racing called “Luck,” scheduled to debut in 2011.