12/06/2010 9:25PM

Zenyatta and her fans enjoy one last dance

Email
Barbara D. Livingston
Zenyatta, being led by groom Mario Espinoza, breaks into her patented dance before her fans Monday night at Keeneland.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Zenyatta's retirement celebration at Keeneland Monday night wasn't just for Kentuckians. Undaunted by 18-degree temperatures, an estimated 1,200 fans came from as far as Washington state, Wisconsin, and New York, and as close as the neighborhoods just across Versailles Road from Keeneland.

They all wanted to see one thing, and they got their wish.

Led by groom Mario Espinoza into the Keeneland sale pavilion's back walking ring, the champion and Horse of the Year contender did her trademark dance for the crowd. It was her last public appearance before taking a short van ride to the Lane's End breeding farm in Versailles.

During a parade and ceremony that lasted about 20 minutes, Keeneland president Nick Nicholson presented Zenyatta and owners Ann and Jerry Moss with a large gift basket that included "a few of Zenyatta's favorite things," as he put it. On the list: carrots, pears, and even Guinness, Zenyatta's favorite tipple.

A source participating closely in Zenyatta’s retirement said Tuesday afternoon that the 6-year-old mare had settled down well in her new home at Lane’s End but would likely not be turned out for a few days due to snow and ice on the ground.

“She’s very curious about the weather,” the source said, adding that Zenyatta, still sleek from California’s warm temperatures, will need some time to grow a winter coat. “She’s happy looking out her stall window, and the people at Lane’s End are taking great care of her.”

The Mosses also remained in town Tuesday, as did groom Mario Espinoza and exercise rider Steve Willard, who both planned visits to Lane’s End on Tuesday.

Zenyatta's departure from California was delayed by about two hours Monday morning due to inclement weather in Kentucky. When she departed from California's Ontario airport, the temperature was 67 degrees, but when she touched down in the Bluegrass State, it was 18 degrees and cloudy with a thin blanket of snow on the ground.

MORE: Video of Zenyatta's farewell party | DRF Weekend: Legend takes her final bow

The cold didn't chill her fans' ardor. Almost two hours before Zenyatta's arrival, the vestibule of Keeneland's sale pavilion was packed with visitors, mostly women and girls, who formed a loose line to sign a guestbook. Already fans scattered around the sale pavilion, huddled in the warm bar to snack on popcorn and soft drinks. Among them, there was no debate over who should be - or, to them, who already is - Horse of the Year. There was no debate in the back walking ring, either, where by the time Zenyatta did her dance steps into the walking ring, crowds had swelled five and six deep. One mother brought her 3-year-old son, dressed up in a miniature set of the Mosses' racing silks.

A pair of women, self-proclaimed "nuts from Wisconsin," held up a sign that read, "Zenyatta: God's Gift to Stallions," and made it clear who their pick for Zenyatta's first mating should be.

"A. P. Indy," said one, referring to Lane's End's flagship sire, a popular pick among pedigree theorists and equine pedigree fashionistas alike.
"We've already come up with a name for that foal," another woman in the crowd said. "A. P. Zendy!"

But her fans will have to wait on the official decision, which wasn't forthcoming Monday night as the Mosses enjoyed a last moment with Zenyatta's fans.

"We haven't quite decided that yet," Jerry Moss said of Zenyatta's mating plans as wife Ann snapped pictures on a pocket digital camera.

Zenyatta's fans were excited but respectful and heeded an announcement before Zenyatta arrived to "please keep your emotions in check." But that didn't make them any less emotional or awed about their final glimpse of the champion before she disappears into the breeding shed.

"The horse is absolutely my inspiration," said Bonnie O'Neill, who drove from New York with her husband, John, to see Zenyatta one last time. "My hubsand got unemployed, and she sort of got us through the whole thing. That was a couple of years ago, and we really started following her. I bet on all her races, and she's the only one I ever bet on, and we built up a nice, cool little Zenyatta fund.

"Also, the way people talked about her, that she was competing in lesser races," added O'Neill, who first got interested in racing after seeing Secretariat run. "They were diminishing her perfection. I went to a smaller school, and I had a straight-A average, and I experienced the same kind of thing. So those are the personal reasons. But beyond that, she's the greatest racehorse I've ever seen."

The crowd also included Zenyatta's trainer, John Shirreffs; exercise rider, Steve Willard; her jockey, Hall of Famer Mike Smith; and Lane's End owner Will Farish and his son Bill. Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron also was on hand, as well as scores of media whose flashbulbs popped as Zenyatta made several rounds of the walking ring. Espinoza allowed her to stop occasionally, and a few fans reached out and touched the glistening coat they'd only seen on television before.

"I actually touched her!" one young woman said excitedly after Espinoza had led the mare back into the gloomy, frigid night, and the crowds, now feeling the cold, hurried away home. The woman's friends stopped and put their hands in hers, laughing, as if wanting to pick up whatever it is that made Zenyatta special.