12/08/2010 2:53PM

Zenyatta, Cigar earned their public farewells

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Barbara D. Livingtson
Zenyatta is paraded at Keeneland by groom Mario Espinoza on Monday, while jockey Mike Smith (center) and owners Jerry and Ann Moss look on.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. – It’s pretty much down to sentimental housekeeping now, with Zenyatta tucked away at Lane’s End Farm after farewell ceremonies last Sunday at Hollywood Park and then another Monday evening at Keeneland.

In Lexington, Ann and Jerry Moss were wearing some of the cozy duds they’d bought for a trip to Antarctica a few years back, so the Kentucky snow and temperatures in the teens – Fahrenheit, yikes! – had no effect. But Zenyatta was sleek as a seal, any trace of a winter coat having been rubbed smooth as silk by Mr. Goodhands himself, Mario Espinoza. Give her two weeks, though, and she will show folks what a real Mama Grizzly looks like.

Back in California, the inventory of indelible Zenyatta moments was topped off by a languid half-hour that featured a long tour of the paddock and the racetrack, a video scroll of her greatest hits, and music that ranged from ya-hoo country-western to a long-gone Bob Hope crooning “Thanks for the Memories” over the loudspeaker system.

While Zenyatta circled in front of the grandstand, fans rushed the rail, cameras and cellphones raised. Even the pony riders, their posse clustered nearby, were clicking away and loving it. Except for Ray, Tom Tollett’s pony. Ray, a former racehorse who did most of his serious running in the morning, got the wrong message when the cheers arose from the replay of Zenyatta’s 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Every time Tollett raised his little camera for a snap at the big mare, Ray would twirl.

“Kinda hard to get anything in focus,” Tollett said with a laugh.

For some reason, the video show ended with Zenyatta’s last race, her narrow and only defeat, which threw at least a moment’s worth of cold water on the crowd of more than 11,000. But they came quickly around as Zenyatta high-stepped into the winner’s circle, whereupon she tried to graze, just like a horse. Then, posed to simulate a winner’s circle photo, Zenyatta duly spread her back legs and raised her tail in salute, no doubt, to her upcoming career change.

“I guess you could say she’s ready,” said John Shirreffs, watching with delight the display of pure animal behavior from his vantage point out on the racetrack.

Such farewells are reserved for the horses who have reached out to grab the game by the lapels and shake it to attention. Even then, the unpredictability of the breed can intervene. While circling in the walking ring, as Espinoza stopped every few yards to give the gathered fans an intimate eyeful, Zenyatta made several passes by the monument marking the resting place of the remains of Native Diver.

If ever there was a horse who deserved a retirement parade, a fireworks display, and the key to the city it was Native Diver. The Hall of Famer and three-time winner of the Hollywood Gold Cup roamed the California landscape from 1961 through 1967. There were no ceremonies, though. Only the news, eight days after he equaled the nine-furlong track record winning the 1967 Del Mar Handicap, that Native Diver was dead. No one had a chance to say goodbye.

Then there was Cigar, who made an exit like no other Thoroughbred in history. Despite reaching the end of his career in October 1996 with a narrow loss in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Woodbine, Cigar was still “America’s horse.” Never before had a champion of his stature been seen in so many places – from his base in New York to Florida, Maryland, Arkansas, Massachusetts, Chicago, and a couple of trips to Southern California, topped off half a world away in the United Arab Emirates, where he won the first running of the Dubai World Cup. For such a horse, a simple parade up and down the track at Aqueduct would never do, at least as far as Madeleine Paulson, Cigar’s breeder and wife of owner Allen Paulson, was concerned.

“When Madeleine told me there were plans to take Cigar downtown to Madison Square Garden, I thought she was crazy,” said Bill Mott, who was to Cigar what Shirreffs was to Zenyatta. “It ended up one of the most unforgettable moments of my life.”

You heard right. The Garden, home of the Knicks and Rangers, where Ali and Frazier battled and Bono sang to the rafters. On Nov. 2, 1996, Cigar was transported downtown from Belmont Park in a full-sized horse van decorated with American flags and the Paulsons’s red, white, and blue motif.

“I remember they closed the tunnel, something they’d probably only do for the President,” Mott said, and he remembered right. In honor of the event, the city fathers closed the outbound Midtown Tunnel for Cigar, along with part of 7th Avenue. Upon arriving, he ascended the spiral ramp to the Garden floor, where 16,000 people awaited his appearance, along with his jockey, Jerry Bailey. What else does Mott remember?

“After we walked him around, Jerry got on him,” Mott said. “And when he broke into a jog the entire crowd stood up and gave him an ovation. That was really exciting.

“Then when it was about over,” Mott went on, “they turned off the lights and put that spotlight on him as my assistant, Tim Jones, walked him around. They played ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ That was about as emotional a moment as you could get. I’m sure it’s that kind of emotional time for the Mosses and Shirreffs.”

At some point in the lives of such animals the details are smeared, and only the horse remains. Cigar, he of the 16-race winning streak and nearly $10 million in earnings, lost two of the last three races of his remarkable career, just as Zenyatta lost the only race of her 20-race career in her final appearance. If it matters, no one has noticed.

“Nothing could ever take away from what they’d already done,” Mott said. “And they’d pretty much done everything and more than you could ever possibly expect. I mean, how much more could you ask?”

The answer, of course, is none more.