04/05/2010 11:00PM

Zenyatta gets the royal treatment

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Jeff Coady/Coady Photography
Zenyatta steps off the plane on Tuesday, arriving at Oaklawn for the Apple Blossom.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - There were signs and wonders all around. On the highway here from the Little Rock airport, a roadside sign read, "Warning: Prepare to Meet God." Closer to town, you almost felt like you were on Cloud Nine, especially if you were at the Cloud Nine RV Park. And on Tuesday morning, the faithful flocked to the Hot Springs airport, and there descending from the heavens was a large jet, from which racing's goddess emerged moments after it landed.

Zenyatta, here for the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom Stakes on Friday, stepped from the Tex Sutton Boeing 727 plane at 9:45 a.m. local time, with a crowd of some 400 there to greet her, and all four local television stations recording the moment. The fans were carrying handmade signs. "We Love Zenyatta," read one. "Hot Springs Welcomes Queen Z," read another. One lonely heart had a sign that said, "Marry Me Zenyatta." And, of course, there was the obligatory reference to the horse who is not here. It read, "Rachel Who?"

For all the excitement Zenyatta's arrival has generated, there is a melancholy feeling in town over what might have been. If Rachel Alexandra had joined Zenyatta for the Apple Blossom, the purse would have been $5 million. Money aside, though, it would have been the first meeting between the two best horses in the country last year. The race was on until Rachel Alexandra, last year's Horse of the Year, was defeated last month at Fair Grounds. Now, only Zenyatta is here. Not a bad consolation prize, considering she is unbeaten in 15 starts. But locals say the town was abuzz when the showdown first looked like it might come off.

"The whole town was really crazy. I've never seen anything like it," said Chris "Stubb" Dunkel, the pitmaster - that's what his business card says - at Stubby's Bar-B-Que, right across Central Avenue from the track, where, as the sign there says, they've been "Cookin' 'Q' since '52." "People put their houses up for rent on eBay, and some got big money before Rachel pulled out. It's still a big race. But it could have been bigger."

Jeff Coady/Coady Photography

15px;">Zenyatta gets a bath at Oaklawn Park on Tuesday.

Jerry Hissam, the agent for jockey Calvin Borel, who rides Rachel Alexandra, said a fundraiser he held for the local Racetrack Chaplaincy of America - before Rachel Alexandra came out of the Apple Blossom - included an auction for four seats to both the Apple Blossom and the Arkansas Derby on Saturday. They went for a total of $1,700. The face value of those eight tickets is $4.50 each, or $36.

Jeff Purnell, the owner of the Comfort Suites hotel just a mile from the track, said he had a few cancellations once Rachel Alexandra pulled out, "mostly reporters," he said.

"But others still want to see Zenyatta," Purnell said.

That was in evidence by the scene at Memorial Field, a municipal airport whose only commercial flights to go Memphis, Tenn. One local person said there hadn't been this much excitement at the airport since Air Force One arrived with then-President Bill Clinton, the local boy done good, for his mother's funeral.

"This is fantastic," said Steve Arrison, the chief executive officer of the Hot Springs convention and visitors bureau, who was part of the welcome wagon. "This is such a racing community. It's a big happening for us. We were excited for the race, then disappointed when Rachel pulled out, but we've got Zenyatta going for 16 in a row. Our glass was overflowing when we had both. Now, it's just full, which is still a good feeling."

The jet on which Zenyatta arrived, following a nonstop flight of 2 hours 45 minutes from Ontario, Calif., had "Air Horse One" emblazoned on its side. The fans cheered when the cargo door was opened, and there Zenyatta stood. She was first off the plane, followed by two others here for stakes races - Line of David and Total Bull - all of whom came down a ramp and piled into a horse van.

A police escort accompanied the van during the six-mile trip from the airport to Oaklawn Park. By 10:25 a.m., Zenyatta was off the van and taking a few rounds of the shed row at the Davona Dale barn, her residence this week.

Per usual, Zenyatta had cotton balls stuffed in her ears, standard equipment to keep her calm. She has her ears stuffed with cotton when she trains in the mornings, and when she races, but the cotton is pulled out when she is put into her stall for the day after her morning training regimen.

Frank Leal, an assistant to trainer John Shirreffs, and Zenyatta's groom, Mario Espinoza, accompanied Zenyatta. Leal said the abrupt landing at the airport, where brakes and reverse thrust have to be applied aggressively because of a short runway, got Zenyatta stirred up.

"She was a little excited," Leal said as he walked Zenyatta in a grassy area between barns in the Oaklawn stable area. "But she's good now."

Jeff Coady/Coady Photography
A crowd of some 400 people greeted Zenyatta at the airport, waving signs and cheering.