12/02/2010 12:44PM

Zenyatta: A legend takes her final bow


On the afternoon of Sunday, Oct. 30, 1988, a sparse crowd at Churchill Downs was treated to the sight of the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner and 1987 Horse of the Year in his final public appearance.

Ferdinand, by then a laid-back 5-year-old, statuesque as ever, strolled up the stretch under Janet Johnson, his lifelong exercise rider, before pausing for photos and farewells in the trackside winner’s circle. Among those greeting Ferdinand was his trainer, Charlie Whittingham.

“People were cheering and clapping,” Johnson recalled years later. “I couldn’t see very good because of the tears. The announcer talked about Ferdinand. Charlie gave him a peppermint. Then they played ‘My Old Kentucky Home.’ Charlie didn’t say much, but I did see him wipe something from his eye.”

Get out the hankies.

On Sunday at Hollywood Park, the place where the story began, Zenyatta will prance and parade for the final time in front of her hometown fans before heading off to Kentucky, where she will enter a hard-earned and well-deserved retirement at Lane’s End Farm. The mundane details of her eventual mating in the coming year are still being ironed out – much the same ado was made over the marriage of Queen Victoria – but the idea that Zenyatta could replicate herself by the mere act of insemination and foal birth is nuts. There was never, and never will be again, a Thoroughbred quite like Zenyatta.

Consider the package from all possible sides. Her genetics mixed the grit of an Irish overachiever named Street Cry with a highly strung female side that tapped into such volatile influences as Ribot, Forli, and Hyperion. Her upbringing was unconventional, fraught with starts and stops as, one after another, the conventional milestones of early Thoroughbred achievement passed her by.

Her handling as a racehorse was marked by obsessive attention to repeated patterns, structure that provided a setting for her flamboyantly improvisational performances. Overlay all this with her gallery of human enablers – Ann and Jerry Moss, Dottie and John Shirreffs, Mike Smith, Steve Willard, Mario Espinoza, and the rest of the Shirreffs stable crew – and the result was the Zenyatta who transcended the pages and screens of the racing media to become a name most people thought they ought to know.

ZENYATTA SPECIAL ISSUE: Barbara Livingston photos | Q&A with Mike Smith | Appreciation by David Milch

Consider, too, the world of horse racing into which Zenyatta first stepped when she made her first public appearance on Nov. 22, 2007. Yes, it was the 44th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But it also was Thanksgiving Day, a much better way to mark the moment of that first, dramatic display, when Zenyatta circled her maiden competition at 6 1/2 furlongs to win going away.

Racing at the time still was reeling from the sad aftermath of the 2007 Breeders’ Cup, during which otherwise noble performances were washed away by the terrible rains that pounded Monmouth Park, and by the death of the Irish horse George Washington in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Within weeks of the Breeders’ Cup, the premature retirements of 3-year-old stars Street Sense, Hard Spun, and Any Given Saturday – the Justin Biebers of the day – sucked away much of the anticipation for the 2008 racing season. Curlin, the best of the lot, was still in the game, but then came the announcement that he would be spending the winter in Dubai, effectively postponing any ’08 American campaign until who-knew-when. Zenyatta stepped up to fill the void and then some, eventually providing the kind of rare continuity the sport had not seen since the days of Cigar, and before that, John Henry.

Of course, the goodbye had to come. That she lasted so long is the true miracle. Better than goodbye, though, Zenyatta Day on Sunday will be a time for gratitude – gratitude for her three seasons in the sun, for her heady record of 19 and 1, and for the window Zenyatta has provided into the heart and soul of the Thoroughbred racehorse. It is not a stretch to claim that, because of Zenyatta’s widespread appeal, the ranks have swollen of people who might show up at the racetrack, if only on the off chance they might see something that even remotely taps into the Zenyatta vein.

It has been a rare privilege for those of us with Daily Racing Form to have been able to share the Zenyatta story in words and pictures. With one last flourish, the editors have put together this tribute to coincide with Zenyatta’s adios at Hollywood Park, which will be followed with another public appearance Monday afternoon at Keeneland, when she returns to the bluegrass country of her birth.

For those Zenyatta fans still mourning her single, lonely loss in the Breeders’ Cup Classic last month at Churchill Downs, the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning television writer and producer David Milch shares your pain. For personal therapy, he composed a meditation on her place in the heart, and it turns out everything is going to be all right.

Jay Privman, Daily Racing Form’s national correspondent, was responsible for chronicling Zenyatta’s exploits along with his West Coast colleagues, Steve Andersen and Brad Free. On this day, Privman offers his conversation with Mike Smith, the man most intimately involved with the competitive side of Zenyatta. A man who knows what it’s like to ride the wild wind.

Then behold the work of Barbara Livingston, whose incandescent images have graced racing publications and photographic volumes far and wide. She seems always to be where we need her to be, and recently that was at Hollywood Park, where she captured a behind-the-scenes look at the Zenyatta family as they said their long goodbyes.

In the end, though, it will be Zenyatta’s fans who own the day. The greatest artists, every one of them, need an audience to nourish their art. Zenyatta thrived on the outpouring of reaction to her public displays – her pre-race tango, her haughty, laconic warm-ups, her heart-stopping finishes. There will be thousands turned out, and thousands more tuned into TVG for the ceremonies.

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Then she will belong to the ages. John Stewart, one of America’s finest troubadours, died on Jan. 19, 2008, six days after Zenyatta won the El Encino Stakes at Santa Anita, No. 3 in that remarkable string of 19. Stewart never had a chance to write about her, but be assured he would have, having already captured Secretariat and Seabiscuit in song.

Stewart would have come in handy on this particular day, since he tried hard to address the idea of goodbye during his half-century of writing and performing his songs. In “Mother Country,” written in 1969, Stewart just as easily could have been foretelling the Zenyatta legend when he sang of one last time around the ring for a horse trainer in failing health and his prized driving horse, who, according to the local legend, “was easily the finest horse that the good Lord ever made.”

So people came from miles around, and they stood around the ring
No one said a word, you know, no one said a thing
Then here they come, E.A. Stuart in the wagon right behind
Sitting straight and proud, and he’s driving her stone blind
And would you look at her

Oh, she never looked finer or went better than today
It’s E.A. Stuart and the Old Campaigner, “Sweetheart On Parade”

And the people cheered, the singer added. He even saw a “grown man break right down and cry.” But that was okay. It was that kind of day, and Sweetheart on Parade gave them that kind of ride.

Mosaic photos by Barbara D. Livingston.