What I live for

November, 17, 2010
"Horses, racing, they're a part of Americana. And I think we've lost our focal point in this rush to create these wagers and simulcasts and the things we've had to do as an industry in order to survive ... but the glory of the horse and the art of handicapping have become somewhat lost in the shuffle. This one, this is what racing is all about. She's the most striking mare ever. I can't get over her presence." -- Oaklawn Park president Charles Cella, April 2010

Who knows why I wrote about the 2008 Apple Blossom Handicap. My editor must have assigned it. I wasn't in Arkansas; I was in Lexington, Ky., watching grainy races on a tiny flat-screen mounted on the office wall. I didn't have a feel for the big bay filly's imposing presence, didn't have a clue what we were in for. I was rooting for Ginger Punch, an Eclipse Award-winning champion. Zenyatta blew her away -- and me along with her.

"The John Shirreffs trainee," I reported in that online recap for Blood-Horse Magazine, my first of what would become hundreds of sentences, "took home her first Grade 1 victory and launched a legitimate bid for an Eclipse Award of her own, should her winning ways continue."

Should her winning ways continue?!

There's a reason they say hindsight is 20-20.

In the past three years, between trips to Pimlico, Belmont, Arlington, Keeneland and more, I have been to Santa Anita Race Course, to Oaklawn Park and to Churchill Downs to see Zenyatta run. I watched her tower like a supermodel in the Ladies' Classic winner's circle in 2008. I stooped to pick up a purple flower in the wake of her historic Classic score in 2009. I placed my hand on her neck before her victory in the Apple Blossom and after her loss in the Classic this year. Both times, inexplicably, I cried.

"It's OK," barn foreman Frank Leal told me less than two weeks ago as he held the lead shank and the big mare nuzzled at the tears on my face. "All of us who love her, we feel the same."

On other occasions, I watched from afar. I saw Zenyatta eke out the slimmest of margins in the 2009 Clement Hirsch Stakes while I was surrounded by racing's elite in a crowded room at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. The gasps and the cheers that went up from those traditionally stoic veterans were no less enthusiastic than the shouts that emanated from the Hoosier Park grandstand this year on Indiana Derby day as fans hung around to watch the big mare win the Lady's Secret. No matter when, no matter where, her last-to-first victories were always inspiring -- the kind those of us who know this sport wait upon.

"Here's Baffert, heading into the Classic with his own contender, yet completely in awe of an incredible mare. And we're allowed to do that, to admire greatness and yearn to see it realized. It's hard to explain how Turf writers fall in love with the racehorses we cover. We try to remain objective, sure. But when you follow a great runner from the days when he was nothing but a maiden winner, up through his development into a champion, when you've been there for every step of that journey, chronicling the hopes and dreams and preparation and accomplishments, you open a little spot of your heart and let him in." -- thoughts from an interview with Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, Nov. 3, 2009.

Everyone says, oh, you got to see Zenyatta in person, you got to cover her career, you're so lucky -- and that, of course, is true. But to someone who began to write about horse racing from a background in human interest journalism, the best part of following the big mare was the chance to speak with those closest to her -- trainer John Shirreffs, owners Ann and Jerry Moss, racing manager Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs, Mario Espinoza, her groom -- and to see the way her presence affected their lives. Next best was the opportunity to interview horsemen and industry insiders, to get their thoughts on a runner whose charisma and presence seemed almost heaven-sent, to share those thoughts with the world.

"Marilyn Monroe would walk into the room and -- boom! Everyone just stopped to stare. Zenyatta is the same. She has the presence, she is unbelievable. For me, I love just to watch her." -- Patrick Biancone, April 8, 2010.

Journalists, I think, more than other people, seem to crystallize moments in time, to etch those memories deep into our souls. We never know what experiences we might want to draw upon -- a casual conversation in an elevator turns into the lede for a column, a simple morning car ride becomes relevant when the vehicle's passengers win the Preakness later that afternoon -- and so we internalize, and everything, the good and the bad, becomes a part of who we are.

I'll never forget sitting at the Magnolia Cafe in the Galt House three days before Zenyatta's last race, when I asked jockey Mike Smith what it felt like to pilot the champion. The hustle and bustle of the late-morning breakfast crowd faded to the background, and his words were so powerful, so sharp and focused. In the hectic blur of Breeders' Cup week, on a day when there were dozens of interview questions to ask and be answered, there was suddenly just that moment, the expression of oneness with magnificence, intensity of the experience coming through.

"Riding Zenyatta is like having magic in your hands, knowing she can do this and it's up to you to just get it done right. I just slow everything down and let her find herself and let her get into her rhythm. And once I can feel her moving and I can hear her breathing and I know she's getting her air, I know she can do anything. She can move mountains. If she shows up in a pocket or anything, it's such energy, it's just like WHOOSH, get out of her way. It's wild … It's wicked. Her strength is unbelievable." -- Mike Smith, "Positive energy," Nov. 6, 2010.

That kind of interview is why I do what I do. It's my job. To put into words what people feel. To describe the indescribable, or at least to make an attempt of doing it justice. To bring you where you couldn't go, to show you what you couldn't see. And this kind of runner, this kind of story, is exactly what I live for.

"It was what she did and how she did it that will have them talking for ages to come, for Zenyatta annihilated the Classic field … She kicked on. And the crowd started screaming. And Smith had to remind her not to stop and pose; she had a task ahead to finish, greatness to attain. And still she went on, well within herself. She won with her ears pricked. Galloping. Like she was out for a Sunday stroll." -- "Zenyatta a display of greatness," Nov. 7, 2009.



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