NGLEWOOD, Calif. -- We are driving to Costco to buy beer for a horse. Not just any beer. It has to be Guinness. The horse likes Guinness, likes it room temperature, likes it at a certain time of day. So assistant trainer Michelle Jensen and I are taking the truck to a strip mall.
This is my introduction to Zenyattaland.
We get into the store and I'm laughing. I have friends who write for Esquire, and they get sent to catch glimpses of Penelope Cruz. Me? I've flown west to buy drinks for a 1,200-pound mare. That's like 12 Penelope Cruzes.
"You almost have a master's degree," I say to Jensen, "and you're buying beer for a horse?"
"Not just a horse," she says. "It's Zenyatta. She's a person. She's a living legend."
Now we're both laughing, as Michelle pushes the cart toward the checkout line. A thought occurs to me. Yes, we are laughing, and yes, we are self-aware enough to know this is a tad silly, and yet, here we are.
The horse will get her Guinness.
I arrive at Barn 55 at Hollywood Park near the end of Zenyatta's storied career. I'm here to see the victory lap. This seems like an interview best suited for the garden at the Chateau Marmont, but a barn will have to do.
It's early morning, and the backside is waking up. Big airliners from LAX roar overhead. The dust hangs beneath the eaves, making the place look like an old-time movie. This entire track, once a playground for stars and their entourages, will be torn down soon. Right now, it's home to the greatest race horse in the world -- and ground zero for an unexpected and beautiful phenomenon.
Zenyatta is 19-0 and she has one race left, the Breeders' Cup Classic. She has won more consecutive races than any horse in history, breaking Cigar and Citation's record.
She lives on a street named after her. She likes Fiji water. The Dodgers have her on a billboard, with the tagline "This is My Town." She does these leg kicks in the paddock before races; horse people see an animal doing dressage steps to expel excess energy but fans see a dancer. She bows to the grandstand.
And the races. They are breathtaking. She waits and waits and waits, then sucks up the entire field in the final moments. She always barely wins. Fans show up at races with signs that say "Girl Power." The YouTube tribute videos are set to Lady Gaga songs. The descriptions of Zenyatta, even by those closest to her, sound like they're about Diana Ross, not a horse. These are the quotes I came to hear, breathless descriptions of a movie star by her entourage.
"She's not really a morning person," says Liza G. Fly, composer and singer of a song called "Zenyatta."
"She loves herself," says Ann Moss, co-owner, with husband Jerry Moss.
"She's totally a diva," vet Dawn Hunkin says.
"She's got good shoulders," exercise rider Steve Willard says, "good hips, good ass, good deep chest."
The fans are in awe because of the human traits they've superimposed on her actions, blurring the line between a starlet and a horse. The stories from the few people lucky enough to see her up close are downright giddy. But not long after arriving at Barn 55, I notice something unexpected. It's a feeling, a vibe, hard to pin down exactly. The people in the barn are in awe, too, but seemingly for a different reason. They see the shadow cast when the sun shines on this magical time, and they realize none of them will ever be around a horse like this again.
It's made these last months melancholy.
John Shirreffs is the trainer.
He's a quiet, meticulous man, a Vietnam vet with a dry sense of humor and daggers for eyes if he's displeased. There's a circular zen to him. Like this exchange:
"The army is a place to know yourself a little bit better," he says.
"What did you learn about yourself?" I ask.
Horses gallop past. A jet screams overhead. He thinks.
"That's the start of where you learn to intellectualize things instead of emotionalize things."
Shirreffs is superstitious (say "cancel, cancel" to eliminate any jinxes, he notes). He reads tracts on metaphysics, keeps a stash of energy crystals in his camera bag and is incredibly careful with his beloved Montblanc pens, each of which has a specific home and a different purpose -- ballpoint for notes, small nib for his daily charts, big nib for thank-you notes. The best prank on John is to hide his pens. It makes him full-moon crazy.
He's thoughtful; this morning, as he walks over to watch horses train, he describes the romantic dichotomy of dawn at a race track: the pastoral grunt of the horses, the groaning sounds of beer kegs and clanging grandstand doors as a concrete monster awakens. He loves that contradiction, even sees some of himself in it, a man who loves nature and technology, who has a photo of Zenyatta on the back of his iPad. My point being, he's not prone to flights of fancy. He's not someone who falsettos after seeing Justin Bieber, and even he turns into a starstruck teenager over his horse. "I'm just amazed at how pretty she is," he says. "Her skin just glows. It amazes me how Zenyatta always adds something positive to the day." He sounds short on intellect and long on emotion. He's a man in love.
He's at work early this morning, like every morning. After winning the 2005 Kentucky Derby with Giacomo, he flew back to Los Angeles on the Mosses' Gulfstream jet, drinking Cristal and eating off fine china; the next morning he dragged himself to the barn.
"Oh, sure," he says. "Where else am I gonna go?"
His life is a rhythm of horses, young ones arriving from the farm, old ones returning to the farm. The cycle is one of the things he understands best, and yet, something feels different now. Zenyatta is leaving soon, and there's no Zenyatta coming to replace her. He looks around at Hollywood Park, this old condemned relic of another time, and gets nostalgic.
"Can you imagine?" he says. "She's been here four years. How many times has she galloped around this track?"
"Do you worry about her losing?" I ask him.
A few seconds go by.
"Boy," he says, "I don't like to talk about that."
They both took winding roads to Barn 55.
Shirreffs' time in the Army taught him to use his brain, not his heart. It taught him to follow orders, to do what the head trainer said when he was an assistant, and what the owners said when he went out on his own. His first job showed him a painful lesson. The yearlings arrived and, as a groom, part of his day was spent brushing them. He wanted his horse to shine, to be perfect. He came to love the animal, obsessing over every detail, from September to March, when, one day, a van pulled up and the horse rode away. Shirreffs learned that all horses eventually leave. "I can't tell you what a shock that was," he says.
Zenyatta was born on April Fool's Day. She arrived at auction with a skin disease; most people didn't want anything to do with the gangly filly. But David Ingordo, son of the Mosses' racing manager and Shirreffs' wife, Dottie Ingordo, saw something. He bought the horse for the Mosses. She cost $60,000. The reports soon came out of the farm: You've either got one amazing horse or a lot of really bad ones. None of the boys (or other girls) could keep up with Zenyatta. The horse was big, with long limbs and unformed muscles. She needed, as Jerry Moss puts it, a stonecutter. She got John Shirreffs.
He knew the first time he saw her.
He stood by her stall and saw the power, all muscle and potential. An idea began to form in his subconscious: She is the one. A month or so later, he brought a friend to see her.
"This is my Michael Jordan if I can get it right," he said.
The wins came early and often. Zenyatta never lost, developing a style: running from the back of the pack. She won the 2008 Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic. Last year, she again won every race, and, at the end, the Mosses entered her in the Breeder's Cup Classic. The three Triple Crown races might be the most famous, but to horsemen, the Classic is the biggest. "She deserved the chance," Jerry Moss says. "She deserved the opportunity to show the world how great she was."
The legend of Zenyatta was about to be born.
She broke in last place.
She stayed there for the first half of the Classic, finally moving up a bit, 10 or 11 lengths behind the leaders. Next-to-last place.
Eight hundred yards to go.
Jockey Mike Smith picked up the reins. That's all he has to do. The horse is responsive, ready. Tighten just a bit and she's gone. Her strides are so long, she moves like a jump-cut movie. Horses are in front and, zoom, zoom, they're not. There's a famous photo of an opposing jockey looking behind him moments after Zenyatta passes.
Smith dropped her in near the rail.
Zenyatta took off.
"You know a high-performance car when you hit a gear?" Smith says. "That's what it feels like. You can feel her hit a gear. When she hits one, you're like, whoa."
He began looking for a hole, easing the horse to the right. With a horse like Zenyatta, it's almost like skiing. To turn, you mostly just need to think about turning.
Zenyatta saw the hole, too.
"She took two steps sideways like a running back would," Smith says, "and bam, hit another gear."
Three hundred yards to go.
The fans rose to their feet. The pitch of the announcer's voice rose, too: "If she wins this, she'll be a superhorse."
Two hundred yards to go.
Smith could feel the power, legs hitting like pistons. Zenyatta swung outside, which is big-race suicide. It's simple math: more ground to cover as ground becomes the most precious and nonrenewable resource. Everyone leaned into the rail, but Zenyatta went all the way wide, steadily accelerating. The sound of the hooves was like thunder. These were the best race horses in the world, giving everything they had. Most were slowing down. Fading. Not Zenyatta.
She caught the pack.
One hundred yards to go.
She was still accelerating. It was gonna be close.
Fifty yards to go.
She took the lead, and nearing the line, she was getting faster; Smith says she's never been full speed. Nobody was catching Zenyatta. Not today. The television reporters found Shirreffs by the rail, trying not to cry, a tough Vietnam vet looking up at the crowd and gushing "I love everyone here." The words of the announcer stuck with people: "What a performance! One we'll never forget!"
That's no joke. Watch the clip. We've embedded it here. It will make your heart pound when the horse makes her move, and if you feel like that watching it a year later, imagine how Jerry Moss felt in the moments after?
Well, blood pumping, Moss went into the press conference with his wife and John and Dottie. He was flying. What more could the horse prove? "I thought in my heart and my mind at that time," he says now, smiling, "without talking to the rest of Team Zenyatta, including my wife, how could I ask her to do anything else?"
Jerry Moss retired the horse.
Everyone on the dais looked at him funny but kept quiet.
A funk spread over Barn 55. The horse writers wrote the eulogies, and the owners celebrated a perfect career, but down in the shadow of exercise track, Shirreffs felt rudderless. "There was sort of a wave of deep dark depression," says Hunkin, the vet.
One day, Moss went out to see his horses. He noticed the new feeling in the barn. When he got home, he told Ann that John seemed sad.
"What do you think is up?"
"You retired his horse," Ann said.
Soon everyone started in on Jerry. Ann pointed out that Zenyatta didn't look tired. Dottie made sure to mention, "You know how cold it is in Kentucky?"
"I'm getting it from all sides," he says.
January arrived, and now they had to decide. He wanted to announce his plans before the annual Eclipse Awards, since he didn't like his decisions to be affected, either in reality or appearance, by outside events. Team Zenyatta sat down.
"You really think you want to run this horse another year?" Jerry asked. "Can she do it?"
"Yeah, I think she can do it," John said. "She's happy at her job, Jerry."
They called their favorite horse writer and fed him the scoop. It was done.
Joy returned to Barn 55.
It has been almost a year since then, and Zenyatta leans her long head out of Stall 85, pawing the hay, noshing a bit, nodding her head dramatically.
She wants a carrot.
These histrionics continue until Mario Espinoza, her groom, tosses a few inside. She eats them carefully, skinny end first. That might satisfy most horses, but Zenyatta keeps at it, looking down the barn, lowering her head, pawing with her right foot. She bows, then paws, bows, then paws.
"Hey, sweet pea," Hunkin says.
Zenyatta leans her head forward for a kiss.
"It's exactly like a kid," Hunkin says. "If she wants a carrot, she's gonna make you give her a carrot."
This year has been full of sweet moments like this. 2010 is the season of love. The dancing in the paddock, the bowing to the grandstand -- all that gets more pronounced every race. She seems to know this go-round that it's a show; she doesn't dance except before races. At one not long ago, she bowed when the track announcer called her name. It's the damnedest thing to watch.
"She is clearly performing," Hunkin says. "She definitely hams it up."
Eventually, I feed her a carrot, too, holding the fat end in my fist. Zenyatta leans down and, almost gently, snaps it in half. There's a loud crunch. It's strange to be so close to so much power. I realize I want her to win the Classic, to retire 20-0 and go to the farm cemented in racing history, so she'll always be treated like a star. Then, as she chews, I wonder what she thinks about all of this. They've told me horses are incredibly perceptive. Does she realize she's a star? Does she try harder because she knows it makes these people who love her happy? Does she sense they are going to miss her? Is she cherishing every moment, too? Does she know this is the end?
I think the inability to read their minds is what draws us to great race horses. We don't know what they think, or why they run, only that they do, with what seem to be human qualities of determination and courage. Maybe it's just a perfect combination of genes, a lucky chain of synapses and muscles firing in the right order. Maybe Zenyatta running is like me breathing. But a foot away, with a half-eaten carrot in my hand, it feels like she knows.
The fans making the Internet videos certainly think the horse understands, and, not surprisingly, those feelings have grown around the barn, too. They see all the changes: how she offers her head for a kiss the first time she sees someone, how she stops and poses when she sees a camera, how she now needs quiet time built into her training to deal with the onslaught of attention. "I think we all anthropomorphize," Hunkin says. "I think that's part of the fun of it. We think she's a person. Look at her. Wouldn't you?"
Shirreffs, ever the logical one, doesn't give himself over to any romantic notions. Zenyatta is a horse. A wonderful, smart horse, but a horse nonetheless. And for four years, Shirreffs has kept Zenyatta feeling good and healthy, never letting her get sick, never letting her get down or bored or burned out. There has been immense pressure on all of them, from Mario to Dawn, who often thinks about how valuable Zenyatta is, especially when she's poking her with big needles. But they've all done it perfectly. That's the true stuff of legend. Not that the horse has such a big personality or that she dances or that her fans like Lady Gaga, but that she has won so many races in a row. Shirreffs should be, at the end, a man satisfied. When presented with the chance of a lifetime, he didn't let it slip through his fingers. We could all hope to acquit ourselves so well. He got his Michael Jordan, and he did everything right.
Now there's just one race to go.
The barn should be elated.
The time for Zenyatta's daily workout has arrived -- at the crack of 9:30 -- and a black Lexus pulls up. The Mosses are here. Ann gets out, wearing a ring with a bedazzled "Z" on it. Jerry had it made by designer Loree Rodkin, best-known for Michelle Obama's inauguration jewelry. Ann walks toward the exercise track and sees a white feather on the ground.
"It's just a funny thing," she says. "When I'm coming to see her, at a race or here, there seems to be a white feather pop up. One time it landed on my hand."
"What does that mean?" I ask.
"I figure it's part of the gift," she says. "I don't know. I don't question it. It's about love. This is about love. The love John gives them. The love of the horse."
We are up the hill from Barn 55, at the Hollywood Park exercise track, leaning against the rail. We laugh and throw out one possible meaning for the feather after another, rapid-fire: gifts from heaven, magic, out of the blue, the fleeting nature of all joy. Flight.
"She does fly," Ann says. "She flies past everybody."
Zenyatta gallops around the turn. This is a slow workout, but you can see the power. She's built downhill, with an enormous back end -- yup, Zenyatta has junk in the trunk -- and even a novice can look at her and tell the difference. Her skin dapples, changing, as if you can see the energy coming out, her coat turning a dozen different shades of brown. She comes alive when she runs.
"Look at her stand up," Ann says. "She knows."
The baby talk starts now. Jerry stands over to the side, and John is working on his iPhone and BlackBerry at the same time. Dottie and Ann go into gush mode.
"Hi, Zenny," Dottie says.
"The best girl in the whole world," Ann says. "You are fabulous. Yes, you are."
"You look at her," Shirreffs says, "everything looks fantastic. The shoulders. The hips."
"Even her sweet little face," Ann says. "Everything has been thought out. Special delivery. I'm so glad she picked us. It's an incredible gift. I'm so grateful she picked us."
For some people, horses are a business. Not for Jerry and Ann. They are -- how do you put this? -- absurdly wealthy. He co-founded A&M Records, which signed dozens of huge stars, from The Carpenters to The Police (who once released an album named "Zenyatta Mondatta"). Now he's got all the accoutrements of a life well-lived: a big gleaming jet, a hulking Bel-Air mansion, an enormous Roy Lichtenstein on the wall of his Beverly Hills office. "You know, I've always dreamed big," he would tell me later, sitting in that modern, art-filled office. "I've had big dreams. And a lot of them have come true. A lot of them have come true. You want to have a horse like this, you want to be in the action. That's what I like. I like the action. It's a gorgeous time."
For his wife, it's more than the action. These are her dogs and cats. Yes, it's strange, especially if you only see Zenyatta on television, but she is a big part of Ann's life -- and, more than he'd like to admit, I'm sure -- of Jerry's too. They love this horse. They have a webcam set up across from Zenyatta's stall to check on her any time. Ann sometimes gets a barn worker to hold an iPhone up to the horse so they can video chat. These animals matter. Standing by the track, watching Zenyatta work out, Ann asks if there are any reports about one of their old horses who has retired to stud.
"As far as I've heard," Dottie says, "he's happy."
"It's very difficult," Ann says. "You try not to project that out. We get very attached. We do go back and visit them, but it's not the same. They remember your voice."
The Mosses know what's coming after the Breeders' Cup Classic.
They went down this road a few years ago with Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo. "It wasn't easy saying goodbye to Giacomo," Jerry Moss says. "The sadness is, is he gonna be OK? Is he gonna be all right with these new people?"
Every year, when they go to Kentucky for the Keeneland's biggest sale, they plan an extra day to go and visit their old horses. They save Giacomo for last. The first time they went, the horse recognized them, and when they got in the car afterward, nobody spoke.
This is going to be worse.
"When that time comes," Jerry says, "it will be a big hole in our life. Obviously, a big hole in John's life. John sees her almost every day. Feeds her almost every day. That horse has been a vital part of his life for almost four years."
Lately, Ann has been working on a plan. It makes Jerry shiver when she brings it up, which I suspect is because Ann has a habit of getting her way. I accidentally -- and, given my love of instigation, delightedly -- stumbled onto it.
Why not move Zenyatta to their house?
"Let's not go there," Jerry says.
"We've got lots of lawn there," Ann says. "She could really like grazing."
"It is even legal?" I ask.
"It is in Bel-Air because Nicolas Cage has a horse across the street in his garage, actually," she says.
"We don't have that much room," Jerry says. "The ground is uneven."
"She loves to graze," Ann says. "There's lots of grazing there."
"She is 1,200 pounds," Jerry says.
"There are all the old horse trails around," Ann says. "That's how people used to ride their horses from Bel-Air to Beverly Hills. The old Bel-Air, the old L.A. Our property has two of the old horse trails."
"But there's a fence in the middle of one of them," Jerry says.
Ann turns to me.
"This is as far as it's gotten," she says.
"This is as far as it's gotten," Jerry says. "The discussion stage. I have a feeling reason will prevail."
They sit and talk for a while, looking at the photos of the latest race, but I can't get past the earlier conversation. I was sitting there and I'm telling you, Ann Moss was serious.
Wanna know how much Zenyatta means?
The owners have actually discussed moving her to their house.
The Mosses are about to leave in their big black car when Ann stops.
"I want to say something to Zenny," Ann says. "I'll be right back."
She walks down the shed row. Mario is in the stall with Zenyatta, whistling.
"You hear Mario in there?" she says. "That's her boyfriend."
"What will he do without this horse?" I ask.
"Shhhh," she says.
Ann feeds Zenyatta a carrot, blows in her nose, talks to her quietly, then kisses her goodbye.
"Thank you, Zenny," she says. "I gotta go now. Daddy's got some other stuff he's got to do."
The barn slows down as afternoon arrives. The horses eat. Barn 55 is still, and the hints of sadness I noticed a few hours ago seem stronger. There are no regrets -- everyone has done their best -- just a sense of what must happen next. I sit down and talk to the vet about what I've noticed. Is it just me, or does nobody ever mention Zenyatta retiring?
"When she leaves you can't even talk about it," Hunkin says. " It's like bad. Really, really bad. You can't talk about that. What's that word? It's verboten."
"What will this place be like after the Breeders' Cup?" I ask.
"There will be mourning," she says. "There will be mourning."
It's time to leave Barn 55.
I'd come here for a Hollywood story, about a starlet horse and her adoring fans. I'd even considered writing this like a pseudo-celebrity profile: In the safe darkness of the VIP room at The Short Stop, Zenyatta twirls her spaghetti and talks about portraying such a strong woman. I wanted to be funny, and though there is lots of laughter at the barn, the melancholy couldn't be ignored. If I first saw this circle as a diva and her entourage, now I see them as a family. A family that soon will be broken up.
One day in the not-so-distant future, Hollywood Park will be a shopping mall, or another box store. Zenyatta's legend will exist in record books and in the always-fading memories of those who saw her run. She'll live on in the YouTube clips and the tribute songs. There might be a major motion picture. But it will never be the same. That's the thread running through everyone's stories about Zenyatta. Something is ending, and they know it. Shirreffs was prepared to get the once-in-a-lifetime horse, but is he prepared to lose her?
I remember a conversation we had, standing under a shaded porch connected to the backside coffee shop, overlooking the main track. This is where John gets his usual half-straight coffee, half-French Vanilla, where there's a sandwich named after Zenyatta. The breeze shakes the palm trees and the horses pound the state-sanctioned fake dirt.
"It's all about letting go," he says. "Training horses is all about letting go."
"You have to let the groom take care of the horse."
"You have to let the exercise boy ride the horse."
"You have no control over where that horse is gonna be tomorrow."
"The owner can move that horse."
"At some point that horse is gonna retire."
He talks about that first job, when the horse he cared for was loaded into a van and disappeared.
"I learned," he says. "That first breaking season. It's gone. It's here today. Tomorrow, it's gone. It's just gone. Race horses, thoroughbreds, that's how it is. That's why I found, while they're in your care, it's important to do the best you can. Enjoy that moment."
I ask him how he is going to fill the hole.
"You just put your emphasis on another one. Change the focus. Obviously, we'll miss her. But we'll start working on other ones. That's the way it is."
Horses gallop past, filling the air with heavy snorts. For now, Zenyatta's safe in Barn 55. Soon, she'll be gone. Barn 55 will be gone, and the grandstand, and one day even John Shirreffs, leaving behind a pristine set of Montblanc pens. Nothing is forever, not even Hollywood legends.
"You know," he says, "it's like the thing in the desert with the footsteps. The sand blows in and fills up those footsteps. Gone."
Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPNLosAngeles.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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