HOT SPRINGS, Ark. Forget Horse of the Year. Let's just make Zenyatta horse of the century. She earns the title by sheer chutzpah, for showmanship and for the delivery again and again of solid racing thrills. In an industry desperately in need of promoting, this beautiful bay runner speaks volumes without saying a word.
In case you missed the news, she won again on Friday at Oaklawn Park, in the Apple Blossom, by 4 ¼ lengths, under wraps, with jockey Mike Smith propping his feet up against the dashboard, holding her back. This was her 16th straight victory. She has never been beaten.
It was the kind of race of which you tell your children and grandchildren. The same could be said of the entire week, for the 6-year-old daughter of Street Cry put on a show from the moment she arrived Tuesday morning. After stepping off her flight from California to the welcome of more than 100 ardent racing fans, through early morning trips to the track and lazy late-morning photo sessions as she cropped the emerald grass, Zenyatta graced Oaklawn with the presence of a champion. Her win in the Apple Blossom was simply icing on the cake, the grand finale of a performance uniquely her own.
It started in the hours before the race, the peaceful backside livened only by intermittent calls to the post and the faint sound of the loudspeaker as fields of early runners started, ran, returned. By 5:35 p.m., the call came for horsemen to ready their runners for the 10th, and trainer John Shirreffs began the quiet pre-race routine all racehorses and horsemen know so well, motions practiced and perfected through years of experience.
They say Thoroughbreds are creatures of habit, and Zenyatta knew it was time to run. Her ears pricked and she began to get ready not anxious, not excited, just ready. Groom Mario Espinosa brushed her forelock in slow movements, soothing. Assistant trainer Frank Leal held her bridle.
"We're gonna leave in about 12 minutes," Shirreffs said. He leaned back and crossed his arms. The moments ticked past.
"Horsemen, bring your runners to the paddock for the 10th race," the loudspeaker blared.
From D. Wayne Lukas' barn, Apple Blossom contender Be Fair began her trek to the paddock. Shirreffs gave the signal to follow suit, and Zenyatta emerged from her stall. Grooms, horsemen, outriders and exercise riders lined the way all along the path to the racetrack.
"Good luck, John!" "Go get 'em, Zenyatta!" "Hey, big girl!" They shouted, and Zenyatta strode calmly by.
It is a universal sign of respect the stop-and-stare, the way heads turn the instant attention given every time a great runner walks by. This respect must be earned, and horsemen do not grant it lightly. But when Zenyatta reached the gap of the racetrack, one foot on the horsepath, one foot on the light brown soil, she paused, and the world paused with her.
It was a moment, suspended in time. She looked across the infield and turned to take in the crowd. Then she put her head down and lengthened her step and moved forward. Game on.
They held signs that read "Zenyatta 4 President" and "Zenyatta, Git-R-Done." They were packed into Oaklawn's grandstand like sardines, 44,973 strong, pressing up to the rail, back-to-back until it became impossible to count; three, six, ten, twelve deep.
"We just wanted everybody to really see her perform the way we know she can," Shirreffs said later.
That's exactly what she did.
In the post parade, she moved through her unique "Zenyatta Dance," neck arched, front legs prancing. In the infield, track announcer Terry Wallace mentioned her name and facing the grandstand, she bowed to the crowd. And when Smith was legged up into the saddle, her show played out before our eyes.
The chart reads simply: "Zenyatta, last away, began to move a bit closer on her own courage into the far turn, asked for a bit of run soon after, swept to the fore five wide exiting the final bend, clear when straightened for home, won with something left."
"She was really on her game today," Smith said. "This and her last race were pretty impressive and well, well within herself. Riding her is a lot of fun. It's kind of hard to say if she's getting better and better because she's just so good."
Critics will harp on the class of the field only four other starters, not even a Grade 2 winner among them. In the absence of 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra, who is in training at Churchill Downs with Steve Asmussen after losing her debut of the season by three-quarters of a length, Zenyatta hit the wire in a romp, her collected gallop twice as fast as that of the other runners fully extended. Taptam was second. Be Fair was third.
But as owner Jerry Moss said earlier in the week, she can only run against those who show up. At least, with another resounding romp on the dirt similar to her 2008 victory in the same race, questions of whether she's a synthetic specialist have effectively been put to rest.
"We've always said that (dirt is her best surface)," Shirreffs said. "Not that everybody always listened."
A horse like this makes the world take notice. Earlier in the day, writing for the Wall Street Journal, David Roth picked up links from ESPN coverage. At Slate, Edward McClelland explained how a girl could beat the boys. And deep within the bowels of Oaklawn's offices, track president Charles Cella tried to express what it is about her that captures the attention of not only diehards, but developing racing fans.
"She's a showstopper," Cella said. "Most champions have that presence, and I believe you can look in the eye of a racehorse and you can tell. This gal, she's just a beast. I've seen some of the best mares in the racing world, and this horse is IT. I've never seen a horse like her before.
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. And if you have no heart and you have no backbone, you might as well not even be in the damn sport."
In 1938, the legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote of the great War Admiral's loss to a hard-knocking Seabiscuit: "He had never met a horse who could look him in the eye down the stretch and say to him, in horse language, 'Now let's start traveling, kid. How do you feel? I feel great. This is down my alley.'"
The writers' Friday night reports on Zenyatta will likely be the same. Whether Rachel Alexandra or any other runner of even mettle, for that matter will ever face her remains to be seen. The big bay racemare returns to California on Sunday, but plans call for her to tour the country next en route to a start in the Breeders' Cup, most likely to defend her title against the boys in the Classic.
"We're going to make our schedule," Moss said. "We like races that are 1 1/8 miles, we like Grade 1 races, and if Rachel Alexandra wants to join us any time she'd like, we'd welcome that idea."
In the aftermath of her victory, as Shirreffs leaned against the rail and basked in the glow, Asmussen stood near his side. The replay flashed across the infield jumbotron, Zenyatta rolling home, cruising. Asmussen uttered one word: "Wow."
Then the Mosses ran across the track for the trophy presentation and Smith hoisted his helmet to the sky, and a sign held up by a passionate racing fan expressed perfectly, simply, what everyone at Oaklawn was feeling.
"ZENYATTA THANK YOU," it said.
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse magazine, the (Albany, N.Y.) Times Union and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.