(This is the second in a series about the great racehorse, Zenyatta, and the lessons she has taught us. Please look for the headings in bold italics to learn important resiliency tools.)
On Thanksgiving Day, 2007, Andrea and I stood near the paddock at Hollywood Park racetrack, watching the horses for the next race slowly circle the perimeter with their grooms. We were told that the number 9 horse, Zenyatta, might be “pretty good.” She was running in her first race today. The first thing I noticed about the number 9 horse was that she was really, really big. 17 hands, as I found out later, much taller than the usual filly and even taller than most male horses.
Don’t take yourself so seriously
As her groom led her around the paddock, Zenyatta bobbed her dark head up and down and pawed at the dirt with her front hoof. Then she started to prance, flinging her front legs straight out as she walked. “That’s a funny little dance,” Andrea said
“And look at that tongue!” I laughed. Zenyatta’s tongue was hanging out sideways from her mouth, waggling as she gnawed on her bit.
Maybe being behind isn’t so bad
Jockey David Flores was given a leg up onto the big girl and we took our seats in the grandstands to watch the race. The start didn’t look very good as Zenyatta came out of the gate last and soon was several lengths back. She stayed that way until the far turn where we could see her start to move up on the pack. Flores steered her to the outside and then we saw her gaining ground very quickly on the other horses with each huge stride. Above the cheering, we heard track announcer Vic Stauffer, “Caramel Coffee has the lead but you better take a look at Zenyatta-a-a-a to run by and do it nicely. Zenyatta won by 3 ½ [lengths] in a good-lookin’ win.”
And so the streak began, each one the same: slow out of the gate, dropping so far back it seemed she’d never be able to recover, sneaking up on the far turn, then flying down the stretch for the win.
Find joy in the moment
Zenyatta’s pre-race routine was always the same, too: dancing in the paddock, tongue lolling out the side of her mouth, pawing at the dirt. And I noticed another interesting thing about her as she raced: her ears. While the other horses kept their ears almost flat back to their heads, Zenyatta’s ears flicked back and forth as she ran, as though she were not only keenly interested in what was going on around her, but heartily enjoying every minute of it, too. Then, when she passed the last horse to take the lead, those ears pricked all the way forward as she heard the roar of the crowd and anticipated the finish line.
Even with perfection, there will still be critics
Her fifth win started to generate some buzz in the racing community as Vic Stauffer called out during the home stretch, “How do you describe perfection? Why try? Let’s just watch her run. This is Zenyatta-a-a-a.” As she took the lead in the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic, veteran announcer Trevor Denman called her “Undoubtedly now, a living legend. Zenyatta is now nine for nine.”
Despite her success, Zenyatta had her critics. “She doesn’t run against the boys.” “She won’t run on real dirt, only the artificial tracks in California.” “She never goes back east to race.” “Jerry Moss is too conservative with her.”
Do what you know is right
Team Zenyatta, though, overlooked the controversy. “We want to do what is best for Zenyatta and that includes her safety,” Moss explained.
Winning by a nose is still a win
As Zenyatta’s winning streak grew into the 2009 season, so did my anxiety level while I watched her race. The style of a closer is dramatic, and Zenyatta was certainly no exception. Her 12th race nearly produced a coronary event for me as she won by a nose. Or maybe even a nostril.
Set your sights high
She had definitely caught the attention of the racing world and was soon to burst into the public limelight with her last race of 2009. Although the Triple Crown races are more popular and well-known, the world championships of horse racing actually occur at the annual Breeders’ Cup meet held at the end of the year. In 2008, Zenyatta had won the ladies’ version of the world championship, but Team Zenyatta decided to race her against the boys in the ultimate race, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, in 2009. Her competitors would include Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird and Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird. No filly or mare had ever won the Breeders’ Cup Classic. If she won, it would go a long way to prove her critics wrong.
Don’t worry about others getting in front of you
Trevor Denman’s call at the start of the race sent the proverbial chills down my spine: “Zenyatta is dead last, dead last as they start . . . Zenyatta is still dead last going into the turn, she’s given up about 10 lengths to the leaders.” Andrea and I were standing in front of the television, unable to stay still enough to sit. There were twelve horses in the field, more than most of Zenyatta’s prior races. Jockey Mike Smith started to bring her up at the beginning of the far turn but there was a wall of horses in front of her. “I don’t think she can get through,” I fretted as the horses turned for home.
“Zenyatta has a lot, a LOT of ground to make up,” intoned Trevor Denman. “If she wins this she’ll be a superhorse.”
Look for a way through, no matter what is in front of you
Suddenly, Andrea yelled, “Look! Mike found an opening! She’s coming through! Go Zenyatta!”
“And Zenyatta has come to the outside, Zenyatta coming flying to the grandstand side!” Denman’s voice rose with excitement as the horses sprinted down the home stretch.
“Go! Go! Go!” Andrea and I shrieked at the television.
Things that look impossible sometimes aren’t
Denman was at full voice now as Zenyatta took the lead: “This. Is. Un-be-LIEV-able! Zenya-a-atta, what a performance – one we’ll NEVER forget! Looked impossible but it is Zenyatta, still unbeaten.”
I grabbed Andrea and we jumped up and down together, “She did it! She did it!”
It’s the heart that wins fans
John Shirreffs and Jerry Moss summed up the whole event in two sentences as Zenyatta paraded to the winner’s circle. “She’s just all heart,” said Shirreffs. An emotional Moss looked at the grandstands while he was being interviewed, “Look at the fans,” he gestured with his arm. Pink and teal posters with “Girl Power! Go Zenyatta!” were waved by wildly happy Zenyatta fans.
Using your Gift empowers and inspires others
Those pink and teal Girl Power signs seemed to multiply as Zenyatta raced in 2010, her fourth and final year. Especially as she neared, and then surpassed the 16-consecutive-win marks of legendary horses Cigar and Citation. Girls and women all over the country began to write to the Mosses and the Shirreffs, telling them how Zenyatta had inspired them in their lives. Singer/songwriter Liza G. Fly wrote a song just for Zenyatta. Home-made music videos from fans began appearing on YouTube showing Zenyatta’s “dance” and her come-from-behind heroics.
A young woman named Brittany wrote an article for the blog, College Candy, titled “A Positive Female Role Model For College Girls.” She begins, “Want to be a classy woman? Zenyatta could teach you something.” And ends with, “Watching Zenyatta race is more than just a sporting event; she sweats class and lays it all over the racetrack. I think we should all learn a little something from her: to hold our heads up high; to be confident with ourselves; to go for what we want, no matter what obstacles stand in our way; to dance when and where we want.
“Sure, Zenyatta may be a horse, but she’s got more class in her little hoof than most of today’s celebs/”role models” put together. She’s a classy broad and an inspiration that we can all learn from…who just happens to have four legs and a tail.”
Next time: The last race, but not the last of Zenyatta.