(This is the last 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.)
As Zenyatta won races fifteen through nineteen, her popularity grew. Sports Illustrated ran a long article about her. Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine named her one of the 20 most powerful women of the year. She got her own Facebook page and website. Her home track, Hollywood Park, experienced a resurgence in attendance at the races. Little girls came to the Park wearing pink and teal (the color of owners Jerry and Ann Moss’ racing silks). But then, so did women and grown men.
Share your blessings
Zenyatta was a superstar. Except for one small thing. Most superstars don’t take the time or can’t meet their fans. In the world of thoroughbreds, it is rare that the public ever gets to meet or touch the horses they so admire. Until Zenyatta and her team came along.
“It’s fantastic what Zenyatta means to the average fan,” John Shirreffs said. “So many people come by the barn at Hollywood Park just to see her, just to have their picture taken with her. She’s just special to so many people. Even we become fans. I’m her trainer, but I’m a fan. That’s why I allow people in to see her – that’s how I feel. I want other people to share that feeling.”
As the 2010 season progressed, fans started coming to see Zenyatta at her barn in droves. Just the sight of her sometimes produced amazing results.
“There are ladies who come to the barn and they’re literally shaking,” Shirreffs said. “They’re sweating and crying. One lady, who is a school teacher from Santa Barbara, said the first time she came to see Zenyatta she was in a wheel chair; she couldn’t walk. She said Zenyatta inspired her to push herself and try to walk. Before we left for Kentucky, she visited the barn and she was carrying three cameras and was walking.”
Doing your best can inspire others
People were talking about her online, too:
From The Ovarian Cancer National Alliance forum:
“Zenyatta inspires me; she won her 19th straight horserace today. She wears the beautiful color teal [the color of Ovarian Cancer survivors] and somehow she speaks to the strength we need each day to live with or past Ovarian Cancer. She is sent from heaven as a blessing of true joy and if you want to feel joy, watch her races.”
Comment following an article in the San Francisco Chronicle:
“Zenyatta has more than star power, she truly is special. She is not really just a horse, she is more than that. I cannot explain it, but this horse truly stopped me from going over the edge during a very low point in my life. My dad had just died and my husband had had quite a few strokes among other things going on that brought us to rock bottom. Do you want to know what saved me? God, a backbone, and a horse named Zenyatta. . . she has courage, strength, stamina, she always tries, she always wins, she always makes it over the finish line. I knew I could do it if I just kept going, kept running, kept up the pace, kept pushing on and did not stop, I knew I could do it and Zenyatta was my role model. Those videos of her and her races gave me something to smile at, something to look forward to when my life was falling apart and when all that was left were tears, she made smiles. So NO, she is not just a star, she is a gift , a gift that her owners share with us every day, that her trainer shares with us every time he posts on YouTube, a gift that God gave us, a gift to be valued and applauded. God smiled, reached down, touched Zenyatta on her foaling day and whispered ‘this One’.”
Strive for grace under pressure
At 19-0, Zenyatta was to run one final race before retirement. She was going to try to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic two years in a row and finish her career undefeated. The race was to be held at Churchill Downs in Kentucky, on the dirt track, at night under the lights – all factors the great mare was not very familiar with.
The build-up to the race was enormous. 60 minutes ran a piece on Zenyatta and her team. People who had never watched a horse race were tuning in all over the country to see if this big mare could win an unprecedented 20 races in a row.
Despite the pressure, the Mosses, Shirreffs, and the rest of Team Z still allowed the fans to watch her graze and graciously sat for interview after interview.
Give it your all, give it your best – even when dirt is thrown at your face
On race day, November 6, 2010, Andrea and I stood in front of the television, the same way we had the year before, unable to control our nerves by sitting. Finally, the horses broke from the gate.
Trevor Denman’s familiar call filled our living room, “Zenyatta is dead last, she’s at least 5 or 6 lengths back at the start.” But then something unfamiliar happened. Zenyatta was too far behind. She looked like she was jogging rather than racing.
“Something’s wrong with her,” Andrea said.
My stomach dropped as the field quickly outpaced the big girl. “I think Mike’s pulling her up. I think something’s wrong with her, too,” I gasped.
But there wasn’t anything wrong with her. Later, jockey Mike Smith said Zenyatta was bothered by the dirt being thrown up in her face, something that doesn’t happen on synthetic tracks, and wasn’t sure how to respond.
She was twenty lengths back as they finished the near turn and hit the backstretch.
“Oh, there’s no way,” I said.
“Zenyatta is eighteen, twenty lengths off the lead,” Denman observed, “Now Mike Smith is asking her for more. She’s starting to pick it up a little.”
Heading into the far turn, she was still twelve lengths behind. This was the place where she usually made up ground, but she was so far back. And there were eleven huge horses in front of her, churning up the track.
“This is awful,” Andrea said, “She can’t make it from there.”
“Wait!” I said, “She’s going outside!”
Somehow, Mike and Zenyatta had made their way to the outside, their favorite place to be on the home stretch. “And here comes Zenyatta, hooking to the grandstand side,” Denman called.
“She’s going to do it!” I yelled.
Denman’s call over the last 200 yards was a chant between the two leading horses: “Zenyatta, Blame, Zenyatta flying on the outside, Blame inside, Zenyatta, Blame, Zennnnn-yaaaaa-tttaaaaa . . .” he cried, trying to pull her across the finish line first with his voice.
“Bl-a-a-a-a-me, Blame has won it by a head!” Denman finished.
“Oh no! She didn’t make it,” I wailed as Andrea burst into tears.
We were stunned. I sensed that hundreds of thousands of people were feeling exactly as we were.
It’s the heart that matters
The next day, trying to cheer myself up, I went online to see what was being written about Zenyatta. I feared that the critics would have a field day with her loss. “They’re going to think they were right about her now,” I thought to myself, “That she can’t win back east, against the boys, on dirt.”
So, I was fairly flabbergasted when I read the first article by Washington Post columnist Andy Beyer, one of Zenyatta’s staunchest critics.
“The nationwide television audience watching “Zenyatta: A Quest for Perfection” and the 72,739 people cheering for the mare at Churchill Downs surely felt deflated when she lost to Blame in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. They shouldn’t have despaired. Zenyatta was more ennobled by this defeat than by almost anything she did during the 19-race winning streak she brought into Saturday’s race.
“Although she regularly won races with electrifying rallies in the stretch, none was so impressive as her charge from a hopeless position with a half mile to run – dead last and 15 lengths behind the leaders – that brought her into a photo finish with Blame.”
And journalist Steve Haskin, a fan of Zenyatta’s, from Bloodhorse.com, mused:
“Henry Ward Beecher wrote, ‘It is defeat that turns bone to flint; it is defeat that turns gristle to muscle; it is defeat that makes men invincible.’
“And apparently women. For Zenyatta, her defeat in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic will be remembered as an affirmation of her greatness. In victory after victory, she captured the heart. In her lone defeat, she captured the soul. All this remarkable mare lost in the Classic was her unbeaten record. But, like Seattle Slew’s memorable nose defeat in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), her courageous performance actually will enhance her place in history.
“Although she will not retire undefeated, Zenyatta proved in the end that perfection is not always measured in numbers.”
Article after article lauded Zenyatta for the tremendous heart she showed in coming back from a near-impossible deficit to fly past ten of the best horses in the world and only lose by a nose in the end.
It’s all about community
Strikingly, in spite of the severe disappointment with the loss, Team Zenyatta was back out the very next day after the race with the fans. Zenyatta grazed while people crowded around the fence to see her. Jerry and Ann Moss stood together, arms around each other, watching the love between horse and fans.
Haskins relates some of the stories people told him after the race:
“Kari Bussell from Tennessee was trying to find out who it was that was grazing Zenyatta the day after the Breeders’ Cup. There was something she wanted to tell him. ‘He made sure I got to feel Zenyatta’s right ear graze my fingertip through the fence, and I want to tell him what that meant to me and thank him,’ she said. ‘It was very emotional for me and was the highlight of my life. I am terminally ill and my dying wish was to touch her once. I know in my heart she is the reason I am still alive and have thus far defied the odds and what the doctors told me. She inspired me never to give up. I have refused to go anywhere until her story was finished.’
“Candy Jones, from Lexington, Ky. said three days after the Breeders’ Cup, ‘I broke my ankle last Monday and my father was in a horrible car wreck. The doctors weren’t sure until yesterday that he would survive. He made amazing strides last night, though, and is now off the ventilator and spoke to me for the first time since the accident. Today is my birthday and it was the best gift I could have ever asked for. All last week, the only thing that kept me going was focusing on Zenyatta and rooting her on. No one really understands what makes her so special. Everyone knows she can race, but it’s something in her heart, some kind of special light that she emits, and the world just hangs on her like a huge star. That special quality has stayed with me and helped get me through this. I just adore her beyond words.’
“Finally, there is Abigail Anderson, a schoolteacher from Montreal, who had been shaken by the death in August of a much-loved teacher named Marjorie Gawley, who loved dancing and got much joy in her final days from a video of Zenyatta ‘dancing.’ Abigail asked on behalf of the English-teaching community in Quebec if there was any way Zenyatta could run in the Classic in Marjorie’s name.
“When Zenyatta went to the post on Nov. 6, she carried Marjorie’s name in the browband of her bridle. “
For Zenyatta and her team, it’s all about community, heart, and love.
Look for inspiration in unlikely places
So that’s the story of the great Zenyatta, from rash to riches. Who knew that that fuzzy foal with a skin problem would grow to inspire thousands? The Mosses, Shirreffs, and all of Team Zenyatta, of course, could not have known what the future would bring when they bought hip number 703. But they had the patience, faith and love that allowed her spirit to soar and touch thousands of people.
I hope her story has inspired you to dance, to not worry about being behind, and to do everything with heart, even if you lose the race.
I’d like to end with a few more posts from people who saw the wider impact of Zenyatta:
Comments after Haskins’ article:
“Perhaps during this time of financial hardships and broken hearts…we needed something to believe in…God gave us Zenyatta…all we had to do was listen and look for her and many of us did. I feel blessed to be able to experience Zenyatta in the prime of my life.”
“When we get disconnected it takes a special entity like Zenyatta to reconnect us. She takes us places we can go, and helps us heal wounds that refused to heal. What an Angel!”
Another Haskins’ blog post, by guest blogger Abigail Anderson, ended with the paragraph:
“Zenyatta touched our lives as we accompanied her on her way from fuzzy baby to mature adult, learning to become a community in the process. And we will no more forget her than we could forget Man O’ War or War Admiral or Count Fleet or Citation or Northern Dancer or Secretariat or Ruffian or Genuine Risk or Personal Ensign or Barbaro …… or any Thoroughbred that we have loved.”
Comment from a male reader after the post:
“Which is why I will only forget Zenyatta when my heart is no more.”
Click here to see a great montage of the home stretch of all of Zenyatta’s wins.
Check out Zenyatta’s story in song by Liza G. Fly.
Want to see what Zenyatta is up to now? You can follow her diary on her website.