(Frances J. Karon is a writer and editor for the magazine Trainer and her work has been published in numerous other industry publications; she also works for the consignor Four Star Sales and is well versed in pedigrees and bloodstock; and she’s a well-known presence on Twitter as @francesjkaron, where she published many photographs of Zenyatta from this weekend. Ms. Karon filed this story Tuesday from Lexington, Ky., where she lives. All photos here courtesy of Ms. Karon.)
Who knew that watching a horse graze could be so riveting? But Zenyatta kept hundreds of onlookers entertained at Oaklawn Park each day as she nibbled on the grass between the Davona Dale and Royal Glint barns, felt the warm Arkansas sun on her dappled back, raised her head high to gaze off into the distance, and tracked after the occasional barn cat who wandered her way. All the while, she gently obliged the unending stream of awed strangers who touched her face, her neck, her withers, and her side, eager to pose for a picture with the great Zenyatta.
Public clamor for Zenyatta was non-stop from the moment she was greeted at the airport by some 400 people–including one man who held a “Marry me Zenyatta” sign—on Tuesday, April 6, until she returned home to California on Sunday. From the boy of 11 who cried when he was told that the mare couldn’t be disturbed at dinnertime to the 90-year-old lady who was so excited to see Zenyatta that she gave barn foreman Frank Leal a hug and a kiss, the mare touched them all.
Most hours, she stood quietly in Stall 27 in the barn named for Calumet’s champion Davona Dale, at the farthest edge of Oaklawn’s grounds. She dipped her nose in her bucket filled with Fiji bottled water—and even sometimes drank the water from a bottle her devoted groom Mario Espinoza shared with her—or pulled at hay from the net beside her stall door. A chestnut pony, Francis, was a few stalls away in one direction, and stakes winners Ez Dreamer and Uh Oh Bango were down the other way. Zenyatta was afforded some privacy from the crowd that would have otherwise gathered in front of her stall by a green tarp, though many people were ushered inside and permitted to pose for a quick photograph beside her long, black head.
That her caretakers—in addition to Leal and Espinoza, trainer John Shirreffs and exercise rider Steve Willard had accompanied her to Hot Springs—allowed such access to Zenyatta is down to the kind, unflappable nature of their extraordinary horse and to their extraordinary love for her. More importantly, it’s because they get that people are moved by Zenyatta. Even her owners, Jerry and Ann Moss, spent a long time watching Leal hand-graze her and taking pictures along with everyone else.
Shirreffs’ challenge was to try to balance everything out, sharing the gift that is Zenyatta while maintaining a modicum of routine, peace, and quiet for her. Ultimately, they were in Hot Springs to compete in the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Stakes. It was a difficult position, on the one hand wanting to give everyone who showed up the opportunity to see her, and on the other being protective of her. Yet Zenyatta handled the situation with remarkable aplomb, as did everyone associated with her—every day, the Mosses, Shirreffs, Espinoza, and Willard talked to the press, signed autographs, and accepted heartfelt thank yous for keeping Zenyatta in training.
The media frenzy was unreal; whenever Zenyatta emerged from Stall 27 there were people documenting her every move. A stablehand for a locally-based trainer was overheard saying, “I’d never have believed that one horse could bring so many dad-gummed people here.”
In the hours before the Apple Blossom, the mood around the barn was relatively relaxed. The crowd had finally scattered, leaving Shirreffs and Willard to sit in the shade of a tree and try not to think about their mare’s undefeated record going on the line. Zenyatta, a two-time champion and nine-time Grade 1 winner, would be lining up against three Grade 3 winners and one multiple stakes winner. Although the competition was seriously overmatched, Willard was quick to remind that you should never underestimate your opponents. After all, hadn’t Zenyatta’s unheralded stablemate Zardana beaten 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra in March?
A stone-faced Espinoza and Leal began to prep the mare as post time approached, and when it was time to go Willard led the way through the barn areas, followed by Espinoza with Zenyatta, then Leal, Shirreffs, and one of the Mosses two bodyguards who had been assigned to Zenyatta duty. The route to the track was lined with workers from the barns out in full force, calling to the horse or to Shirreffs and taking pictures; as if they could forget the time when Zenyatta lived among them for a few days. One groom even used his cell phone camera to shoot her as he led an exhausted-looking horse back from the previous race.
Zenyatta remained composed as the group wound their way to the gap, and when she reached the track she raised her head high, stopped, and slowly took in the scene. Several in the crowd—comprised of people wearing Zenyatta buttons and holding signs, some dressed in the Mosses aqua-and-pink color scheme, and at least one man with a large Zenyatta tattoo on his calf—screamed, “Dance for us, Zenyatta!” as soon as they saw her. One called out, “Good luck, Mr. Moss!” to Shirreffs, who just smiled, shook his head, and said thank you.
She didn’t comply with her “dance” until she was in the saddling paddock, a fluorescent-lit room inside the grandstand. Espinoza led her around for a few circuits before taking her into stall number 4 to be saddled, and then they followed War Echo across the track to await the call for riders up on the grass between the dirt track and the infield.
Just Jenda, the #5 horse, brought up the rear. Larry Jones led the chestnut, trained by his wife Cindy, and teased Shirreffs that he had just found out that the condition book was wrong, that the Apple Blossom was an eighth of a mile, not a mile and an eighth, and they laughed.
Track announcer Terry Wallace, stationed between the L- and A-shaped hedges that spell out “OAKLAWN,” introduced Zenyatta over the P.A. like the ring announcer at a prizefight. “And number four, there she is…the undisputed…undefeated…Eclipse Award champion…ladies and gentlemen…Zenyatta.” And the most amazing thing happened: when Wallace began to say her name, she pulled herself up, facing the grandstand, and as if on cue, bowed her head, nose to the ground, twice in quick succession before resuming walking in a circle. It was a spontaneous act of showmanship that stunned everybody yet surprised no one who knows her. Steve Willard would later say, “Zenyatta can read and write, too, but we don’t put her glasses on her because we don’t want anybody to know.” Nobody who has seen this glorious mare with their own eyes would dispute that she probably could.
When Shirreffs boosted Mike Smith into his blue saddle, Zenyatta tucked her chin into her neck and to the delight of 44,973 people—which counted only the paying customers on the grounds—pranced throughout the post parade and the warm-up. The Mosses, their racing manager (and Shirreffs’ wife) Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs, and their friends took position on the steps in the owners’ area, while Shirreffs, as always, found a spot on the rail, signing more autographs and keeping an eye on the big TV screen in the infield. When a group of women from the Arkansas Racing Commission asked if they could have their picture taken with him, he said, “Sure! We’ve got three minutes till post time.”
The race was merely a formality, a glorified workout worth $300,000 to the connections of the 1-9 1-20 favorite. If there were ever any doubts as to the outcome, those were laid to rest when Zenyatta began to make her move before the turn for home, and she won the Apple Blossom as easily as she pleased, by 4¼ lengths—second-largest margin of victory for her, after her 4½ score in the 2008 Apple Blossom—barely taking a deep breath in the process. The grandstand shook as the Mosses’ mare added a 10th Grade 1 race to take her to 16-for-16 lifetime.
There were many hugs and a few tears from even seasoned professionals. Smith graciously trotted Zenyatta down the length of the grandstand to give everyone a chance to admire and cheer for her before steering her over to receive her garland of pink and white flowers. Shirreffs, characteristically, watched the winner’s circle festivities from afar, leaning against the outside rail, joined by Rachel Alexandra’s trainer Steve Asmussen who congratulated him and said, “Wow.”
“Wow”…what more is there to be said about this beautiful animal and her guardians who love her and share her with us?
See Zenyatta’s introduction—and bow—below: