By April Horowitz
(The Heart of a Horse Story, part 23)
Some of the harsher critics of racing want to just abolish it, as though that were possible, ignoring what has made it the institution it is, and the fact that it has been with us for thousands of years. There are few sights as beautiful as a horse in motion, which is one of the reasons it has been around so long. They fail to appreciate, also, that horses were born to run, and that they, too get satisfaction and pleasure out of the sports they participate in. They love the challenges and want to excel just as we do.
I got a chance to see just how much a horse can relish its performance at the track when Bo Derek invited me to watch one of the most remarkable horses of our time. It was on a bright day in June at Hollywood Park, and the horse’s name was Zenyatta, although by then she was known as “The Queen.” That day, Zenyatta was going to run in the Vanity Cup. If she won it would be her 17th straight victory, passing the record set by the legendary thoroughbred, Citation. Zenyatta was already a legend herself, the only filly ever to have won the Breeder’s Cup. She had previously been retired, but at six years old she was returning to the track for another run.
Being at the track with Bo, who has a deep love for horses and has saved so many through her work, was itself a thrill for me. She is a very genuine and kind person and has a wonderful family who joined her for the day. With Bo as our guide we visited the jockeys in their club room and I met Hall of Famer Mike Smith, who had ridden Zenyatta in 13 of her 16 wins. Mike agreed to sponsor our Heart of a Horse benefit at the Bombardier Open, and to help us in our efforts to find homes for racehorses at the end of their careers. Bo also introduced me to Zenyatta’s owners Jerry and Ann Moss, who are horse lovers themselves.
When the Eighth Race was announced we went down to the paddock where the horses parade before going on the track. I had been told that Zenyatta was something special in the paddock but it was still amazing to watch her prance before the crowd, to see her awareness of her admirers and how she went out of her way to put on a performance, eliciting their adulation and applause. People carried signs saying “Girl power!” and other slogans to cheer her on, and to express the love they had for their champion. Just to look at Zenyatta was inspiring. At 17.3 hands she was stately and beautiful to begin with. But then to see her go into her dance, standing out from all the others, throwing her head to the side as she responded to the spontaneous bursts of applause from the crowd was an experience to cherish.
To handicap her, they had weighted Zenyatta down for the race until she was carrying 129 pounds, while the rest of the pack was carrying less than 112. As was her custom, she started the race dead last, 12 lengths behind the leader, and she stayed there for six furlongs of the eight furlong race right into the backstretch. Even the track announcer showed concern as he said the first two horses – still 12 lengths ahead – “were setting it up for the Queen if she can do it.” Seconds later, I saw that with a burst of enormous energy and strength she was beginning to make her run.
Unleashing her power, she passed horse after horse, but as she came within two lengths of the lead, her stable mate St. Trinians, showed she had legs as well, and the pace between them grew torrid. Even those standing with us who were used to Zenyatta coming from behind gasped as the possibility that she might not win began to register. A seasoned Hollywood Park official whom I had met said to me afterwards of what happened next, “It was the most exciting race I have seen in forty years at the track.” Zenyatta was carrying that extra weight and St. Trianians was barreling ahead and you could feel the lungs of the crowd collectively stop breathing. Then in the last 1/16th of a mile, she lunged and gave out a final blast of energy that took her past Trinians and she won by half a length. Over the loudspeakers, the announcer’s voice boomed: “The Queen continues her legend. Seventeen in a row!”
Bo and I went down to the Winner’s Circle to join the Mosses and their friends, and trainers, and wait for Zenyatta with Mike on her to arrive. My heart was pounding as Zenyatta and Mike came into the circle, and the crowd cheered and I heard a tearful Ann Moss say to the horse, “Baby, do you hear that, it’s for you.”