Asher’s ode to Zenyatta

| December 9, 2010

“God’s Gift to Stallions.”

So read one of the signs held by an admirer of Zenyatta as the big mare returned to Kentucky on Monday to start her new life as a broodmare at famed Lane’s End Farm in Woodford County.

Jerry and Ann Moss’s near-perfect mare attracted a crowd estimated at 1,200 to Keeneland for her official welcome to the Bluegrass State. That crowd was reported to have included several members who travelled from other states to get a chance to shower affection on the 6-year-old mare whose personal link to fans is as strong as any horse since the late Barbaro, the star-crossed but brilliant winner of the 2006 Kentucky Derby.

Fan base grew
As prodigious in talent as in imposing physical presence, Zenyatta was a walking contradiction as word of her exploits expanded and her fan base grew. Her massive stature and accomplishments belied a gentle nature that has strengthened the terms of endearment to her fans as her list of consecutive victories without defeat grew.

It was a streak that would reach 19 races before it was finally halted when her desperate rally in the Breeders’ Cup Classic fell just short of catching the talented Blame.

She had that endearing way of walking. It was more of a prance, really, and it implied that this massive, powerful equine athlete had the heart of a ballerina.

Fans who watched her in the post parade for this year’s Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park will swear that she bowed to them as she passed the stands under Mike Smith after being saddled for her second win in that event.

Gentle nature

As spectacularly brilliant as she could be on the track, her gentle nature and her amazing level of comfort around fans of all ages is one of the most remarkable of her long roster of positive traits.

The day after she suffered that lone career loss in the Classic at Churchill Downs is still one of the most amazing things I have witnessed in my long association with the horse industry.

The Mosses, trainer John Shirreffs and team basically took the entire day to share her with fans. She spent most of the day grazing outside of Barn 41, surrounded by admirers who had access to the backside barn area. Those who did not have that access parked along Longfield Avenue and stood just outside the fence, sticking their fingers through the links to touch her nose and her nearly black coat.

Gave up honeymoon!

One woman held a sign that read: “I gave up my honeymoon to see Zenyatta.”

The big mare handled the advances of every admirer, from small children to longtime racing fans, with grace and kindness.

It’s little wonder that John Shirreffs, a trainer who thrives on his relationship with horses so much that he’s been known to plop down in a chair outside a stall and just look at a horse all day in an effort to determine what was going through its mind, found a kindred spirit in Zenyatta.

In watching his star’s interaction with fans just hours after her brilliant effort that fell just shy of ending with a perfect 20-for-20 record on the track, one could not help but believe that Zenyatta felt the love that flowed in her direction. And not only did she feel it, she seemed to understand and did her best to return it.

It’s a scene I’ll never forget.

Zenyatta’s brilliance and courage were affirmed in her defeat in the Classic, and she is sure to be recognized as one of the top females in American racing history.,  In the scope of my experience, she’s in the neighborhood of the ill-fated Ruffian and the unbeaten Personal Ensign, who closed her unbeaten career with a nose victory over Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (now the Ladies’ Classic) at Churchill Downs on Nov. 5, 1988.

But in terms of combined athleticism, accomplishment and charisma,,  it would be hard to rank her below any predecessor – male or female.

Which stallion?

It will be intriguing to see which stallion the Mosses choose for her first date in her new career, and we’ll follow the progress of her first foal from the moment that colt or filly hits the ground.

I would not begin to believe that she could reproduce herself. Secretariat could not do that with hundreds of matings, and she will have just one opportunity per year. But how could one have expected Big Red, an equine gift from God if there ever was one, to recreate himself. The same can be said of Zenyatta.

Both horses are wonderful examples of the quote from John Sosby, Claiborne Farm’s longtime farm manager, that’s been a vital part of the Kentucky Derby Museum’s “The Greatest Race” video presentation from its opening day. Sosby talked about seeking that “lightning in a bottle” – that ingredient that could provide a Kentucky Derby victory, or greatness in any sense of the word.

It’s easy for humans to be emotional and passionate about a horse, whether that horse is a backyard pony or a Kentucky Derby winner. That is, I believe, part of our DNA makeup.

Rare individual

But the truly special ones take our emotional investment and passion into new realms, and Zenyatta is a truly rare individual.

I’ll be anxious to see how Lane’s End handles the demand for farm visits with Zenyatta now on the property. The arrival of the popular 2004 Kentucky Derby winner Smarty Jones, whose loss in the Belmont Stakes was his only career setback, arrived at Three Chimneys Farm necessitated the building of a new parking lot at the farm just to handle fan traffic.

Fans WILL come

I’m not sure what Lane’s End is expecting with Zenyatta, but if you give her fans a chance to drop by for visits and the traffic might look like that unbroken light of headlights streaming to ballpark Ray Kinsella’s farm in the closing moments of “Field of Dreams.”

Zenyatta’s fans love her and they will come, and that emotional link between humans and good horses is the thing that continues to fuel the flames that keep the Kentucky Derby and the horse industry going and occasionally shining in difficult times.

It ultimately, and always, comes down to the horse.. And there have been few like Zenyatta.

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