Thrill of a Lifetime - By Susan Hayden Kennedy

(Originally published in the November 6, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)

While watching Zenyatta run the Lady’s Secret Stakes (gr. I) on television Oct. 2, I had my 10-year-old niece on the phone, acting as her play-by-play announcer.

“Zenyatta broke cleanly,” I intoned. “She’s running in last position, but that’s normal for her. She’s chugging right along, behind the four others. OK, she’s nearing the far turn. She’s igniting her engines. She’s passed one horse. She’s passed two horses. She’s up to the third.” My voice intensified. “The lead horse, Switch, is running full out now. Zenyatta is into the lane, and she has a couple lengths to make up yet. Switch is still ahead. Zenyatta is charging. ‘Go, Zen, go! Come on, Z!’ The wire has to be coming up. Go, Zenyatta, goooo!”

I’m screaming now. My heart’s pounding. My husband, normally a rather indifferent observer, is yelling encouragement. Even the beagle is howling. I collapse, spent, onto the sofa, and hear my niece calling, “Aunt Susan, did she win? Did she win? Did she win? Aunt Susan?”

Did she ever!

The next day I read Steve Haskin’s declaration that there are no words left to describe Zenyatta. The adjectives are all used up. Like the last shake from a ketchup bottle. The last desperate squeeze of a tube of toothpaste. Or the final licks of ice cream in the Ben and Jerry’s carton. Perhaps it’s fitting. Zenyatta is worthy of much more than adjectives. She requires metaphors.

Like, Zenyatta is a thrill ride. She is the ride we come to the park to experience. The tallest, longest, fastest of them all. Although Mike Smith sits astride her back, we’re riding her, too, blood pumping, heart pounding. Watching Zenyatta cruise along the backstretch, loping almost lazily, anticipation churns in our guts just as on the roller coaster that climbs that first steep hill or the drop-zone chairs that lumber their way to the top of the skyscraping pole. Zenyatta jolts us into the thrill of the moment as she accelerates into the far turn. We’re flying on the rails with her, laughing and screaming, feeling our hearts in our throats. We’re exhilarated, then spent, as she cruises to a stop. We long to get back on again.

Zenyatta is a haunted house at Halloween. We tune in eagerly for her races, all the while biting our nails and covering our eyes. She creates the tingly fear that stands our hair on end and raises goosebumps. Her races are not for the fainthearted. She should come with a warning for pregnant women and people with heart conditions. We will quake and quiver. But it’s a deliberate encounter with her fearsome stature and power; we want to feel frightened. We’re willing to be tested—our stamina, our mettle—because we know we’ll be all right at the end. Zenyatta will win, and we’ll survive the experience to repeat it next time. In fact, we’ll look forward to it.

Minus the expenses, Zenyatta is a trip to Paris, France, or Florence, Italy. We easily expend a roll of film on her. To look at her, to study her lines and curves, is to wonder at the artistic masterpieces that grace the Louvre or the Galleria dell’Accademia; to gape at the flawless perfection of the voluptuous Venus de Milo or Michelangelo’s stunningly muscled David. Zenyatta’s 17-hand height, her strong, defined shoulder, and robust hindquarters are art and architecture, ambience and culture. She is testament to her provenance; she is the paragon of her kind. Like Paris itself, Zenyatta doesn’t disappoint.

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And Zenyatta is even a sensual experience. She is the femme fatale in each encounter. Before each contest, she teases admirers and adversaries alike with the allure of her prancing and strutting. She gazes at her onlookers with pride and confidence in her ability and her appearance. As we experience her ambition, her drive, her physical exertion in the stretch, we revel in the rocking motion of her long strides and the explosiveness of her relentless finish. She is beauty, brains, and power.

Do I exaggerate? I may. But I’m willing to bet, in your own experiences of Zenyatta, you’ve shared in at least one of these scenarios. In her presence we are thrill seekers. Risk takers. Adrenaline junkies. Admirers and lovers. She may be beyond words, but we are not. Thanks, Zenyatta, for being a thrill in our lifetimes. 

Susan Hayden Kennedy is a high school English teacher.

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