The Art of Zen

(To all those Zenyatta enthusiasts who cringe at the mere mention of a certain other filly’s name, rest assure that name will not appear anywhere in this blog. She will have her own blog in the near future).

Why, you might ask, am I writing yet another blog on Zenyatta? Well, the answer to that question is actually the subject matter. Writers and racing fans cannot get enough of Zenyatta and have melded into a single entity – writers have become fans, to the point where they get giddy over having their picture taken with her, and fans cannot stop writing about her, whether it is on blogs, message boards, Facebook, signs, and even in diaries.

The Zenyatta craze has reached a point where it transcends any previous relationship writers and fans have had with horses. That is because Zenyatta, with her diva-like presence and prima ballerina moves, transcends the Thoroughbred racehorse as we know it.

The scribes of the past certainly had their rooting interests, such as Kelso, Secretariat, Forego, and John Henry, but they were mostly hardcore newspaper writers and didn’t often get an opportunity to reach into their heart and soul and pour out their emotions. Going even farther back, fans in Seabiscuit’s day could only admire their heroes from afar, with only a minute percentage of them actually getting to see them in person. The best they could hope for was catching a glimpse of them in newsreels at their local movie theater. Then came television and the “Gray Ghost,” Native Dancer. It wasn’t until an 11-year-old girl named Heather Noble started the Kelso Fan Club in the early 1960s that young fans had an outlet to express their feelings about a horse or simply bond with other fans.

That obviously has changed dramatically with the advent of the Internet. The Zenyatta phenomenon is difficult to define, because it goes beyond racetrack performance or statistics or even her imposing presence. Yes, she exemplifies perfection and her uncanny showmanship and ability to take on human traits are something no one has ever seen before in a Thoroughbred. But, most importantly, she has been able to find a portal into our childhood. In her, we see The Black Stallion, Misty of Chincoteague, Black Beauty, My Friend Flicka, Trigger, and even Mr. Ed (would you be really that shocked to learn that she talks to John Shirreffs?).

Although horses are a part of our fabric, most of us go on to other endeavors and acquire new interests and passions. But the feelings we have for the equine heroes of our youth never die. They just remain dormant until that one special horse comes along and rekindles them. Whether we are 16 or 40 or 70, we all become children once again.

D.H. Lawrence wrote: “Far back, far back in our dark soul the horse prances…The horse, the horse!”

As I mentioned in our last “And They’re Off” video, it has reached a point where going to the track to see Zenyatta run is like going to see the Harlem Globetrotters. You don’t care that they play the lowly Washington Generals, and no one ever remembers or cares about the score. You’re there to see them put on a show and entertain the fans with their antics and amazing skills. Well, who has more showmanship than Zenyatta? Who has antics like Zenyatta? Who can match Zenyatta’s skills? Perhaps one day she can parade to the post to the strains of “Sweet Georgia Brown.”

I have spent several mornings and afternoons with Zenyatta at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita, and it’s something you don’t forget. She has a trainer who knows every strand of hair on her enormous frame and who rarely takes his eyes off her, whether at the barn or on the closed-circuit camera he has hooked up to his computer at home. He videotapes her for the family collection and for Youtube as one would their child. His wife, Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs, who is the racing manager for owners Jerry and Ann Moss, has stated on numerous occasions that to be around Zenyatta is to experience Zenyatta.

Talking to Terry Wallace, Oaklawn’s director of media relations and track announcer, following Zenyatta’s memorable visit to Oaklawn Park, I could sense a childlike exuberance as he discussed The Big Mare’s stay in Hot Springs, beginning with her much-anticipated arrival at the airport and the 200-300 fans waiting for her holding homemade signs.

And there were the special moments on the backstretch, as fans and media members gathered around Zenyatta like the proverbial rock star.

“As Zenyatta nibbled on grass, many of the reporters came over to get a closer look at her, and our track photographer, Jeff Coady, took pictures of them so they could have a memory of it,” Wallace said. “He later distributed copies to a lot of them, either via e-mail or giving them hard copies. She just took it all in, and it didn’t bother her at all that people were coming over and touching her.”

One veteran writer had his photo taken squatting next to Zenyatta and now uses it as his computer wallpaper.

But no one was affected more by being in the presence of Zenyatta than Wallace’s girlfriend, Marty Walker, who has been undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.

“When everyone was getting in the middle of things, I said, ‘Marty, you might as well, too; this is your favorite horse and this is your chance,’” Wallace said. “She stepped up and put her hand on Zenyatta’s neck and got her picture taken with her. She’s just as proud as can be to have that picture. It’s her prized possession and she already has it hanging in the living room. I don’t think she ever imagined the day when she could actually touch Zenyatta.

“Last week was a non-chemo week for her, so she was able to be out there, and it came at just the right time while she’s going through all this. She looks at the picture of her touching Zenyatta and it’s an inspiration for her to keep on going. It’s very moving to see. In Marty’s case, it was the perfect match of an animal and human being coming together at just the right time and how much good one can do for the other. This put a real smile on her face.”

Dozens of videos appeared on Youtube before and after the Apple Blossom of Zenyatta strutting, prancing, dancing, and bowing…in other words, just being Zenyatta. One video of her returning after the race sounded as if it was recorded in the balcony of the Ed Sullivan Theater the night The Beatles debuted in America.

They scream, they cheer, they ogle, and in the end, they smile. No one knows how many pages are left to be written in the saga of Zenyatta or what will be inscribed on those pages. She was snatched out of retirement and brought back to the stage for the main purpose of becoming a nationwide star, touring the country and allowing old fans and potential new fans to admire her up close.

Perhaps the most fitting words to describe Zenyatta come from the Peter, Paul, and Mary/Joan Baez song “Stewball.”

“And a-way up yonder,
Ahead of them all,
Came a-dancin’ and a-prancin’
My noble Stewball.”

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