Zenyatta Stirred the Emotions

Henry Ward Beecher wrote, “It is defeat that turns bone to flint; it is defeat that turns gristle to muscle; it is defeat that makes men invincible.”

And apparently women. For Zenyatta, her defeat in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic will be remembered as an affirmation of her greatness. In victory after victory she captured the heart. In her lone defeat she captured the soul. All this remarkable mare lost in the Classic was her unbeaten record. But, like Seattle Slew’s memorable nose defeat in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), her courageous performance actually will enhance her place in history.

Although she will not retire undefeated, Zenyatta proved in the end that perfection is not always measured in numbers.

That was evident the day after the Classic; a day that can best be described as surreal. There is something about vulnerability that endears us to someone, whether a human or a Thoroughbred. Zenyatta’s defeat at the hands of a talented, classy colt in Blame actually brought out an outpouring of affection and admiration that transcended even the emotions she stirred in people during her 19-race winning streak.

For several hours in the morning and then again in the afternoon, Zenyatta was taken out to graze, drawing hundreds of fans to the Longfield Ave. fence. They brought cakes and signs, and carrots, and apples…and love.

All the while, Zenyatta posed for photos, as dozens and dozens of people inside the backstretch lined up to have their picture taken with her. Several women broke down in tears afterward, one of them putting her arms around Ann Moss and thanking her. Through it all, Zenyatta never once became agitated, and accepted the kissing, the hugging, and the petting as if part of her normal routine. Occasionally, the chant of “Zen-Ya-Ta!” went up from the crowd. It was a scene that assuredly will never be witnessed again.

Jerry and Ann Moss and Dottie Ingordo Shirreffs came over to the fence and thanked everyone for their support. John Shirreffs on occasion would stop by and chat with the people. At 5 p.m., when Zenyatta was led into the barn to get ready for her trip back to California, the crowd gave her a warm round of applause.

Zenyatta’s arrival at Churchill was unlike anything ever seen, as hordes of photographers and TV cameramen crowded behind police barricades outside Barn 41 and onlookers gathered to get a good look at the Queen as she was led off the van following her police escort from the airport.

Trainer Steve Penrod, in whose barn Zenyatta would be residing, had never seen anything like it.

“It was like a Hollywood movie production,” he said. “And the most impressive thing was seeing all the cars stopped on Longfield Ave., as people got out to watch Zenyatta graze through the fence. She’s the biggest draw since Secretariat.”

The following morning, Penrod said to Shirreffs as the two stood by the gap, “You should see my wife. The last time you ran she was screaming so loud, I told her, ‘You gotta stop; they’re gonna think I’m killing you.’ She screams and hollers until it’s over, and then she cries. A month ago, she said to me, ‘Talk to (stall superintendent) Mike Hargrave and see if he’ll put Zenyatta in our barn.’ When I told her a few days later that Zenyatta is coming in our barn, she started screaming.’

Shirreffs is still amazed at the outpouring of emotions that Zenyatta inspires.

“There are ladies who come to the barn and they’re literally shaking,” he said. “They’re sweating and crying. One lady, who is a school teacher from Santa Barbara, said the first time she came to see Zenyatta she was in a wheel chair; she couldn’t walk. She said Zenyatta inspired her to push herself and try to walk. Before we left for Kentucky, she visited the barn and she was carrying three cameras and was walking.”

It is apparent that the bond many people have with Zenyatta is almost spiritual in nature. She has been an inspiration in ways never before seen.

Stephanie Lambert, who resides in Maine, had one wish in life: “I just want to see Zenyatta once before I die,” she said back in August. “I will sleep in my car if I have to. I just want to be able to say I saw THE greatest. She has been such an inspiration to me for two years and got me through some really rough times. My dad passed away; my husband had three strokes; three of my dogs died; I had to put my mom, who has third-stage Alzheimers, in a nursing home; and we went bankrupt due to my husband's inability to work. I would come home after working 14 hours and sit at my computer and watch the videos John Sherriffs posted of Zenyatta and it would make me smile, and it gave me strength. I would think to myself, ‘I can do it, I just have to be like Zenyatta; I just have to keep running and run that target in front of me down.’ Sometimes God puts something in your way to give you courage and this is what Zenyatta did for me. She is an amazing example of what grace and courage are. God smiled one day and created Zenyatta.”

David Ingordo, Dottie’s son, who was the one who picked out Zenyatta at the yearling sale and purchased her for $60,000, was so moved by Stephanie’s story, he arranged to fly her out to California and get her seats and a hotel room for the Clement Hirsch (gr. I).

Kari Bussell from Tennessee was trying to find out who it was that was grazing Zenyatta the day after the Breeders' Cup. There was something she wanted to tell him. "He made sure I got to feel Zenyatta's right ear graze my fingertip through the fence, and I want to tell him what that meant to me and thank him," she said. "It was very emotional for me and was the highlight of my life. I am terminally ill and my dying wish was to touch her once. I know in my heart she is the reason I am still alive and have thus far defied the odds and what the doctors told me. She inspired me never to give up. I have refused to go anywhere until her story was finished."  

Catherine Jennings, from Wash. D.C., has been in the horse business for many years and had become jaded by all the negative aspects of the sport. But she had one request.

“Zenyatta makes me remember why I started loving horses in the first place,” she said several months ago. “A dear friend of mine named June, who also is a professional horse woman, is currently fighting stage 4 brain cancer. She has been on chemotherapy for almost 1 1/2 years now. I would love to get June an audience with Zenyatta. I’m sure she would go wherever Zenyatta was running. It would be a dream come true for her to just get to pet this great mare.”

Sadly, June passed away before she had a chance to see Zenyatta. Cathy still has one request: “I would love it if we could still get to see her and perhaps drink a toast in June's memory. Truth be told, it would be a dream come true for me as well.”

Candy Jones, from Lexington, Ky. said three days after the Breeders’ Cup, “I broke my ankle last Monday and my father was in a horrible car wreck. The doctors weren’t sure until yesterday that he would survive. He made amazing strides last night, though, and is now off the ventilator and spoke to me for the first time since the accident. Today is my birthday and it was the best gift I could have ever asked for. All last week, the only thing that kept me going was focusing on Zenyatta and rooting her on. No one really understands what makes her so special. Everyone knows she can race, but it’s something in her heart, some kind of special light that she emits, and the world just hangs on her like a huge star. That special quality has stayed with me and helped get me through this. I just adore her beyond words.”

Finally, there is Abigail Anderson, a schoolteacher from Montreal, who had been shaken by the death in August of a much-loved teacher named Marjorie Gawley, who loved dancing and got much joy in her final days from a video of Zenyatta ‘dancing.’ Abigail asked on behalf of the English-teaching community in Quebec if there was any way Zenyatta could run in the Classic in Marjorie’s name.

When Zenyatta went to the post on Nov. 6, she carried Marjorie’s name in the browband of her bridle.

The bond between humans and horses goes back thousands of years, but it seems whatever mystical hold they have over humans has manifested itself through Zenyatta.

And then there is the more earthly kind of connection. Richie Migliore, who recently retired as a jockey, has been working as an analyst for HRTV. Migliore had an early association with Zenyatta, and then last year saw her close up again. He felt something he only had felt once before.

Migliore had developed a close relationship with trainer David Hofmans after moving his tack to California. Hofmans’ big horse at the time was  Balance, a three-time grade I winner and a half-sister to an up-and-comer named Zenyatta.

“David was stabled at the other end of John Shirreffs’ barn,” Migliore recalled. “One morning, I was at David’s barn to work Desert Code, and he told me, ‘Shirreffs has Balance’s half-sister down there, and she’ll pull a wagon and beat this one.’ I said, ‘David, Balance won the Santa Anita Oaks,’ and he said, ‘I’m telling you, that thing is a freak.’

Migliore wound up working Zenyatta and was shocked to find out she had worked more than four seconds faster than he thought she had. Migliore always prided himself in his ability to judge how fast a horse is going, and as he said, he never gets fooled almost 25 lengths.

“When I went back to California in the fall of 2009, I went to see John and he was grazing Zenyatta,” Migliore said. “When you get inside a horse’s space, you can feel their energy, and sometimes, you can’t believe what you’re feeling. I’ve been around a lot of great horses, so it’s not like I go ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ because they’re good horses. But feeling her energy was a genuine sensation that I had only felt when I was around Seattle Slew at the farm. It’s hard to describe, but it’s similar to the feeling you get walking into Churchill Downs on Derby Day. I just know with Zenyatta and Slew I’ve never felt anything like that in my life…never. She had become this amazing animal, and the energy she gave out was unbelievable.”

As much as Zenyatta emits a rare energy, it can’t compare to the energy she inspires in others. We felt that energy after last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic victory and we felt it again before, during, and after this year’s Classic defeat.

Those six inches that separated her from an unbeaten record will become more and more inconsequential as the years go by, consumed by the vast scope of her achievements and her gallant performance in the 2010 Classic. It eventually will establish its own niche in racing lore, just as Native Dancer’s neck defeat did in the Kentucky Derby, his only loss in 22 career starts.

At this point, there has been no official word of Zenyatta’s retirement. For the Mosses, it is apparent that letting go is extremely difficult. They, along with John and Dottie Shirreffs, are well aware of the void she will leave in their lives.

“When Zenyatta does leave, John will not put another horse in her stall for a very long time,” Dottie said.

Five days after the Breeders’ Cup, as a sense of normalcy slowly began to return to John and Dottie’s lives, Dottie teased John as he left for the track: “I said that he was ‘off to go develop us some new stars.’ He smiled.”  

But none will ever shine as brightly as Zenyatta. Her larger-than-life presence, her 19-race winning streak, and the energy she exuded that Migliore described are only a part of what made her special. What people will remember most is the effect she had on people's lives. She brought them moments of sheer ecstasy, she brought them to tears in both victory and defeat, and just being in her presence. And in the end, she left them in awe. In short, she stirred the emotions.


Jerry and Ann Moss soak up all the love

A little love from yours truly as well

Sorry, couldn't resist

One of her many admirers actually passed this cake over the fence for her. It read: “Thank You Team Zenyatta”

This woman made a heart for Zenyatta out of leaves, and put a small bouquet of flowers in the middle

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