A Response to "I Lied"

The following essay by retired Quebec English teacher Abigail Anderson was written in response to my last blog on Zenyatta. Although it is quite long, it is so brilliantly written and researched I felt it should be shared it with everyone.

By Abigail Anderson

"Nostalgia is like grammar, you find the present in the past perfect."(Unknown)

I have been passionate about horses most of my sixty years on the planet. My grandfather, who was born in the late 1880s, introduced me to Thoroughbreds as a young girl when it became apparent to him that I, too, had “the bug.” He had owned one of the first Standardbred horses in the province of Quebec in the early part of the twentieth century, a coal black filly whom he had gotten at a ridiculous price because she apparently hated people. My grandfather was a tiny man, a little over five feet tall, but he loved his statuesque filly and it was through loving her that he gentled her. Although he never raced her, she became a legend at horse shows in Quebec, Ontario, and New York State where her fans typically gave her a standing ovation each time she entered the ring. Her photographs hung over his desk in his office and stories about her are part of the legacy and history of my family, passed down from one generation to the next.

We spent many weekends at my grandparents’ house when I was growing up and somewhere along the way, the ritual of watching the Kentucky Derby evolved. Grandpa and I would sit together in front of the television that first Saturday in May and talk about the runners. Then we would each choose a favorite and explain the reasons for our choices.  Grandpa usually made his selection based on bloodlines. And so it was I learned about Man O’ War, War Admiral, Seabiscuit, Gallant Fox, Count Fleet, Whirlaway, Stymie, Citation, Nashua and Assault, as well as entertaining stories about Will Harbut, Eddie Arcaro, Samuel Riddle and the dynasty of August Belmont and the Whitneys.

My grandfather would lean back in his favorite armchair and recount stories about Man O’ War’s races, or the bond between Eddie Arcaro and Citation, or the War Admiral-Seabiscuit match race or an anecdote about the “people’s horse,” Stymie, as though horse and rider were standing in the room with us. It was only many, many years later that I realized he had participated in the careers of these great Thoroughbreds by listening to the radio, watching newsreels in the early cinemas of the day and reading the newspaper. In other words, it was devotion to the sport and imagination that sustained his love for Man O’ War or made it possible for him to tell, in a breathtaking and suspenseful style, about Count Fleet winning the American Triple Crown.

At Christmas there were books – Walter Farley’s “Man O’ War” and “The Black Stallion” series, C.W. Anderson’s “A Filly for Joan,” Marguerite Henry’s “Misty of Chincoteague,” as well as Breyer model horses. Through the spring, summer and fall there were trips to the fairgrounds, where my grandfather’s “horsey friends” (as my grandmother called them) stabled their horses – Standardbreds, Thoroughbreds, American Saddlebreds, Hackney and Shetland ponies. The men would stand around, smoking their pipes and talking horses, while I – one ear cocked to the slow cadence of their voices – busied myself bugging kind grooms like Stanley Whaley to be allowed to brush a horse, or walk a horse, or muck out a stall. The soft, fuzzy light inside the barn, the smell of horses, saddle soap and Absorbine Junior, the rows of tack, the bales of hay and the sounds of horses’ breathing and stirring in their stalls engendered a warmth in me that told me I was home.

I suspect that it is experiences like these that engender a love of, and a respect for, all things equine. So, then, it is no surprise that the great civilizations of the Middle East, Europe and the Far East, together with the indigenous peoples of the Americas grew to revere the horse. Horses appear in the fairy tales, folk tales, myths and legends of most of these cultures and are always primarily associated with matters of the spirit, or soul: they fly above the world of mortals, they carry the dead into the afterlife and heroes into battle, they nurture courage in the human spirit, as was the case of the tiny racehorse, Reckless, who became “the pride of the Marines” during the Korean War. As deities, horses are symbols of freedom, fertility, immortality and the unfettered landscapes of the imagination in which they are often depicted as oracles or visionaries, imbued with magic, mysticism and mystery. I like to think that every horse, regardless of breed, embodies a noble history. In the case of some breeds, like the Thoroughbred, it is quite literally the case – The Byerley Turk, The Darley Arabian and The Godolphin Arabian were all the issue of cultures that considered the horse a gift of the gods.

Regardless of whether or not you would rate Zenyatta as the best Thoroughbred mare of her time, she is the product of centuries of outstanding equine individuals, making her “…a gift,” as Ann Moss has said repeatedly. Zenyatta’s bloodlines bespeak the careful breeding, over the centuries, on three different continents and in five different countries, of champions. Pre-1920, her ancestors include Papyrus, Tracery, Minoru, Rock Sand, Gallinule, Sainfoin, Orme, Isonomy, Galopin, Cyllene and Ormonde. From1920-1950: Hyperion, Native Dancer, Princequillo, Nashua, Hail To Reason, Hoist The Flag, Never Bend, Turn-To, Tom Rolfe and Tom Fool. It’s astounding to think of the legacy that Zenyatta’s family tree expresses, once again, in her. Once upon a time, in publications like Estes’ American Thoroughbred Horses, these legacies were recounted and celebrated. Today, they are usually overlooked in favor of the research of bloodstock specialists who are more focused on earning and breeding potential than the human-interest stories of great Thoroughbreds.

Below are a few stories drawn from the legacy, or bloodlines, connected to the “gift” that is Zenyatta.

Hyperion (1930): a little horse, Hyperion loved to nap and refused to prep for any of his races. He was so resistant that his owner referred to him as a “lazy little brute.” Lazy he may have been, but his indolence had little effect on his turf record. Hyperion won the Epsom Derby going away, followed by the St. Leger and the Prince of Wales, winning nine of thirteen starts and only ever being out of the money once. His reputation as a sire is, of course, legion. And, until his last days, Hyperion was noted for his dancing – on the end of a (very short) lead!

Prince Rose (1928) was a big, beautiful and astoundingly good racehorse of Belgian lineage. Of all Zenyatta’s more distant ancestors, he is the one that most reminds me of her in conformation. The grandson of Prince Palatine and, on his dam sire side, Gay Crusader, winner of the British Triple Crown in 1917, Prince Rose sired Princequillo and is the grandsire of Misty Morn, Round Table and Hill Prince. Mill Reef, Fort Macy and Secretariat all descend from Prince Rose. Exported from England back to Belgium and, subsequently, to France, Prince Rose died in a military gunfire attack in 1944 during the Second World War.

Tracery (1909) was a game little horse that was beaten in the Ascot Gold Cup when a spectator rushed onto the course and fired a pistol at the horses, causing him to fall. His son, Papyrus (1920), was an excellent colt noted for his beautiful leg action -- which also comes very close to Zenyatta’s dance and may also account for her exceptional maneuverability, given her size. Although best remembered in the USA for his loss to the Kentucky Derby champion, Zev, it should be remembered that Papyrus had won the Epsom Derby that year, that he was shipped to the USA by boat and that he caught a muddy track on the day of the match race. More importantly, through his daughter, Cosquilla, Papyrus contributed to the heritage of the thoroughbred the outstanding individual, Princequillo.
The ill-fated Epsom Derby winner, Minoru (1906) was first sent to stud in Ireland, where he stood only a few seasons before, in 1913, he and fellow Derby champion, Aboyeur, were sold and sent to Russia. Sadly, both horses disappeared during the Russian Revolution and although there were fanciful tales suggesting that they had survived, neither was ever seen again. (It is through Minoru’s daughter, Mindful, who he got while at stud in Ireland, that he figures in Zenyatta’s pedigree.)

Isonomy (1875) was described thus by his groom, John Griffiths: “He had wonderful hindquarters and was deepest through the heart I ever saw.” His strong competitive spirit led J. B. Robertson, a prominent turf analyst of the day to reflect, “ All courses hard or soft came alike to Isonomy.” A winner of the Ascot Gold Cup, as well as the Doncaster and Goodwood Cups, Isonomy’s “triple” stood until 1949. The most dangerous threat to Isonomy came in the Doncaster Cup where he was matched against Lord Falmouth's filly, Jannette, who had captured the Jockey Club Cup that same season and the year before, the classic St. Leger. The legendary British jockey, Fred Archer, was her jockey. Isonomy was partnered with his usual rider, Tom Cannon. In the home stretch, Jannette was in the lead. Cannon aimed his colt to come alongside Jannette on the rail in home stretch. In what appeared to be a deliberate foul, Archer maneuvered his foot in such a way as to drive his spur right into the shoulder of the onrushing Isonomy. The colt charged ahead to win the race in a desperate finish, tearing his shoulder on Archer's spur in the process. Afterward, Archer proclaimed that his ankles were weak and difficult to control. It was a poor excuse, but Isonomy was swathed in glory for the rest of his life because of the tremendous heart he had shown on that day. At stud, the little guy (15.2 hands) with the courageous spirit sired two winners of the British Triple Crown, Common and Isinglass.

Ormonde (1883) was considered the best colt of the nineteenth century in Great Britain – if not the best British thoroughbred of all time – despite an odd history of mishaps and infirmities. Although he matured to16 hands, Ormonde was carried by his dam for 12 months instead of the usual 11. As a result, the colt’s mane never grew longer than 3 inches, his knees were very bent and he moved in a way reminiscent of Kelso’s sire, Our Host. Even though troubled by splints and breathing problems as a 3 year-old, his capacity to accelerate was the stuff of legend, as was his kind temperament and great curiosity. Part of his natural inquisitiveness was a love of non-conventional foods, which he consumed with gusto! (Nothing in my research about Guinness, but one never knows…) Ormonde was unbeaten in all of his 16 starts and won the British Triple Crown. In the Doncaster St. Leger, the third race in the Triple Crown series, Ormonde won by four lengths at a canter, needing no encouragement from his jockey. Even though he produced very few progeny, among them was the brilliant colt Orme who, in turn, went on to produce the British Triple Crown winner, Flying Fox, as well as the Derby winner, Orby.

Finally, there is the exquisitely tempered Cyllene (1895), who won nine of his eleven starts and is today considered a classic racehorse and an important international influence on the development of the thoroughbred worldwide. Interestingly, many British Thoroughbred owners greeted Cyllene with indifference when he was first retired, since it was felt that he had beaten very inferior horses during his career. (An opinion that subsequent research shows to be unfounded. The horses that Cyllene defeated, notably Chelandry, Airs and Graces, Velasquez, and even Jeddah, who reaffirmed his Derby victory by taking the Prince of Wales Stakes, were hardly inferior adversaries.) At stud, he sired no less than four Epsom Derby winners – Minoru, Cicero, Lemberg and Tagalie – as well as the exceptional Polymelus. Exported to Argentina, he also proved to be an important influence there and to this day is honored as one of the most influential South American Thoroughbred sires of all time.

So many other stories could be told about the individuals in Zenyatta’s pedigree. As we admire her beauty and strength, her sweet temperament and her great heart, I imagine that Zenyatta whispers to us of the great, great horses that came before her. In this way, we can begin to remind ourselves that each and every Thoroughbred is indeed a gift, a testament from our (human) ancestors that has come down to us over the ages, a living link to the past.

Zenyatta expresses her extraordinary lineage in every move she makes, on or off the track. It’s in her eye – the eye that both looks right at you and then, as suddenly, looks right through you. It’s in the majestic turn of her head. It’s in her prancing and dancing. It’s in the strength of her hindquarters and her depth through the heart. And it is this heart, bred in the blood, that accounts for Zenyatta’s capacity to “show up” in each and every race she ever ran. If there’s a reason that fans are drawn to her, imbuing her with magic and mystique, it is that she is unmistakably part of a distinguished heritage that speaks to us of a time when horses were partners in the experience of what it meant to be human. What a cause for celebration!

Bill Dwyre of the LA Times wrote, “Zenyatta and her connections taught their sport so much, if only it would pay attention…” (November 7, 2010) His observation touches on another reason that so many have grown to love Zenyatta – because they were recognized as important by the people closest to her and welcomed, by them, into her world. Like the team that surrounded Man O’ War, Secretariat, Northern Dancer, Barbaro and a few other notable thoroughbreds of the last 100 years, Team Zenyatta stands firm in its conviction that she belongs to the people. They have spent hours and hours reading her fan mail, hosted television crews and endless streams of fans, accepted cakes and packs of Guinness, answered questions, donated memorabilia to charities and, in short, given up their own privacy to make it possible for Zenyatta enthusiasts to get close to her and to get to know her a little. And now that she is retired, her fans can read all about her exploits on a daily basis on zenyatta.com, as well as see photos and videos of her in her new home. Not surprisingly, Zenyatta’s diary has sparked lots of occasions for learning about thoroughbred horses and their care. Of course, given her amazing interest in people and her seemingly infinite patience with them, Zenyatta contributes in her own special way. But why does Team Zenyatta do it if not because, like the rest of us, they heed the call of the muse of the “Sport of Kings”?

Penny Tweedy, during her stay in Toronto for Secretariat’s final race was quoted as saying that Secretariat had been so important in bringing people into the sport of horse racing, and that it was this that made her particularly proud to be associated with him. Before her, the handlers of champions like Man O’ War welcomed enthusiasts to Faraway Farm, where they could meet the first “Big Red” and, later, his son, War Admiral. And it was not just nostalgic fans that visited. During the war years, servicemen of all ranks came to see the champions, basking in the glory of the Old Warrior and his feisty son.

Today few people have an opportunity to fall in love with a Thoroughbred: most horses are swallowed into the vortex of the breeding industry before they reach the age of four. And prior to their retirement, very few owners and trainers are willing to take the time to allow fans to develop a relationship with their animals. The impact of this kind of distancing, it seems to me, is to create the impression that the Thoroughbred world has somehow turned inward upon itself to become a kind of “old boys club.” And, as an educator with 36 years of experience, I can attest to the dangers inherent in this sort of myopia.

For there are parallels that can be drawn between the woes plaguing educational systems worldwide and the current state of horse racing and breeding in North America. Principally, the following – both the educational and Thoroughbred communities tend to talk to themselves, rather than embracing all of the stakeholders in their respective milieus. Parents and students are marginalized in the educational system; in the Thoroughbred industry, it is racing fans that find themselves relegated to the periphery of things. In education, ignoring this population has proved disastrous and accounts for the massive abandonment of the public school system in both the USA and Canada. I submit that the same type of tunnel vision constitutes as real a threat to the health of the Thoroughbred industry as any of the more commonly cited factors, including the state of the economy. Just as parents and students themselves are the cornerstone of any educational system, so it is the racing fan that generates the passion and the excitement that makes horse racing a compelling sport – without which, there is little reason to breed and sell Thoroughbreds, let alone attract bettors.

So it is that I have read, with a practiced eye, the heartfelt comments of those “over-the-top” sentient beings (racing fans) and the seemingly calm, logical rejoinders of those terrible teases, the “rationalists” in the prelude to the Eclipse Awards. And although I have little interest in awards in general, it would seem that the old dichotomy of either/or has achieved a kind of mantra status. As in: either heart (sentience) or head (traditional view of logos, or logic) will decide whether Blame or Zenyatta takes the highest honors.

In fact, the divorce of sentience from logic in the lives of intelligent people has long been frowned upon since it is the stuff of non-sense. Thought is the product of both feeling and form – the latter being the cognitive structures that allow communication to take place and information to be turned into knowledge. People like Albert Einstein, admittedly a genius, relied upon both throughout his life: sentience provided insight and imagination – “zeitgeist” being the birthplace of reason; and logos, a structure for turning insight into knowledge. Add to this the fact that the criteria to select a winner of an Eclipse Award are, to be kind, “lacking” and the stage is set for bitterness and, inevitably, the alienation both of those very people that are drawn to the sport by great thoroughbreds like Zenyatta and the horsemen and women that care for them during their careers on and off the track. As any good teacher knows, the result of evaluating students without clear, concise evaluation criteria that are communicated before students begin to work can only bring discredit to the teaching profession. The same risk is true in the thoroughbred industry. What can one say, after all, about an award where the criteria are determined on a private, individual basis by the voters and shared in such a smug, superior tone with the “great unwashed”?

I did not write this response to “I Lied” to justify Zenyatta being awarded Horse of the Year. Rather, I wrote it to remind myself of the history of the development of the Thoroughbred and of the traditions that were once vital to Thoroughbred horse racing – wonderful stories of great horses, generous owners and trainers, the passionate devotion of horse racing fans, the sense of belonging to a community.

Like you, Steve, I can see no reason for marginalizing Zenyatta’s fans on the grounds that they are tilting at windmills. After all, if not for those of us that still regard the Thoroughbred with awe, the sport would lose its majesty and its appeal. Of course, it would be nice if the “old boys” promoted inclusion, rather than exclusion, as they pen their polemics. But, in the end, it really doesn’t matter. For those of us who have had a chance to fall in love again with a Thoroughbred named Zenyatta, as for her wonderful team, there are all those memories – of the way we smiled when she danced or laughed as she posed for a kiss, of the hitch in our throats when Ann Moss or Dottie Shirreffs or Mario or Steve’s eyes brimmed with tears, of the thrill of watching her run, or of John Shirreffs’ quiet reminder that “hundreds of years go into breeding a Thoroughbred”  -- and there are still more memories to come, to be sure! Zenyatta touched our lives as we accompanied her on her way from fuzzy baby to mature adult, learning to become a community in the process. And we will no more forget her than we could forget Man O’ War or War Admiral or Count Fleet or Citation or Northern Dancer or Secretariat or Ruffian or Genuine Risk or Personal Ensign or Barbaro …… or any Thoroughbred that we have loved.

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