Visiting Zenyatta

Our vehicle, driven by David Ingordo, passed through the security gate and headed down a long tree-lined road. You could feel the anticipation. The image that came to mind was Dorothy and company heading down that long corridor to see the Wizard of Oz. Only this time there would be no shooting flames and deceptive illusions. There would be only Zenyatta, in the flesh, a million miles from the world she inhabited for the past three years.

The question on my mind was: how had one month of farm life affected her – physically and personality-wise?

As the road began to curve, leading toward the broodmare barn, four mares could be seen in a paddock, gathered alongside the fence. The hulking dark frame of one of them and the large splash of white on her face and two white hind legs made it clear even from a distance that it was Zenyatta. This time, however, there was no radiant glow or mystical aura around her, as there had been at Churchill Downs, Hollywood Park, and Keeneland; just a large mare in a large paddock silhouetted against the snow, apparently enjoying the company of her friends. All four cantered along close to the fence, never more than two or three feet from each other.

David’s truck stopped, and my wife and I got out and trudged through a patch of snow to the fence. There she was in all her glory, her head peering over the fence, as her buddies, Pirate Queen, Sea Gull, and Alys, trotted over as if joined at the hip.

At first, however, the scene seemed disjointed; not as it should be. Yes, this really is Zenyatta; it says so on her halter. And this is her world. There were no more photo sessions with people lined up to have their picture taken with her, no flowers, no cakes, no celebrations in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans, no heart-throbbing stretch runs, no tears of joy from people overcome with emotion just being in her presence.

Oprah, 60 Minutes, W Magazine are in the past. Although the term has been used on numerous occasions since her retirement, Zenyatta is now a horse, and from all appearances she is loving it.

Her once pronounced dapples still are trying to peek through her new winter coat. The look of awe on one’s face is still reflected in her eye.

My wife had never seen Zenyatta in person, so feeding her mints in her paddock and later in her stall was something special, although she had to wait patiently for over 20 minutes until Zenyatta finished her feed and then her alfalfa and Timothy hay in the opposite corner of the stall.

Along with her nameplate on the door, there is a pink and white sign resting on the ledge that reads: “The Queen Reigns Here.” Four nights later, she would be officially crowned with the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year.

Zenyatta and her friends are brought in at 3 o’clock each afternoon, and the big mare seemed to sense the time as she began sauntering over to the gate, the others following. Then the foursome were led in the barn, with Zenyatta and her best friend, Pirate Queen, in front, followed by the two most recent arrivals to the royal paddock, Sea Gull and Alys. At one point, Zenyatta broke into one of her patented “dance” steps.

“Yep, she still dances,” said broodmare manager Charles Campbell. “But she hasn’t managed to teach the routine to the others yet.”

Zenyatta also has made friends with an 18-year-old cat named Ewok who spends a good deal of time roaming about in and above her stall.

Zenyatta has made great progress since her arrival at Lane’s End Farm last month.

“The thing that has slowed us down has been the weather,” said Campbell. “Thankfully, she handled the transition really well. Some horses will get hot in their stall if you don’t turn them out, but she was fine. She’s never turned a hair; she’s never fretted or gotten excited about anything. That’s probably because she was so well-handled at Barn 55.

“Since she’s been here she’s put on 150 pounds. Going into the breeding season you want them to be on a positive weight gain. That’s when their body will better adapt to getting in foal. You don’t want them fat and you don’t want them thin. She’s just a big, beautiful sleek lady.”

Farm manager Mike Cline added, “She was here a week or so before we could turn her out, because the weather was so bad, and we only hand-walked her. We started her out in a paddock by herself and kept in there for about 10 days to two weeks. When we first turned her out the first thing she did was jog over to the corner of the paddock and nicker at the mares next door. Then we introduced a buddy to her, Pirate Queen, who was pretty docile. We left them together for about a week, and then I had these other two maiden mares and put them with her, because I wanted to get her in a bigger field with more horses.

“Sometimes, if you only have one buddy and she goes to get bred, then you’re left by yourself; or if the blacksmith or vet comes, the other one has to wait for her to go out, so we wanted to get her in a small group. Horses figure out the pecking order based on a lot of different things. There’s only one water, so they have to figure out who gets to drink first and who’s the first one in the barn, and they’ll work all that stuff out.”

“Everything we’ve done has been pretty simple. I won’t kid you and say it hasn’t been a little stressful being responsible for letting her down. She hadn’t been in a paddock and turned loose since she was a young 2-year-old, but she handled it like a pro.”

Campbell said he enjoyed watching her buddy up with Pirate Queen. “Obviously, she had Life is Sweet and Harmonious in the barn, but she’d never had a one on one friendship, where it’s just the two of them out in a paddock,” he said. “To see her go from living life on her own to having a buddy was quite a lot of fun. She was squealing while she was getting to know her new friend. We just looked for quiet mares. We didn’t want any dominant mares going in there with her. We wanted to leave her and Pirate Queen together for a couple of weeks to make sure they had a real strong friendship before we put the other two with them.”  

Zenyatta also has undergone a major transition in regard to the men in her life. Two months ago, she was eyeballing hunks like Blame and Lookin at Lucky in competition. Now, her only encounter with the opposite sex is a visit from a teaser named Capone, who has come to the barn 14 to 15 times already, arriving at 5 a.m. when the mares are calm and quiet after their 4:30 feeding. Capone will walk down the barn and, as Campbell puts it, “talk” to each mare individually for about a minute. If a mare needs a little more interaction, Campbell will slide the stall door open and let them touch noses. Zenyatta, however, has a cut-out screen, so her head is already out. As expected, she has been a gracious hostess, never pinning her ears or showing signs of wanting to kick, and has accepted all of Capone’s advances in style.

So far, everything has gone perfectly in regard to Zenyatta becoming a broodmare.

“There was a little concern at first, because she’s 6, and for as long as she was on the racetrack, you want to make sure she’s perfectly normal from a reproductive standpoint,” Cline said. “She was in heat shortly after she got here. We’ve already gotten a uterine culture on her. We palpated her a few times and she’s making nice big viable follicles. After the brain trust decides who they’re breeding her to we’ll get started on that around the end of February.”

Zenyatta’s daily routine is pretty simple. Campbell arrives at about 5 a.m. and oversees the visit from the teaser. The help arrive at 7 and turn out the mares and muck the stalls. Prior to that, the repro vets, Drs. Richard Holder and Ernie Martinez will come to get cultures, but not from Zenyatta.

“We’ve had two clean cultures from Zenyatta,” Campbell said. “Normally, it’s just one culture on a maiden, but we leave nothing to chance with this mare, so we double check everything. They’ve scanned her and ultra-sounded her and she has two good ovaries.”

The mares will stay out until 3 o’clock. Zenyatta loves rolling in the dirt and will often come in covered head to toe in mud. After feeding, in which she has Guinness poured over her food, she’ll be done up by the grooms. Of course, she gets her carrots and mints throughout the day, as well as a banana in the morning.

Zenyatta eats 12 to 14 quarts of feed daily, and Campbell has followed Shirreffs’ routine of feeding her several times a day.

“Because she’s so big, she eats a lot of food, and you don’t want to give her too much at one time,” Campbell said. “Getting a horse from John is great, because he’s strictly, hay, oats, and water. There isn’t anything in the horse that’s not natural or beneficial. Some horses from other trainers are so masculine and fired up, but this girl is fantastic. So, hopefully, things will go well, as they did for Life is Sweet, and there will be a baby Zenyatta.”

Campbell feels fortunate to have such a talented, devoted staff behind him. “I have the best staff any manager could ever ask for, including a great assistant in Donna Vowles,” he said. “They’re incredible. As soon as the news was out that Zenyatta was coming, the first question everyone asked was, ‘What barn is she going in?’ As soon as they found out, they were all lining up to work in the barn.”

Campbell, who is 26, was born in England and received his degree in biochemistry (studying reproduction, genetics, and physiology) at the University of Wales. He also has studied entomology, parastitology, and habitat, giving him a well-rounded background. After school, he went to work for his parents, who break and train horses, but after a year he wanted to see the world and learn as much as he could about horses, so he went to South Africa, where he worked as an assistant yearling manager. He met Tom Goff of Blandford Bloodstock, who advised him to come to America, so he obtained a one-year visa with the intention of mucking out as many stalls as he could until he got his big break. Now, 3 1/2 years later, here he is in charge of 187 mares, including arguably the most famous horse in the world, at one of the industry’s great breeding establishments.

“I’ve just been the luckiest person to be in the right place at the right time,” he said. “I’m 26, and people wait a lifetime to get a horse like Zenyatta. When I found out she was coming here I rang my mother, I rang my nana, I rang my grandfather. My grandparents are dairy farmers, and my grandfather is nearly deaf, so I’m screaming into the phone, ‘Zenyatta is coming to the farm!’ and he says, ‘Is that a new stallion?’”

It is apparent that Zenyatta still possesses the power to make grownups feel like kids.

“We had two of our managers from our Oak Tree division, Callan Strouss and Curt Ramsey, in the office for a meeting one day,” Campbell said. “They have 60 years in the business between them, but they snuck over here to see Zenyatta and went in her stall with their cameras, going, ‘Take a picture of me.’ And all the while they’re laughing and giggling like little kids.”

Lane’s End is still in the process of coming up with plan to accommodate the public, as far as visitation, but their main priority right now is getting Zenyatta in foal.

“We tried to diffuse that a little by having her go to Keeneland and letting the fans get close to her,” Cline said. “In addition she has her own website and Facebook page, where people can go and see paddock scenes of her through photos and videos. We’ve done what we could to try to keep people involved with how’s she’s doing and make sure they’re comfortable with where she’s at. Of course, we have tons of people who want to come see her, but we made a plan to restrict that to some degree in the beginning to make sure she had a chance to acclimate and we weren’t always dragging her in to be cleaned up and looked at. We have to be sensitive to what’s best for her and we feel like we’re doing that. We’ll come up with a mix of what’s fair and what needs to be done.”

Campbell said there are also other concerns to deal with. “My biggest concern from a managerial standpoint is if anyone comes here who has been on a farm that’s had strangles or Herpes virus or any of those airborne diseases and she gets it, it’s instant abortion. That would be the most devastating thing to the fans. They need to understand that as much as we’d love to have people come out to see her, we have to think of the horse. In the future, we’ll try to find a fine balance.”

Ingordo added, “We hope her fans understand that we have to get her in foal before we do anything. It’s not like a stallion where you know their schedule. We did have one person come visit her from “Make-a-Wish,” who is terminally ill, and one of the things he wanted to do was see Zenyatta.

“She still has a lot of her personality and loves to see people. But now she’s become used to being more of a horse, and she likes it. Candidly, it looked to me watching her on TV at Hollywood Park recently that she knew it was time to get off the stage.”

When she did exit the stage, she left behind a spotlight that although empty will forever glow with the memory of her triumphs, not only on the racetrack, but in the hearts of all those she touched so deeply. Although no one can get inside a horse’s head, it sure appeared during the short time we visited that Zenyatta is enjoying her new life and her new friends – human, equine, and feline.

Yes, Zenyatta is now a horse.

But what a horse!

Our first glimpse of Zenyatta

Zenyatta and her buddy, Pirate Queen.

Zenyatta still enjoys her mints

Zenyatta still shows off that step as she's led back to the barn with Pirate Queen

Zenyatta with her founding father and chief overseer David Ingordo

Zenyatta gets plenty of TLC from broodmare manager Charles Campbell

Returning to the barn on a peaceful winter afternoon


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