I thought I’d play off last week’s theme of “Men and Babies.”
I don’t know if you saw Zenyatta’s quest for perfection last Saturday…you may have heard me yelling for her even if you live on the east coast. I’ve followed her for a bit and I think she is the most magnificent animal to ever grace a race track; to me, even greater than Barbaro. I was at Churchill Downs when Barbaro won the Kentucky Derby by about a million lengths, a vision etched in my mind even several years later. I can still hear his hoofs pounding across the finish line. But I have to be honest: it’s because Zenyatta is female that she has won my admiration over the incredible Barbaro. The female of the species always has a harder time in their strive to get to the top, even and including horses.
Zenyatta was different from other horses but still very much like women I know in many other ways. For one thing, she ended every day with a “cocktail” of sorts just as many of us do. Her trainer would pop open a Guinness, pour it into a bowl and she’d lap it up. No other beer would do; she knew what she liked. Most of my friends drink from a glass but I’ve been to a couple of parties where they may as well have been slurping their beverages from a bowl.
She ran her races on her terms. Show me a woman who doesn’t do that and I’ll show you a woman raised in the 1930′s or 40′s, certainly not from the 1960′s and ’70′s. Where all the other horses running in her race in the Breeders’ Cup were kept stabled all day, Zenyatta was out and about, strutting her stuff, looking relaxed. One race analyst remarked that she was so big that her blanket looked like a mini-skirt. I liked that; it showed that Zenyatta also has a sense of style. I’ve seen some big women who should not have been wearing mini-skirts. I guess you could say that they lack “horse sense.” But Zenyatta looked great in hers.
When it came time for her to enter the track, she pranced her way in as she always did, head held high, as if to say “I don’t have to prove anything.” Yet another announcer said the last time he saw an entrance like that was when Muhammad Ali entered the ring to face Joe Frazier in the Thrilla in Manila. It was even remarked that had a football player done a dance like Zenyatta’s he would have been penalized. I have to admit I felt a sense of pride watching her do her own thing and I was annoyed at the people shrieking and taking flash photos because I was worried it would frighten her or make her too edgy.
Mike Smith, her Hall of Fame jockey, thought that she’d retire with that 20th win under her belt; I did too. He was so proud of her…he thought she was the greatest horse of all time, even better than Secretariat. When asked about who she would breed with after this last race, he said, just like a proud Dad would, ”No man is worthy of her.” As nervous as he was, he said, just as he was taking her into the starting gate, “I’m fine now that I’m where I belong.” I wish that for every one I know: feel fine when you know where you belong.
So, the gates opened and off she went…dead last. It was her usual M.O. but this time I thought maybe she was hurt and I got scared. I’ll never forget my other favorite, the filly Eight Belles, who came in second at the Kentucky Derby despite the fact that she had two broken ankles and had to be euthanized right there at the end of the race. Eight Belles was also just like a lot of the women I know. She also went up against a field of all males, which so often happens in life and in business. She never gave up until she really physically just couldn’t go any further…and even after she’d finished the race. I think women always keep plugging away…and thankfully rarely meet an end like Eight Belles.
I actually stopped jumping up and down and cheering her on when this time she just didn’t seem to be able to catch up. I suddenly had a knot in my stomach, afraid I’d see that ambulance come onto the track again the way it did in 2008. Then I realized that Mike was really holding her back. That must have required some incredible strength on his part because her big body was straining to get into the pack. He made his move and I was apoplectic…I get very excited about these types of things. MOFTNSO (“More Often Than Not Significant Other”) stepped clear into the kitchen while I was trying to move as fast as Zenyatta in my small living room, yelling “C’MON Z!!! C’MON Z!!!” I really thought she was going to pull it off.
But she didn’t.
It was a loss by barely a nose; her owner said in a post-race interview ”It was so close that if she’d stuck out her tongue she would have won.”
But a lady doesn’t stick out her tongue. Not even the great Zenyatta. Mike Smith couldn’t comment; he said he was trying to pull himself together he was so devastated. The cameras stayed on Mike and his lady more than on the winner, Blame. I watched him pat her neck and then he did the most touching thing. He leaned over and kissed Zenyatta’s muddy face and the great mare tossed her head back as if to say “I’m still the best. I just lost this one race.” She didn’t need to apologize. She’d proved plenty in her career and didn’t disappoint 19 straight times. Every female who puts her whole heart and soul into what she does, especially career and/or a family, deserves to be cut a little slack now and then. Even a big horse with an even bigger heart. I’m going to miss seeing her on the track. She was awesome and inspiring all at the same time. I think if I had another child and it was a girl I’d name her Zenyatta.