Saturday, November 7, 2009

The crescendo of a legend

There's no turning back now. This is it.

They enter the final turn and I hold my breath. My pounding heart fades away into the background. This is it.

There is no clear path. Can she do it? My heart jumps into my throat. My eyes burn hotly.

Then there it is! Like the strike of a great black panther, her long, strong body stretches out into her tremendous trademark move. I am vaguely aware of other horses in front of her shuffling into position. She is larger than life and she blows by them like they are nothing—the best colts and horses in the world, the most stellar Classic field in years, if not ever. They are nothing to her!

She powers down the stretch along the inside, and my heart is bursting within my throat, and Mike Smith guides her around a wall of horseflesh, and she is now on the outside, undaunted, ears pricked joyfully, opening her long dark legs up into ground-eating strides, and tears flow down my face as she flies beneath the wire the very picture of a horse thrilling in her own epic strength.

Even I can hear the roar of the Santa Anita crowd through the setting California sun as she gallops out beneath Mike Smith, her swan-like neck high, ears up, let’s do it again.

Beneath Zenyatta on the television screen, I see the time—2:00 and change. It barely registers. My husband hugs me and I hold him tight. The emotions of the past 18 months are at a peak and the tears flow harder.

We are at the OTB off Butterfield Road, watching the horses load into the gate for the 2008 Apple Blossom. I am here to see a bright chestnut mare named Ginger Punch. My husband has told me of an undefeated tall, dark filly named Zenyatta running in the same race, so I watch her, too. The Apple Blossom is her fourth start.

I admit that at the time, I am a bitter horse-racing fan. Years of disappointment after disappointment have veiled my hopes of ever seeing a true legend in dark clouds.

But on that day, the clouds part just a bit. In a single tremendous move from behind, the tall, dark filly defeats my favorite with neck high and ears forward, running free and easy. Zenyatta…who is this Zenyatta? In her, I see something that I have only seen in grainy old videos of the reigning Queen of the Turf, Ruffian—a dark breathtaking graceful filly so fleet of foot that in every race, at every pole, she was in front, flying like the wingless Pegasus she was.

And so, began my love affair with a second tall, dark filly—a modern-day Ruffian named Zenyatta.

I dreamt of her. Following my personal superstition, I refused to bet her races. My heart pounded hard at the start of her races, and at the end, I would breathe a deep sigh of relief. As the wins racked up, these sighs turned into shaky breaths, then tears of joy. With every win, the clouds parted even further.

By the time the 2008 Breeder’s Cup Ladies Classic was done and won, I was convinced she was the greatest filly of all time, after Ruffian.

It is said that in 1973, the great golfer Jack Nicklaus fell to his knees and wept as he watched Secretariat win the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths in record-shattering time. Upon inquiring Haywood Hale Brown as to why he had such a reaction, Brown responded, “Jack, your whole life is a quest for perfection, and you saw it in the Belmont, and it moved you.”

Thirty-six years later, I understand perfectly. For on the evening of Saturday, November 7, 2009, I saw perfection, and it moved me.


beej said...

Heidi, this is Barb from Gladstone,
Debbie/Teddy's friend. I could not believe it when I saw your blog. Most of the people I mentioned this spectacular horse to never heard of or knew how great she is. It's her personality that caused me to fall in love with her long ago. Her little ritual prance and march prior to her run. I was in awe of her as I saw here cross the wire without even breathing hard, always with tears in my eyes of pride and relief that she made it safely. What she meant to me was almost silly. And then wonder of wonders, my favorite jockey (Mike Smith) began to ride her, the vision was complete. I knew he adored her and would take care of her if at all possible. I too felt the goosebumps as she crossed the wire each and every time. Mike never doubted her. I too cried when she won the BC even though I was so very worried about her and prayed she would come through it safely. I too have compared her to Ruffian, deservedly so. She is a legend. She is beauty. I am forever grateful to the Moss' and Mike for placing her first no matter what the pressure; to ensure she would remain healthy and safe. I applaud them for allowing us to watch her and taking care of her as they have. Now she retires and we can only remember this magnificent lady. Her grace, her athleticism, her special personality. A happy ending for a remarkable filly.

Stephanie said...

It was an amazing race! One that I will not forget and she is just a legend in the making.
Your post was very moving!

Leslie said...

Great blog! Please share this story at