Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Long live the Queen

This is it--Zenyatta is officially retired. I'm a mix of emotions--happy that she has been retired safe and sound, elated that I have been able to bear witness to this great mare (and in person for her last race, too!), a tad disappointed that she won't be raced in the Dubai World Cup next March, which I think she could win...and of course, I am sad.

I have been thinking about a particular poem for the past few weeks. It was written in 1937 by Joseph Alvie Estes:

'Big Red'

The days are long at Belmont.

Speed they never learn.

And it's many a day since Man o' War

Has looped the upper turn.

The guineas stopped their rubbing,

The rider dropped his tack

When the word went round that Man o' War

Was coming on the track.

The crowd was hoarse with cheering

At ancient Pimlico

The day he won the Preakness-

But that was long ago.

The dust is deep at Windsor,

The good old days are gone.

And many a horse is forgotten,

But they still remember one.

For he was a fiery phantom

To that multitudinous throng-

Would you wait for another one like him?

Be patient: years are long.

For here was a horse among horses,

Cast in a Titan's mold,

And the slant October sunlight

Gilded the living gold.

He was marked with the god's own giving

And winged in every part;

The look of eagles was in his eye

And Hastings' wrath in his heart.

Young Equipoise had power

To rouse the crowded stand,

And there was magic in the name

Of Greentree's Twenty Grand.

And Sarazen has sprinted,

And Gallant Fox has stayed,

And Discovery has glittered

In the wake of Cavalcade.

We watch the heroes parading,

We wait, and our eyes are dim,

But we never discover another

Like him.

A foal is born at midnight

And in the frosty morn

The horseman eyes him fondly

And a secret hope is born.

But breathe it not, nor whisper,

For fear of a neighbor's scorn:

He's a chestnut colt, and he's got a star-

He may be another Man o' War.

Nay, say it aloud--be shameless.

Dream and hope and yearn,

For there's never a man among you

But waits for his return.

When Zenyatta's retirement was announced today, initially I wasn't that sad. I guess "relieved" would be a better word for how I felt. But when I went back and looked through my email archives for this poem, I couldn't help but become overwhelmed with sadness as I read the poem. When I got to "We watch the heroes parading, We wait, and our eyes are dim, But we never discover another like him" the tears welled up.

When any good horse retires, fans of the sport can't help but search for the next good one. And they will come along--it's inevitable. There will be another Curlin, another Azeri, another Invasor, another Tiznow, another Skip Away; although there will always be those to debate that. There's already another Miesque (and beyond) in the great Goldikova, and I honestly never thought there would be another filly like Ruffian until I saw Zenyatta. Even then, their differences are so vast that I can't tell you with certainty that Big Z could beat Ruffian on any given day.

But will there be another Zenyatta? No. I can't imagine it. I've been reading about the great champions of racing since I was around six or seven, and never--from the legendary Eclipse to the immortal Lexington, up until the days of Colin and Man o' War, and to the present, have I ever read about a horse with even half the charisma of Zenyatta.

Many of the greats knew they were great. Most were business-like about it, while some posed each time someone raised a camera (Secretariat, I'm talking about you!). Yet others were infamous for their ornery personalities (John Henry), which only further endeared them to the public. All had charisma to one degree or another.

But has there ever been another horse that literally danced in the paddock? A horse that, in the middle of the post parade, would would stop to survey his or her "public" like a member of royalty? A horse that was the equine equivalent of Muhammed Ali declaring "I am the greatest!"? A horse with a thrilling deep-closing style that never failed to both frighten and elate her fans? A horse that, save her first couple races, always returned to cheers and applause--even after her lone defeat? A horse that could do all this yet be so gentle and kind in the backstretch that she allowed her public to kiss her on the nose, and would return in kind? A horse that calmly allowed the wheelchair-bound to approach her and put a hand on her mighty shoulder? A horse that, with kind eyes, lowered her head down low to gently nuzzle the heads of small children?

I can't even imagine it.

Zenyatta grazes on a strip of grass beneath a tree on the Hollywood Park backstretch. Her dark bay, almost black, winter coat has softened her shine just a bit. The late fall afternoon sun casts a golden glow. Fallen leaves and long shadows. Blue skies. She raises her head to gaze at the devoted gathering standing behind the chain link fence next to her, her eyes soft, her ears pricked. She knows she is loved, but does she know by how many? Does she know just how many unseen people are thinking about her at the moment?

Thanks for the memories, Zenyatta--the past 32 months have been a wonderful, wild ride. I'll always cherish the memories of you. Enjoy the green hills of Kentucky!

Nay, say it aloud--be shameless.

Dream and hope and yearn,

For there's never a man among you

But waits for her return.


Maureen said...

Beautifully written, Heidi! She is an amazing horse, and now that she'll be here in Kentucky you can come visit her! :)

Valentino said...

A lovely tribute to a once in a lifetime horse.

I hope she takes to her new career with the same class and flair... Can't wait to find out who her first "date" will be with :)