My husband and I awoke shortly after 2am on Saturday to drive down to Kentucky for the Breeder's Cup. We arrived at Churchill Downs at around 11am and settled in our seats in section 124.
They were nice for bench seats--we had an open aisle in front of us and had brought blankets to layer on the seats. It was my husband, a friend of his, and myself. We watched the first few races from the seats and then for the 7th race, the Juvenile, I headed down to the paddock to "camp out" by the rail until the Breeder's Cup Classic--race 11. I was determined to see Zenyatta up close.
Another racing fan I had met on Facebook, his fiance, and I stayed by the tunnel for the Juvenile, then when the horses left for the track and the crowd began to thin, I steered us to the central part of the paddock rail. There were already a lot of Zenyatta fans camping out by the rail, but we managed to find empty rail space--score!--and settled in for the long wait.
There was a large television screen above the paddock that would allow us to watch the races unfold throughout the day, and on it we watched Uncle Mo deliver an impressive win in the Juvenile.
I had another reason to camp out at the paddock: Goldikova. The great mare was to race in the 8th, the (turf) Mile. If she won, she would be the first horse in history to win three Breeder's Cup races (she won the Mile in 2008 and 2009). An European runner, she was a star in her own right and, if she won the Mile, would be one of the greatest mares of all time.
She arrived at the paddock fashionably late, her trainer, Freddy Head, by her neck. His dedication to her was evident; he rarely took his eyes off her. Interestingly enough, as a former jockey, he had won the Mile on the famous Miesque in 1987 and 1988.
Goldikova was such a lady, such a professional. The crowd in the paddock was heavy with her fans and all eyes were on her. She did not disappoint. As my heart hammered away and the folks at the paddock cheered loudly for her, she delivered a thrilling stretch run and won the Mile handily. What a mare! I felt so fortunate to see history in the making with her.
And she wasn't even the finale of the day!
The Dirt Mile and Turf horses came and went. The sun slowly glided across the sky and down into the horizon. It became colder and colder and my toes slowly went numb despite two pairs of socks and Toastie Toes foot warmers in my shoes. I had not drank any water for most of the day, just some coffee, to ensure that I wouldn't need to use the restroom and lose my place at the rail. Nevertheless, my bladder was beginning to fill. I ignored all this and waited, waited. I had slowly worked my way forward to the rail at the far front and had a completely clear view of the paddock walking ring.
After the 10th race, the crowds trickled in steadily. Jerry and Ann Moss, the owners of Zenyatta, walked in to loud cheers and applause. They waved at the crowd before heading over to stand by stall number 8, Zenyatta's stall. Before long the middle of the paddock was teeming with well-dressed racing folks and police reinforcements were placed around the edge of the walking ring. All around me, Zenyatta fans wore teal and pink and waved TVG-provided and homemade signs showing support for the great mare.
I watched the clock ticking down--35 minutes to post...30 minutes to post...she should be here soon!...27 minutes to post....and then without further ado the paddock television was on her, the Queen, as she walked along the track to the paddock. She pranced and pawed and stretched out that long right leg of hers into her trademark dance. Her constant companion and groom, Mario Espinoza, seemed to barely have a hold on the massive power next to him.
The Queen was arriving!
My eyes grew misty and a huge grin spread over my face. I felt a sudden urge to either laugh or cry, or both. After following her career closely since the 2008 Apple Blossom, I was finally here, I was finally about to see her in the flesh. It almost felt like a dream. It was a dream!
When she entered the tunnel to the paddock, she stopped to gaze at the crowd before her, her fine neck and head held high. She reminded me of photographs of Man o' War when she did that--that trademark high neck, ears pricked, the look of eagles in his eyes. She abruptly pawed the ground and tried to circle Mario. He put his free hand on her neck and shoulder and convinced her to move forward.
Even I could hear the cheers and applause that followed her as she walked out onto the walking ring. I craned my neck to the right and watched for her intently. First a cameraman came into view, semi-crouched down for a dramatic view, walking backwards, his camera pointed ahead of him. I held my breath and did not blink.
And then there she was--all 17.1 hands of dappled dark bay, Zenyatta!!--and then she was gone, headed to her stall. It was just a quick flash--blink and you miss it. I could just barely see the top of her head over the thick crowd (which was saying something, considering that I couldn't see any of the other horses in the walking ring over that crowd).
The other horses in the Classic circled the walking ring but Zenyatta stayed put. Those horses seemed to be but secondary players in the main act of the Zenyatta show. But make no mistake--they were the best male horses in the country. I snapped photo after photo of them.
Quality Road in particular took my breath away--he was a masculine bull of a horse, more Quarter Horse than Thoroughbred in looks. I had liked him immensely since his Derby trail days of early '09, and in fact he had been my Derby pick before he was taken out of the race.
And then it was riders up! One by one, the mounted horses walked by, one or two people--grooms, assistant trainers, or trainers--leading them out to the track and the waiting ponies. As I snapped photographs, out of the corner of my eye I never stopped watching Mike Smith and his bright, familiar teal and pink silks.
The camera was beginning to frustrate me--it was getting dark so I had to use the flash in order to take decent photos, but the camera was slow and uncooperative. I knew I would have one chance at a photo of Zenyatta; any other attempts would not allow me to gaze upon her with my own two eyes.
Neck bowed, she was suddenly before me. Now! I took the photograph then forgot about it. I, as well as everyone on the rail by me, leaned forward to watch her pass. I did not take any other photographs after that--I was so intent on watching the Queen leave the walking ring.
As soon as she was out of sight, I rushed through the crowd, moving as quickly as I could without crashing into anyone, and headed for my seat. I wasn't alone--all around me people were walking and even running (okay, yeah, me included!) back to their seats. I did not want to miss any second of Zenyatta's time on the track.
Back at my seat, I stood upon the bench just like everyone else and my husband gave me the binoculars. I watched Zenyatta and Mike Smith through them as they milled around the the turn for home, awaiting the starting gate.
The horses were loaded and I squeezed my husband's hand. This was it. The gates opened and everyone broke well.
Zenyatta was dropping behind, that's okay--normal for her...dropping behind, behind...wait, why is she so far behind? Dread began to taint the hopeful anxiety I had started with. The horses went around the far turn, Zenyatta trailing the leaders by at least 20 lengths.
The horses disappeared from view and I watched them on the television screen. Come on Zenyatta, move up! I noticed that the horses ahead of her had divided into two clusters. Tricky, but I had confidence in her. Sure enough, she began to eat up ground. Soon she was right behind the trailing cluster, and now she was passing them.
The turn for home was coming up and my heart began to pound. This is it, this is it, can she do it? Make no mistake, I had zero doubts in the talent of this great mare but it was a horse race--anything can happen.
She seemed to swerve off the rail then ended up behind a wall of horses at the head of the stretch. No room! She was several lengths off the leaders, and a horse--I didn't know who--was breaking free and running for home. Mike Smith sent Zenyatta wide and she dug in hard, her massive strides eating up ground. She blew by horse after horse, and the grandstand--me included, the one that never yells at races!--screamed for her to move up and catch the free-running leader, Blame.
It seemed like she was running one stride for Blame's every two strides; she was a giant unstoppable machine, moving faster and faster with every jump, and then she was virtually even with Blame, and then his head bobbed down and the wire went overhead.
In the first instant everyone cheered for her but in the next, the place was silent. Had she gotten it? The PHOTO sign went up and everyone waited. The race replayed on the big screen over and over again, the final stretch run re-played in slow motion. It was clear, Blame's head came down right at the finish line, while Zenyatta's stayed up. He had gotten it...he had defeated the great mare.
I stood on the bench, stunned. All around me, silent people trickled out of the grandstand. I watched her on the television. As she was unsaddled, she pawed the ground fiercely, her dirt-caked face, chest and legs an unusual sight. Perhaps she thought she had won and wondered why she wasn't in the winner's circle. The camera followed her as she was led up the track towards the barns, and no doubt a good bath.
I thought back to an article I read many years ago about Nijinsky II, who was undefeated until his final two races. As he was led back to the barns after his last race, a woman called out, "We still love you, dear!" I also thought about Seattle Slew's defeat in the 1978 Jockey Cup Gold Cup, a defeat so valiant that it boosted his rank amongst the legends of racing from simply great to immortal. And finally, I thought about Man o' War overcoming impossible circumstances in the 1919 Sanford, only to be narrowly defeated by a horse appropriately named Upset. It was the legendary horse's only defeat, and it, too, was so valiant that now a brass plaque re-telling the tell of his lone loss is mounted by his grave site.
Zenyatta--we still love you, we always will--and in your own valiant loss, you have proven yourself to be worthy of mention in the same breath as the all-time greats in the history of racing. Not all will agree with this statement, but over time the specifics and particulars about your wins will be overlooked and your legend will preserve.