Sunday, December 05, 2010
Clouds threatened rain all afternoon, but they didn't dare let loose until the Queen of Horse Racing, Zenyatta, said goodbye to Hollywood Park and to her life as a race horse today. Tomorrow she flies off to Kentucky to begin her next phase, as a mother.
Hollywood Park is a strange place these days. Once the site of huge crowds and visits from movie stars, it's now ninety percent empty, melancholy, and downtrodden. Birds still fly over the infield pond, and the track announcer still lends urgency as the horses pound down the stretch at forty miles per hour. But even on a big day like today, the stands were over half empty. I visited the enormous, echoing ladies' room and found myself utterly alone amongst the broken soap dispensers and peeling paint.
What a contrast then to see Zenyatta striding into the paddock to say goodbye to the thousands gathered there today. She is larger than most other horses by an order of magnitude, but graceful as a gazelle, with endless, delicate legs that move with an athlete's ease, and a shiny, dappled bay coat that glows with health. She is the picture of strength and spirit, calm, yet vibrant with energy. She is the greatest mare in horse racing history, one of the greatest race horses of all time. She's magnificent, an LA lady, a dancer, an inspiration, a friend. And she's here to say goodbye.
Airplanes roar toward LAX a few hundred feet overhead as her beloved groom, Mario Espinoza, guides her around the paddock. The fans, ten deep in some places, ignore the growling engines and the call for the sixth race as she circles past them, stopping to pose, to eye them, to lift her head, then to lower it against Mario's arm and side, as if to say, "We are here, together," and "Let's play."
Three times around the paddock then, as fans, some with signs that say "Thank You" and children climb the rails between her and them to chant, "Zen-yat-ta." A woman in a wheelchair stares at her, weeping silently.
Even here she emanates a power that makes you believe her record is 19-1. As she walks from the paddock and out onto the track, the giant video screen behind her plays her great victory and one of the most exciting races ever seen - the Breeder's Cup Classic 2009. As Mario circles her and the crowd roars, her virtual image hits the top of the stretch, weaving between her competitors with sylph-like grace, moves to the outside and takes off. Her long legs reach out further than any other horse on record, eating the ground, swallowing the distance between herself and the leaders. The announcer's voice rises to a disbelieving crescendo as she shoots forward, past the best male horses of her time, past those who thought she was overrated, past all doubt, to cross the finish line.
The crowd erupts in applause. Watching that race, even today when I know that she wins, I worry for her. I think "there's no way she's going to make it... come on, girl! Please." And when she wins, I feel vindicated, relieved, almost tearful. Why am I so invested in her, why do her victories, her prancing pre-race steps, her proud stance after the race - why do they touch me? I want to race that way myself, past my self-doubt, to strive, to put it all out there, to invest every last ounce, and to win. Just once. If she can do it 19 out of 20 times, maybe I can too.
I'm taking pictures, and climbing onto seats, and listening to the crowd sigh with disappointment as they show her last race, a great race, the Breeders Cup Classic 2010, where she came in second by a nose after perhaps the greatest stretch run in history. The connection between her and the crowd is something I get at a primal level. We don't often get close to such perfection, such grace, strength, and spirit. If we get close enough, maybe some of it will rub off on us.
Her jockey, Mike Smith, leads her one last time around the track, and I have to turn away and disconnect. I have to be done saying goodbye now. I can't take any more. My friend Mike and I watch the next few races and talk about our lives, and Zenyatta.
The lights come on as the sun heads west, and suddenly the old track is beautiful. Clouds part to show off rosy sunset hues, and twilight birds wing over the green and grassy infield. A filly named Cocktails at Seven parading before the ninth throws her rider, dodges a steward on horseback, and gallops the wrong way around the track, free for a few moments. She is scratched from the race, but we make a note - the girl's got heart and nice moves. Maybe we'll see more of her next year.
As we leave the empty track now, the rain finally begins to fall.