Zenyatta: On enjoying the ride of your life

(This is a post from October 15, 2010, originally from the PetConnection blog. I am re-running it here because we’re on foal watch for the greatest racehorse of modern times, Zenyatta. She lost  the race I am writing about, but a nose. The year before she’d won the same race, one race-caller Trevor Denman has said is one of if not the best he’s ever seen. Quality Road was scratched from that race, after coming damn close to hurting himself and everyone around him. His comeback after the near-disaster was good enough that he’s now at stud.)

This week, for the most part, I’m in Lexington, Ky., visiting Full Cry blogger Glenye Oakford Cain and her husband, known to readers as Mr. Hound-Blogger but whose name is really Christopher. Lexington is the home of America’s Thoroughbred horse-racing industry, and Glenye is in the trade: She works for The Daily Racing Form, and is even as I type interviewing someone for a feature on Quality Road, who’s pointing for the Breeders Cup Classic, a $5 million race, in a couple weeks time.

Who he’ll be in the starting gate with, of course, will likely be Zenyatta, the undefeated superstar mare who, if she can again win this race against some of the best horses in the world (she won it last year), will be remembered forever as one of the greatest horses of all time.

And her trainer, John Shirreffs, was on my flight from Chicago to Lexington last night.

I already knew the little commuter jet was carrying some people you don’t normally see on a Southwest shuttle from northern to southern California — for one thing, the men sitting in front of me had The Daily Racing Form in their laps, and were handicapping today’s races at Keeneland.

But then, as I was fastening my seat-belt, I looked up to see Zenyatta’s trainer heading down the aisle, looking tall, tired and alone with his thoughts. As far as I can tell, I was the only one to recognize him, which says a great deal about how little popularity the sport has today. Even on a 50-seat commuter jet heading to Blue Grass Airport, the trainer of the biggest thing to hit horse-racing since Secretariat traveled quietly, privately and with nothing more than his thoughts to keep him company.

On the 55-minute flight, I struggled: Should I say something, or leave him alone? I didn’t want to intrude, but … this was Zenyatta’s trainer. I have never seen a horse like her, and will likely never see another. And he trains her!

In baggage claim, he was on the phone, sitting and mostly listening, no doubt to a run-down of how all the horses back home in Southern California were faring. He ended the call, looked at the phone thoughtfully and … well, I just couldn’t help myself.

“How is she?” I asked.

He looked up, and smiled.

“She’s fine,” he said. “Would you like to see some pictures?”

Would I? Would I? Is there an L in Lexington? Do horses eat hay?

So I sat down next to him, and he pulled out his iPad, flipping proudly and lovingly through everything from what she looked like when he first saw her, to her gate-training, to her on the track, with her groom, with all manner of visitors (including Hall of Fame jockey Julie Krone‘s baby daughter) to her birthday party, where the wonder mare had her lips wrapped around the biggest frosting flower on a Costo sheet cake, carrot of course.

Soon, too soon, the bags started coming out — why? why? why so efficient this one damn time?! — and his phone rang again. I thanked him, wished him luck in November, thanked him again and wandered off to my rental car in a daze. I had just seen Zenyatta’s baby pictures, and was shown them by her trainer!

I left him there talking on the phone, standing alone in a near-empty terminal at nearly midnight. Today, no doubt, he’ll be at at the farms,  looking to buy at a horse he hopes will come even close to filling the big hole Zenyatta will leave behind when she retires next month.

And knowing, as he must, that no horse ever can.

I had the presence of mind (and if you see from the pictures, I was actually shaking, so it’s incredible I had any mind at all) to ask him the question that has been on my mind for the last couple of months: How does he live with the pressure?

So I asked. “How do you keep from your head exploding?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know.”

“You’re just trying to enjoy the ride?”

He nodded.

Here in horse-country, what else can you do? Get on, hang on and get on again if you fall off.  Enjoy the ride, because you never know when there will be anything else like it.

And try not to think too much about the fact that odds are good there won’t be.

  1. And she’s had a boy! 10:10pm her time on March 8th, 2012.


  2. I honestly can’t watch either of her Breeders Cup Classic wins without crying. The first was the best race I have ever seen in my life. The second, heartbreak by a nose and she passed him a half-stride beyond the finish line. In my mind, she won and it will ever be so.



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