18 December 2009

Zenyatta and Company

I hope you have some time, because this is a long, link-heavy homage to Zenyatta and her connections.

Before the 2009 Breeder's Cup, I had never seen Zenyatta run. An ambivalent fan of racing, I had read a bit at The Blood Horse website, but that was all. Frankly, I'm not even sure why I watched the Breeder's Cup Classic, but I'm glad I did.

Everything about this mare is unusual--her behavior and style, her speed, and her training and handling.

When I first saw her behavior, my heart almost stopped. My horses only act that way when they have colic. However, diva that she is, Zenyatta had a well known pre-race routine. Several YouTube videos feature just her pre-race "dancing."

Here she is in the paddock of at the 2009 Breeder's Cup.

And here's an edited homage to her career titled "She's a Freak." (At 3:48 of this, she does a respectable Spanish walk, a move I will no longer call artificial.)

Update: I like this homage much better. Some good conformation poses here: "Zenyatta Starstruck"

As to the Breeder's Cup race itself, I again panicked when Quality Road broke out of the gate while blindfolded. That took my concentration off Zenyatta for a while too. After poor Quality Road's panic attack caused the unloading and reloading of all the horses, I wasn't surprised when Zenyatta broke slowly and galloped awkwardly looking around. I just didn't know she had a patented last-to-first pattern.

If you're short on time, here's HGTV's recap of all of her 14 wins.

My favorite now is her second win, one with a great race call.

But it's also well worth watching--and rewatching--the 2009 Breeder's Cup Classic.

I suppose the racing style and the $5,474,580 in winnings would be enough, but from what I've seen and found out since this race, there's a lot more going on here.

This mare is a darling. Watch her eyes and ears. Observant. Charismatic. She's obviously competitive, but from what I'm reading and seeing on YouTube, she's about as far from being crazy as any race horse can be.

Keeping a race horse keen and yet relaxed is not an easy job, but I suspect her trainer John Shirreffs is a master of this. In one article somewhere, I read that his favorite picture of Zenyatta is of her getting a massage. The then filly was flat out in her straw and her masseur was sitting in the straw with her.

Apparently this sort of relaxation is not unusual in his barn. Here's Life Is Sweet, the winner of the 2009 Breeder's Cup Ladies' Classic (G1), in a video uploaded to YouTube by Shirreffs himself.

I'm impressed by everything I've heard, seen, read so far. Shirreffs held Zenyatta's massive body together as well as her brain. The mare was foaled on April 1, 2004 and her first start was on November 22, 2007. I bow towards California. Shirreffs didn't start Zenyatta until she was almost 44 months old--ancient by American race standards.

Most American race horses start as two year olds, which means they were started under saddle as yearlings--a practice I consider obscene. I don't like the Triple Crown races either. Running three year olds is only marginally better than running two year olds. Horses physically mature at five, folks. This is why I'm ambivalent about horse racing.

So kudos to her trainer and owners for giving Zenyatta some time. Over seventeen hands, Zenyatta was a prime candidate for dire injuries. Instead, as far as I know, she retired clean-legged.

I'll end with my favorite video, another one uploaded by Shirreffs. Mike Smith, Zenyatta's regular jockey, was wearing a helmet camera during a regular work session. This video is--well, just watch it.


I'll wait.

Did you watch it?

If not, here's the link again.

It wouldn't surprise me if die-hard horsemen watch it again. And, uh, again. I'm already past counting.

Great video, isn't it? Kind, competent people. Kind, more than competent mare. Those ears! And if you didn't feel an adrenaline rush when Mike Smith coos, "Come on, big baby girl" and the mare's stride changes, you ain't no horseman.