Whenever the U.S. economy is down and out, horse racing always manages to come up with a "feel good" champion that captures the public imagination. During the Great Depression, it was a homely little bay stallion from California named Seabiscuit. When he overcame defeats and infirmities to beat Triple Crown winner War Admiral in a historic match race, The Biscuit convinced a lot of unemployed Americans that they too could win their battles for survival.
Today, in the latest dark and gloomy time for America, that feel-good horse is a big beautiful bay mare from California named Zenyatta.
But Zenyatta is just a horse, right? Why should anybody give a hell about a frikking horse, with our country falling apart and LGBT people under fire everywhere?
Good question. But some people do see Zenyatta as a sign of hope for their own lives. This weekend at Santa Anita, when she scored the "impossible" win in the Breeders Cup Classic, most of my local LGBT horse-fan friends were in that crowd, screaming their lavender heads off. And the ones who couldn't make it to the track were glued to their TVs or their computer screens.
Why would they feel that way? Read on and find out.
Zenyatta's story doesn't have the hard knocks of Seabiscuit's story. But it's still a riveting tale. As a female horse in a game weighted to males, she had her own set of challenges to overcome.
Taller and Taller
In 2005, when California race-horse owners Jerry and Ann Moss had won the Kentucky Derby with a colt named Giacomo, they were looking for a new challenge. "Get me a good filly," Ann told her husband.
In Kentucky, they took a look at a tall gangly unnamed yearling. Despite her strong pedigree, she was clumsy and uncoordinated. So she was cheap -- $60,000 -- in a business where spectacular yearlings can cost $1 million or more. But the Mosses spotted some promise and fire in that youngster who didn't quite know what to do with her limbs yet. So they took her back to California with them.
Since the Mosses were also co-founders of A&M Records, they decided to name their new challenge after a winning album of theirs -- Zenyatta Mondatta by The Police.
In a sport where owners and trainers often push young horses hard for a quick return on their investment, the Mosses developed a humane and far-seeing program to manage their equine rock-star-to-be. They didn't even race Zenyatta as a 2-year-old -- just worked her lightly and let her come along at her own speed.
At age 3, late in 2007, Zenyatta quietly broke her maiden on her first start, winning at Hollywood Park.
The once-gangly girl was learning how to move all her body parts in harmony. It usually took most of the race, galumphing along in the rear, for her to warm up that big frame of hers and hit the right rhythm. Then, as the field rounded the second turn, jockey Mike Smith would make his move. He had learned that this filly had tremendous closing speed and power. So he could afford to give up some ground by swinging her to the outside of the other horses, sometimes 6 or 7 wide. There, with no other horses in front of her, Zenyatta knew it was time for the monster kick. Powering down the middle of the home stretch with her giant strides, she made the other horses look like they were going backwards in slow motion.
As a 4-year-old, Zenyatta stayed undefeated, piling up the Grade I wins -- always against other fillies. When it comes to sheer strength in relation to speed, there's such a difference between equine males and females that even the best fillies can seldom beat colts when the two genders compete.
But Zenyatta was growing even taller and filling out. With the top of her shoulders nearly six feet above the ground now, she towered over other horses. Even when she was just walking along the stall row, being led by her groom, her giant frame rippled all over with muscle power.
"She's a beast," one awestruck commentator said of her. "She's poetry in motion," said others.
Could this be one of those rare girls who could beat the boys?
A Star Is Born
Since Zenyatta seldom raced outside California, she was dubbed "Queen of the West." So the Golden State fans and punters were the first to fall in love with her.
It wasn't just the wins -- it was the off-track performance that endeared her to them. Zenyatta is a ham, a funny girl, a runway diva. In the saddling paddock, and later in the post parade, she works it. She curves her neck, shakes her head, prances and high-steps and paws the dirt. With most horses, this kind of pre-race behaviour betrays a nervousness that might drain energy from the race. But not Zenyatta. Underneath the showboating, she is all business. Her body language is saying, "I can hardly wait to get out there and beat the crap out of everybody."
On the track, her will to get herself in front was unstoppable. And she was uncowed by rough contact with other horses. According to Mike Smith, she would actually try to muscle her competitors if he didn't keep her steered clear of everybody.
To a growing army of women and teen-girl fans, Zenyatta's don't-mess-with-me attitude was very appealing.
Through it all, trainer John Shirreffs kept the big filly injury-free. This was its own challenge, since her enormous height and extra weight put more stress on her legs and hoofs during a race.
When Zenyatta turned 5 in 2009, she was now physically mature -- no longer a filly but a mare. And she kept on winning, till she was 13 for 13.
This past weekend at Santa Anita, the best Thoroughbreds in the world came together for a weekend of world-championship racing -- the 2009 Breeders Cup, most important race meet on the planet.
The Mosses faced their ultimate decision. They could play it safe and run her against fillies and mares in the Ladies' Classic, which she had already won in 2008. But they decided to run her against the boys for the first time, in the $5 million Breeders Cup Classic. She was already an acknowledged champion, undefeated in all her starts. But the Mosses felt they owed it to the sport, and to the fans, to accept the challenge. Zenyatta could become the first female in history to win the Classic.
To do this, however, she would have to pulverize 12 of the world's best young stallions and geldings. It's one thing for a filly to beat colts in the Kentucky Derby. A few fillies have done that. But to beat males in a globally loaded field like the Breeders Cup Classic is a different matter. This "band of brothers" included Kentucky Derby winner Mine that Bird, and Belmont winner Summer Bird, and Arlington Million winner Gio Ponti -- along with Irish stakeswinner Rip Van Winkle, and Dubai Derby winner Regal Ransom from the UAE. Beating all of them at once seemed like an impossible task.
Saturday morning, the day of the Classic, the gate attendance was up 17 percent from last year's Breeder's Cup. Santa Anita's parking lots and grandstand and trackside and infield were packed with humanity. Her loyal fans, including thousands of women and girls, were waving so many GIRL POWER and GO ZENYATTA placards that the whole place looked like a political convention. In the final minutes before post time, bettors made her the 5-2 favorite. At those odds, nobody would make any money. But nobody cared.
The nay-sayers were predicting defeat for Zenyatta. She was over-hyped, they said. She was past her peak for the season, they said. She'd never run a mile and a quarter before, they pointed out.
And Zenyatta's run got off to a terrible start.
At the starting gate, one horse acted up and refused to load. This incident shook up the other horses, including the usually unflappable Zenyatta. When she broke from the gate, she was dead last and visibly discombobulated as the field streamed down the stretch for the first time. Round the first turn and down the backstretch, Smith stayed quiet and patient in the saddle, till Zenyatta finally calmed down and settled into her rhythm. But she was still dead last.
As the field peeled out of the final turn, the big mare had moved up a notch, but was still next to last -- nearly 11 lengths behind.
There, with a wall of horses ahead, Mike Smith knew there was no time for the usual maneuver of swinging Zenyatta to the outside. He'd have to save ground by heading her straight through the mass of horses hurtling along at 40 mph. Suddenly he saw an opening and aimed her into it. She was about to knife between two horses when one of them lugged over in front of her. An ordinary horse might have been startled enough to take back and lose the momentum. But Zenyatta did a little hop over the lugger's heels and veered to his outside, passing him without missing a beat.
Now the big mare was in the clear, and knew it was time for the kill. In a few giant strides, she had hauled down the leader, Gio Ponti, and surged ahead to win by a length.
By then Santa Anita's race caller, Trevor Denman, who is usually so self-contained at the mike, had blown his cool and was yelling, "Un-be-lee-vable! What a performance! One that we'll never forget! It looked impossible!"
As Zenyatta made her way slowly to the winner's circle, she wasn't even breathing hard. The cheering by some 60,000 people went on and on and on. Her owners and trainer were in tears. People were still jumping up and down, and hugging each other. Even media people had abandoned all pretense at journalistic objectivity and were hoarse from screaming. Some were saying that she had proven herself one of the greatest ever.
Perhaps the ultimate cheer came more quietly from veteran trainer Bob Baffert, whose good colt Richard's Kid had just been pulverized by Zenyatta. He said, "It was the only time in horse racing that I didn't mind getting beat in a big race."
Why Should Anybody Care?
Regrettably, that Saturday, I wasn't able to be at Santa Anita to yell my lavender head off in person. I had to do some book business at Palm Springs Pride. But when the race was over, I got on the phone to my partner in Toronto, who had been glued to her TV. She was still out of breath from excitement, and told me, "The girl won handily."
Zenyatta footage is piling up on YouTube -- the public's hunger to see her in action is insatiable. Just search there under "Zenyatta" and you'll find all kinds of stuff. As a tribute, the hit TV show "Dancing With the Stars" aired their own priceless bit about Zenyatta's dance moves. It too can be found on YouTube.
The Mosses say they will probably retire Zenyatta now. Rumors do persist that she may run a match race with the next up-and-coming super-filly, 3-year-old Rachel Alexandra, another bay who is already beating the boys and building her own fan base. Bloggers are at each other's throats about who is best -- Yatta or RA. Personally I think the Queen of the West should retire at the top of her game. Hopefully she will live a long and pampered life as a celebrated brood mare -- mother of more champions like herself.
But -- who gives a flying hoot about a horse when our country is falling apart, and Congress is screwing with healthcare reform, and war in Iraq and Afghanistan looks to last forever, and same-sex marriage seems as impossible in its own way?
Myself, I don't claim to totally understand the "feel-good race horse" thing. But it's there to be pondered. One thing I do know -- because I spent many years with horses and know what wonderful creatures they are -- is this:
Horses threw in with humans 6000 years ago, and they have stuck with us. Through war and peace, through vast migrations, through rise and fall of civilizations, they toted us on their backs, and they patiently hauled our wagonloads of stuff. Horse peoples always believed that the horse even carried our spirits to the next world. Today, even though horses have little practical use in our high-tech society, they continue to haul a load for us that is more invisible now -- more mysteriously emotional and spiritual. There is something about a horse's spirit and heart, that few people can resist -- even city people who have never been near a live horse.
At times, as with Seabiscuit and Zenyatta, one horse can matter for everybody. One horse can be a mirror for a nation's greatest challenges and impossible dreams -- and that includes the challenges and dreams of LGBT Nation. And if ever we needed that spirit, and that heart, and the will to win the "impossible" race, it is now.