Elegy for a Newborn Colt

The Life

Champion Zenyatta at Lane's End. (All photos courtesy of Julie-June Stewart)

In the beauty of spring, we tend to celebrate the newborn. With trees budding out and flowers blooming, there is a softening in our souls as we find ourselves melting over photographs of kittens, puppies and foals. It opens the doors to possibilities and hopes. When our animals are young and adventurous, we chronicle them through social media. Little tabby barn kittens bloom into handsome young cats. Puppies’ antics are filmed and posted. People are praised when they acquire a new puppy or kitten. Fans jump in and give suggestions for names of foals in the excitement of a new birth. 

Zenyatta is still one of horse racing’s most popular horses with more than 468,000 followers on Facebook. (To put this in perspective, the 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah has 123,000 followers on his official Facebook page.) For 17 days, we were on foal watch with Zenyatta’s family. Watching, waiting and reading their loving posts on her blog as they fed her carrots, celebrated her birthday as we all checked out her heavy belly. On April 11, fans were greeted with the message that her colt had been born the night before at 9:24 p.m. As they say in the social media world, the internet went into overdrive. Her Facebook page had two announcements that received 1,785 comments and was shared 8,500 times. 

It seems that the photo of Zenyatta’s little bay colt filled my Facebook timeline. You couldn’t help but fall in love with his big floppy ears. The photo must have been taken within minutes of being born as he was still quite wet. He looked like he couldn’t quite believe where he was. His lovely blaze mimicked his mother’s famous blaze but was uniquely his own, extending down his nose. 

Several hours later, the Zenyatta team issued four more photographs. They were tender. There was Zenyatta with a very soft eye and demeanor, ears forward while reaching down to touch her foal, nose to nose. There was Ann Moss sitting in the hay, reaching out to pet him. Another close up of the colt with his ears perked forward while curled up comfortably in a little nest next to his famous mom, who was also lying next to him. And the side-by-side profile of Zenyatta’s head next to her foal’s head. The resemblance was beautiful. 

The press release stated “For the most part Zenyatta’s foaling was uneventful and by the book, however the foal was born meconium stained. Meconium staining is an occasional event at foaling in which aspiration can occur, irritating the lungs. As a precaution and on the recommendation of the attending veterinarians, both mare and foal were taken to the clinic for close observation and treatment.”  Immediately, Zenyatta’s fans fled to the internet to learn more about meconium staining. Most people felt that it wasn’t serious; that it was common. Yet there was a cautionary air and people waited for more news. 

Sadly, there it was. The announcement on April 13 that her foal had passed away: “It is with heavy hearts that Team Zenyatta and Lane’s End Farm must announce the passing of Zenyatta’s 2016 foal by War Front. His death occurred at approximately 9 a.m. this morning due to complications of meconium aspiration syndrome. We express our deep gratitude to Dr. Peter Morresey and the professionals at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital who worked tirelessly to support the mare and foal. Zenyatta is in good health and back home at Lane’s End Farm.” 

You couldn’t even get onto Zenyatta’s website. The announcement was shared more than 4,600 times.  There were 7,000 emoticon responses. There were more than 2,000 comments made within six hours.  The irony was that the announcement of the colt’s birth was still trending on Google for hours after the announcement of his passing. 

What is it about the passing of an animal that affects people so much? Yes, we pin our dreams and hopes on the foals within the horse racing industry. Zenyatta is such a legend that the expectations are huge for her foals. But I think it is more than that. We live in a day and age where we don’t often allow ourselves to grieve. What used to be funerals and graveside services has morphed into “Celebrations of Life,” where people are encouraged to be happy and not sad. We live in a world where we are expected to obtain closure when dealing with grief. 

Death is final. Death is rough. Death punches all our buttons as we open the door to the deep emotions of grief. When our friend’s dogs and cats pass away, I have witnessed such an outpouring of love and support. We fill their timelines with messages of sorrow. We can sit and watch boundless violent movies filled with murder and death and not feel much. But if the dog dies (such as in the end of “Marley and Me,” you can pretty much expect that there will be a theater full of people quietly sniffing and reaching for tissues to deal with their unexpected hot tears.

We want our little ones to have a chance. We want them to grow up and reach their dreams. A young foal as regally bred as Zenyatta’s Z16 was touched by only a handful of people, yet he touched thousands of people in the 60 hours that we knew him. We lost him. Another tragedy for Zenyatta’s family and friends. It’s like a cloud just covered the sun and all that was bright and brilliant is now hazy with emotion. It was a bright spring day full of promise.  Yet the news brought unexpected clouds of sadness.

Zenyatta is back in her pasture at Lane’s End. The flowers will still bloom. The trees will leaf out and provide shade. The Kentucky Blue Grass will occupy her and the mare Vixana will provide her company.  It will be quiet and peaceful. Spring will softly fade into summer. Yet we will remember a precious little foal who held our dreams ever so briefly in April. 


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