One Brief Shining Moment: Memories of a Last Visit with Zenyatta

The Life
The author, Zenyatta, and assistant groom Salvador Lopez during a last visit in October 2010. (Annette Jacques photo)

"You know, we just don’t realize the most significant moments of our lives while they are happening.” – Bernard Malamud, “The Natural”

The date had been red-ringed for weeks. It was Oct. 15, 2010, and all freeways lead to Barn 55 South at Hollywood Park, where a Queen awaited our pleasure. It was not our first visit to see Zenyatta, but it was to be the last, an awareness which heightened our appreciation of the specialness of the day. I had scoured the liquor stores for a six-pack of Guinness Extra Stout as a hostess gift for her Royal Highness, to no avail. It was the “extra stout” which was the sticking point, but to have substituted any other would have been an insult to the Queen’s palate. I found it where I was not looking for it, in the pint-sized spirits section of the local Sprouts Market.

Queen Zenyatta (Cynthia Holt photo)

October can be an especially beautiful month in Southern California, and the day glowed like burnished brass. It was a mellow but bittersweet autumn afternoon, one of the last golden days in the barn’s three-year reign as racing’s answer to Camelot. Parking in the public lot, our party of three walked the well-trod, dusty road to Hollywood Park’s most famous residence, bearing our liquid treasure. The barn was blanketed in a mid-week tranquility which belied the ferocity of the fame of its star boarder. The stable’s official meet-and-greeter, a flaxen fur ball who answered to the name of “Kitty," vocalized a welcome. Trainer John Shirreffs was at Keeneland to oversee the running of the Wygods’ stellar filly, Harmonious, in the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup Stakes, in which she was to be victorious. In his stead, Zenyatta's groom, Mario Espinoza, managed the proceedings, and he directed us to the grassy oval and the landmark Z-tree, to await the arrival of "She of the Most High." Kitty planted herself firmly in the middle of the action, obviously a veteran of such events. Assistant Salvador Lopez, a mustachioed man who exuded kindness, was to be Zenyatta’s companion for our session. Mario busied himself running wraps through the stable washer, all the while keeping a watchful eye on his number one charge.

We heard her before we saw her. From behind the weathered wall of the shedrow, a steady drum of heavy hoofbeats approached. I felt as if my pounding heart was in synch with the rhythm. No matter how many times one saw Zenyatta, she never failed to leave one breathless. Massively proportioned and almost as dark as night, with a soft  eye which seemed to stare into your soul, she beggared the word charisma, holding you in her thrall until she was no longer there. For some, just to be in her presence was life-changing. Zenyatta had a special way of mending what was broken in people, a gift which enshrined her in the hearts of many. When she emerged from the shadow of the stable into the luminous light, she looked magnificent, dappled and gleaming, in the full bloom of health. Her front legs sported the usual snowy wraps, bearing free-form red pepper art work, courtesy of Mario. Zenyatta strolled leisurely beside Salvador, stopping occasionally to bury her muzzle in the grass, searching delicately for the most tender shoots. Despite her preoccupation with grazing, one sensed that she was fully cognizant of our presence at all times, frequently cocking an eye in our direction.

An idyllic day at Barn 55 South. (Cynthia Holt photo)

The only disappointment of the day, which had been anticipated, was Mario’s request that we refrain from petting or feeding Zenyatta, as she was only three weeks away from what was being billed as the Grand Finale of her career, in the 2010 Longines Breeders' Cup Classic. This was tremendously difficult, because Zenyatta was a horse who, by her very nature, begged touching. There was no way to have known then, that this was to be our first experience in social distancing. Zenyatta must have been puzzled by the lack of goodies and loves, and I believe that she was, as she looked at us often one-by-one, her trademark long ears straight up, her eyes fastened on each of us in turn. She did not toss her head impatiently or paw the ground in demand, her manners were far too regal for that. To the clicking of cameras, she patiently struck pose after pose of print-worthy shots, listening kindly to our endearments, but appearing somewhat mystified that no one advanced to stroke her, and there was not even one crackle of a peppermint wrapper. I am sure that she must have considered us the toughest audience that she had ever played.

Salvador led Zenyatta to the famed ficus tree, and invited us individually to have a photo-op with the Queen. We each stood as closely as possible, knowing that this time would be the last to capture such a moment. As I stood by her side, dwarfed by her immense frame, I tried to mentally telegraph to Zenyatta all that she had meant to me and countless others throughout her career: the thrill of her 19 incredible wins, and the terror of her late-run finishes; the unbridled joy of her pre-race prances, and her unconditional acceptance of people at face value; the knowledge that we would never again see another horse who would rival her in our affection. She rotated a huge eye in my direction, which held a wisdom that I could not fathom. When I reluctantly left, I walked away backwards, not wanting to lose a second's sight of her. After all, that is the proper way to exit royalty.

A Queen’s hoofprints. (Cynthia Holt photo)

The time had come for her to leave. Zenyatta made a small restless movement, which would probably have gone unnoticed by most, but Mario and Salvador both saw it, and almost in unison, told us that it was time for Zenyatta to return to her stall. We had no complaint. We had been given the priceless gift of having the Queen of Racing all to ourselves for a generous portion of the afternoon, as had hundreds of other fortunate fans over the years. I was caught between a smile and tears as she was lead away, into a destiny which we could not follow. Spotting her hoofprints in the sand, I photographed them for posterity. Like Zenyatta, they would disappear far too soon.

As we exited the racetrack on Century Boulevard, the gates of Camelot swung shut behind us. History would write new chapters in all of our stories. Zenyatta would lose the 2010 Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic and her perfect record, but she would conquer even more hearts and add to her legend in a courageous race which many consider to be her finest hour. She would trade her patch of grass at Hollywood Park for a boundless pasture in the Bluegrass. In 2013, Hollywood Park would vanish, and a new sports palace would rise on its hallowed bones. The youngest member of our little group would leave us, following a brave battle against cancer. Through it all, the memory of that one perfect day in an imperfect world endures.

“Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.” – Alan Jay Lerner

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