Category Archives: zenyatta

You Ain’t Seen Nothing Like It — ZENYATTA at Del Mar, pt 3

The most asked question on all of the Del Mar social media sites since July 6 was: Is Zenyatta going to race there?

Many close followers of racing (and those who think they know everything) probably believe that the track was confident in her entry, knew it all along, so much so in fact, that they made souvenir pint glasses to give away on Hirsch day.

Fact is, the people in the Del Mar Executive Offices were as anxious as the fans about her entry in the Clement Hirsch.  The uncertainty hovered even up to race day.  When I arrived that morning, the buzz was that another trainer had pulled his horses from training over the polytrack and that Z’s connections were going to scratch.  Then the rumor was that they were going to wait until the 2nd race to decide whether to scratch.  Then the time pushed back to 45mins before post time.  You can imagine the hairpulling that went on behind the scenes. (Don’t quote me on this, but I am pretty sure the pint glasses were a year in the making, due to the production/shipment schedules from China and all).

So it was a huge relief when the big, near-black mare with the tornado-shaped blaze finally approached the receiving barn, entourage close behind, camera crews and photographers in pursuit, around 5:45 p.m.  I had scouted a spot just outside of the barn, at the shoe inspector’s truck, for my pre-race glimpse.  All of my backside excursions, all of the people I’d met and shadowed throughout the past 4 weeks had well prepared me for this assignment.  I knew that it would be difficult to get around the Sherriffs barn on race day (both due to the queen’s schedule as well as my internship duties).  The paddock was out of the question, too – there were over 400 paddock passes given out for the media & connections of the horses in the Hirsch.  Even if I’d gotten in, my pics would have been over heads and between arms.  But I knew every horse had to stop by the receiving barn for I.D. and shoe inspections.

She was poised and calm at that point, not yet ready to start her famous strut.  The afternoon sun shone brightly, illuminating the dapples on her gleaming coat.  She was a pro at shoe inspection time, lifting each hoof delicately before farrier Victor even reached for them.  Zenyatta stood calmly as horse I.D. expert Diane flipped the mare’s upper lip to check the tattoo.

That’s when I had to dash.

The next step in my Hirsch game plan was the most difficult.  I hurried through the mob at the paddock, squeezing between and ducking around people who craned their heads to see even an eartip of the fabulous Z.  My destination: winner’s circle.

I staked out my spot along the rail as the 8th race went off.  A few other photogs and a video guy or two also had the same idea.  I looked back at the grandstand – every level was packed.  The apron was 10-deep, even for the 8th race!  I spotted a few pink and teal signs among the mob. The crowd around me at the rail grew with each minute as well, until security had to hold back at least 200.

At around 6:15, the excitement reached crescendo as Zenyatta stepped out of the tunnel and onto the track.  She strutted, swayed, bowed and posed as she did her diva thang in the post parade.  On the big screen of the tote board, the track broadcast its music video tribute to Zenyatta.  She was cool and collected during the warm-up, went into the gate with ease, and then…

There was an enormous cheer as the gates opened and the mares leaped out.  I almost couldn’t hear announcer Trevor Denman!  As the field raced past us for the first time, Z was in her usual spot at the back.  Behind me, a gentleman was excitedly hollering, “that’s it, slooow it down Raphey, slow it down!” This was Rinterval’s trainer, Eric Reed.  He continued shouting as the horses galloped around the turn and into the backstretch.

As they cleared the final turn, the cheers grew even louder, to a deafening roar as Zenyatta began picking off rivals in the stretch.  Reed began pumping his fist (I know this bc he was so close I could feel it on my back!) when Z hooked up with Rinterval.  By then I couldn’t hear Trevor at all.  I was banging on the rail and stomping, yelling “GO GIRL! GO GIRL!”

She flashed under the wire a head in front of Rinterval.  Reed was still elated, despite having been defeated.  I heard him say before the crowd swallowed him up, “…seen nothing like it…”

I looked back at the stands again: the jubilant faces, the fists pumping, the cryers, the laughers, the little girls and the older men, all in love with a horse! 

Walker (my boss) motioned for me to slip under the rail and join the rest of the press corps on the track.  She made a valiant victory pass, Mike Smith beaming his dimpled smile.  I was in awe of being so close! She was barely breathing hard and there wasn’t a drop of sweat on her!

I managed to get between the press hounds and snap off a few wonderful shots as Zenyatta entered the winner’s circle for the 18th time in a row, and her 3rd time in the Hirsch.

It was a spectacular day and one that I will remember fondly for years to come.  If you ever get the chance to see Zenyatta in person, take it – you ain’t seen nothin’ like it!

QUICK PICKS:

  • As the crowds lined up outside the gates, I spent my time resetting my camera.  The day before, my photoshoot of the Queen during her morning routine went well, but when I uploaded the photos, most of them were blurry, unfocused messes! I was so disappointed!  I was determined to figure it out before the 9th race, and after a bit of fiddling I discovered the problem.  I also had 2 specific undercard races to practice.
  • The crowd clamoring for Zenyatta and her pint glasses was so large the track opened early to alleviate the craziness.  I got pulled from photos to help man a distribution booth in the clubhouse.  The only thing that went faster than the pint glasses were the plastic bags we handed out to help carry them!
  • I got a quick lunch break and then grabbed my camera for a trip to the paddock for the 3rd race.  Tom Blincoe’s Tall Texan was in, as well as Carla Gaines’s Doppio and Henry Moreno’s Party Mandate.  I have become great friends with Texan, who likes to eat butterscotch and root beer flavored hard candy.  Gaines is a fabulous trainer & nice, too, while Henry is probably the most flirtatious trainer there (but it’s all in good fun).
  • The Whitney at Saratoga went off while I was in the paddock for Tall Texan.  I watched the race on the big screen with Willie, the main paddock guard. We were both rooting for Blame, and gave high-5s when he won! As the horses exited the paddock for the race, a blonde lady in a blue blouse & sunglasses hurriedly asked me who won the Whitney.  I cheered, “Blame!” and then realized the woman was Bo Derek.
  • Great Bernardine raced for my RTIP classmates in the 5th race.  I was paddock-side for that one, too, and met trainer Mag Perez & his lovely wife, Candace, as well as P Val.  I got a pic with P Val, too, just before he got a leg up on Bernardine!
  • I was thisclose to Ken Rudolph during the Hirsch.

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Starstruck : Zenyatta at Del Mar

Zenyatta gives me the eye at Del Mar this morning. Jerry Moss & Dottie Sheriffs in background.

Today I started at Sheriffs’s barn around 8am. Zenyatta was tucked in her stall, gazing out at the other horses coming in and out of the stable area.  John told me to come back around 9, when she would be making her appearance on-track.

I meandered over to Baffert’s barn next door, where the place was bustling with activity with nary a media person in sight.  A big chestnut horse was having his post-workout bath and I recognized him as Misremembered.  I asked his groom if I was right, and he said yes.  I snapped about 8-10 pics of him enjoying the sudsy water.  The groom then pointed out that Bob had gotten a parking ticket!  The black Range Rover was parked in front of his office, a tiny pink slip stuck under the windshield wiper!  I took a pic of that, too.  The Man himself was over at the gilley stand watching horses work and didn’t know he’d been cited*.

I then headed down to see The Pamplemousse again.  I passed Julio Canani on the way and he said, “your horse just galloped!”  I said, “You know where I’ve been this morning!” And he gave a sort of exasperated “humph” as he continued on toward the Racing Office.  The Pamplemousse was walking around the ring in between barns, as cool and collected as ever.  He really is an athletic colt and deserves to return to the level of competition he left last year.  I hope he can do it.

I hurried back toward the Z Epicenter, just in time.  There was a crowd of TV cameras, news photogs and random backstretch visitors gathered to see her.  Also, everyone in the office decided to call me at that moment to get the scoop on her activities. I felt kinda dumb talking on the phone while everybody else was awe-ing.

When she appeared from her stall, she was magnificent.  All 17-hands of muscle and bone and dark bay coat towered over her groom.  Cameras snapped and videographers jockeyed (hah!) for the best spot to capture her.

She went around the walking ring a couple of times with her exercise rider, Steve, and then headed for the track.  I stayed close on her heels as she power-walked to the gap but soon fell behind, she is a *very* fast walker!

She posed for more photos before beginning her gallop, but she kept looking off towards the other horses working as if to say, “Hurry up people, I have a workout to get to!”

She moved effortlessly over the polytrack during the gallop.  The rest of the horses and riders had cleared the track, just for her.  Sheriffs watched through binoculars with a big grin on his face.  The gilley stands were full of onlookers.  The entire executive office was a ghost town as everyone rushed down to the apron to watch her pass by.

After one lap around, Zenyatta was hardly winded and had barely broken a sweat.  That was enough for the day, however, and she exited the track to the applause of the fans.

I met her back at her barn, along with the rest of the press corps.  There, she walked the ring several laps, stopping each time to pose for us.  Her legs were hosed and washed, and then she was allowed to graze on the sod panels carfully laid in the center of the walking ring.

She reappeared later this afternoon, in the paddock before the 4th race.  I had a great spot staked out at the opening to the paddock, dead center! By that time, the sun was full out and the colors of Del Mar dazzled.  The brightest star was the big, near-black mare, ZENYATTA

*Baffert returned to his barn just as Zenyatta was getting ready to go out to the track.  By that time as well, Jerry Moss had arrived in his town car, which was parked directly behind Baffert’s. Baffert spotted the pink ticket and quipped, “Where’s his ticket?” pointing to Moss’s car. Then he took the slip off of his window and pretended to put it on Moss’s car.  Moss chuckled.  It was all in good fun, but I think most of the eyes were on Z and probably missed that exchange.

Baffert seems to be a big fan of Z, as he hung out watching her just like all the rest of us fangirls and horse geeks.

I managed to sneak into one of the photos today, too. I really was there!

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Three Years Later

Image from Kentucky Derby facebook page

Fans of Barbaro leave roses at his grave, the magnificent statue at the gates of Churchill Downs.

I was working on proofing transcripts from the Symposium this afternoon when I got a tweet that made me stop and get misty for a minute:

January 29, 2006 Rachel Alexandra born. January 29, 2007 Barbaro dies.

One date, two vastly different stories.

When I think about Barbaro, I feel like a mountain climber who is inches from reaching the summit when a rockslide suddenly causes me to loose my footing and tumble back to the bottom.  Barbaro was a very special horse, perfect in build and temperament and blessed with the speed of the wind.  After his fantastic 6-length score in the Derby, I was shivering with anticipation for the first Triple Crown winner in my lifetime.  I never felt more certain about a horse.  And I wasn’t the only one.  We all know what happened next, so I will spare the gloom.  But out of the fog of tragedy and despair shone a glimmer of hope.  All of those like-minded Fans of Barbaro banded together, determined to make the sport a better place.

Three years later, I am still in awe of the power of Barbaro.  Instead of sliding into the abyss of cultural forgetfulness, Barbaro has remained stuck firm in the minds of the racing world as well as the public at large.  His name is a rallying point for grassroots efforts to save retired racehorses, raise funds for laminitis research and even tighten track safety standards.  When I meet people and tell them why I’m in Arizona, they inevitably mention Barbaro, and I tell them I am glad they remember him.

But the world is cyclical.

Though we remember fondly the formidable Derby winner, we must not ignore those who have risen in his shadow.

Rachel Alexandra had just turned a year old that day in 2007.  She was living on a farm with many other fillies and colts, learning the basics of being a horse.  Still lanky and immature, she’d been pulled from the Keeneland November sale as a weanling by owner/breeder Dolphus Morrison so that she could grow into her frame a little better.  It would be many months before the daughter of Medaglia D’Oro even saw a race track for the first time.  Once she did, it was obvious she had incredible talent and speed to spare.

In the three years since, Rachel Alexandra grew from that lanky yearling to promising juvenile to legendary Classic winner.  Her 20-length score in the Kentucky Oaks was magical, a coronation in pink.  She thumped the best three-year-old males in the Preakness, ran away from them all again in the Haskell, and ended her season with a gritty win against older males at Saratoga.  She even accomplished what Barbaro couldn’t: Champion 3-Year-Old in her division and Horse of the Year.  Now she gallops in Louisiana, and I wait for her return to competition and a meeting with her biggest rival, the undefeated supermare and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, Zenyatta.

I am again climbing the mountain, inches from the summit, and this time, my eyes have caught a glimpse of the other side.

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VERDICT: JOCKEYS is a WINNER

Joe Talamo(left) poses with Michael Baze at Del Mar, before reality show stardom.

Joe Talamo(left) poses with Michael Baze at Del Mar, before reality show stardom.

I tell you, it’s like they read my mind.  From the opening theme to the cliffhangers between the commercials, Animal Planet totally nailed the modern docu-drama asthetic with Jockeys.  The soundtrack is hip, the visuals are colorful and capture the activity on the track.  The frenetic, MTV editing keeps viewers glued to the action and the individual jockeys’ storylines. 

They’ve got all of the character archtypes:  arrogant youngster in Joe Talamo, the aging Hall of Famer in Mike Smith and the struggling newcomer in Kayla Stra, plus the supportive yet competitive love interest in Chantal Sutherland.  Aaron Gryder plays the Family Man.  Supporting characters in the first 2 eps included Jon Court in the “best Friend” role and Cory Nakatani as the “wounded warrior”.  Garret Gomez made a cameo as well, as the hot shot top winning jock everybody is chasing.

Unlike other reality show subjects, the jockeys face death daily:  in the opening credits alone, there are at least 2 spills.  In the first ep, Cory Nakatani goes down in a turf stake and is out for the meet (the horse was fine).  In a touching scene early on, the jocks share a prayer with the race track chaplain before heading out to the track.  Underscoring the danger is the thrill of victory, as when Talamo pulls off an upset with a horse named Booyah, or when Smith shows off on the champion mare Zenyatta.

Of course, no reality program is complete without relationship drama.  Unfortunately, this is so far the weakest part of the show.  Mike Smith is dating Chantal Sutherland, don’t you know?  But she lives and rides in Canada, and must make the difficult choice between her career and her love life.  Santa Anita is a much tougher circuit than Woodbine.  She, of course, moves in with Mike & rearranges his closet.  Maybe I’m just too cynical, but that part seemed so forced.  I *did* like when they showed her rooting for Mike on Zenyatta during the second half of the show.  The lovebirds could grow on me, though.  It’s early yet.

Kayla Stra broke my heart in this episode, going barn door to door, begging for mounts in the wee hours of the morning.  Breaking into the biz is a bitch.  When she finally gets a horse to ride, the cantankerous critter nearly flips in the gate and sends Stra bailing out the back.  Back in the saddle after a reset, she rides up the track, earning only her $75 mount fee.  To add injury to insult, her foot is bruised in the starting gate action and so she has to sit and soak it after the losing ride. 

In all, Jockeys has a lot going for it and I look forward to next week’s installment.  From the promos, the show is going to look into flipping and other tortures jockeys put themselves through to make weight.  I’ve already got it Tivo’d.

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JOCKEYS Premieres in 3 Days!!

I like this promo for the show.  It captures the bad-ass side of racing pretty well, and features Kanye on the soundtrack.   If the show is as awesome as the ads, it’s gonna rock.

I just checked the Animal Planet site, and it’s all Jockeys

Mike SMith is one of seven featured riders, and in all of the photos, he is in the teal and pink silks of Jerry Moss.  Zenyatta makes a cameo in the above trailer, too. 

Who wants to bet that Joe Talamo and Kayla Stra become the next Heidi and Spencer? 

Jon Court has been at Oaklawn – I’ll have to get his autograph next time I go to Hot Springs.

One thing I know for sure is that there won’t be any stupid CSI-esque, brain-cell-killing cliches on this show. 

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CURLIN REPEATS as Horse of the Year!

Congrats to Curlin, the Eclipse award Horse of the Year for 2008. 

curlinbobble

Eclipse voters cast 153 ballots in favor of The Golden Warrior, with Zenyatta getting 69 votes and Big Brown only 13.  While I would have loved to see Zenyatta get the Big Prize, the fact is Curlin ran a typical HOTY campaign.  Despite a growing embrace of changes for the better, the sport is still devoted to its traditions.  Curlin would have been HOTY in the olden days before the Breeders’ Cup, because he won the Woodward and the Jockey Club Gold Cup, both Grade 1.  His JCGC was a repeat win, and he broke an earnings record with that race, both major pluses for traditional Eclipse voters.  He also won the Steven Foster Handicap at Churchill, and he ran a credible second in the Man O’War on turf.  He tried the Breeders’ Cup Classic and was beaten by better synthetic runners.  His races were all Grade 1 stakes against open company, and those are his US stats, the only record that is supposed to matter in Eclipse balloting.  Of course, that is not Curlin’s complete 2008 record.  The reigning HOTY travelled to Dubai and won two major races, the Jaguar Trophy and the Dubai World Cup, against the best dirt horses in Asia and the Middle East.  He won the Jaguar under 132 pounds, an unheard-of impost for stakes in the US.  The Dubai World Cup win was visually impressive as Curlin coasted home by over 7 lengths.

  Along the way, Curlin became the yardstick by which the ’08 three year old crop was measured.  His owner, Jess Jackson, appealed to racing fans by shipping the Golden Warrior to tracks across the nation and giving races on all surfaces a try.  With over $10 million in earnings, Curlin now sits atop the list of All-Time Leading Money Winners, breaking a record held for 13 years by the legendary Cigar.  When paraded on Kentucky Derby day at Churchill Downs, the tipsy revelers cheered more loudly for him in the paddock than even the Derby victor in the winner’s circle.  I know, I was there for that one. 

Curlin may not be as fast as previous champions, nor did he win a Triple Crown or 16 (or 19) races in a row.  But he was the only member of the magical class of 2007 to continue as an older horse.  That was a great year, a return to thrilling, (relatively) safe racing, with tough, game rivals like Street Sense and Hard Spun and Curlin to help us get over the tragedy of Barbaro.  Yes, I said Barbaro – even if you’re sick of hearing his name, you must admit he had the potential to be a great one.  His loss was such a tremendous letdown, and his long struggle such a heartbreaker, that the 2007 racing season was like a salve on racing’s wounds.  When Curlin came back this year, it was with the hope that the goodwill would continue.  I should have known one horse was not enough.  Perhaps this award will encourage other owners to bring back their champions for continued campaigns.  It seems to already be working: IEAH is bringing BENNY THE BULL back for more sprints in fall!

Now that the Eclipses have been awarded and ’08 remembered one last time in all of its horrible, beautiful glory, let’s put it away and focus on 2009.  The Kentucky Derby is only 92 days away!

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SEE YOU NEXT YEAR

With such a high turnover of stars this winter, who is left for fans to root for next year?  Curlin’s retirement leaves a huge hole in the handicap division that won’t be filled by even such middling talents as STudent Council or Zanjero, who are also going off to stud.  The sprint division has lost a great group, lead by Midnight Lute, Street Boss, Bustin’ Stones, Benny The Bull… heck, all of the top sprinters will be in the shed next year. 

So, who will get sucked into the vacuum?  Here are 10 horses I think will be able to step out the shadows and shine on the Grade 1 stage.  Most of them are 3yos who, finally out from under the gorilla Big Brown, will be able to repair the bad rap stuck on their crop.  A few are already established stars who will gallop even higher into the stratosphere.

1) Zenyatta:  Undefeated in 9 starts; can she make it 10 more?

2)Harlem Rocker:  DQ’ed in Cigar Mile victory but will make us all forget that effort next year.

3) Colonel John:  He’s everybody’s favorite grinder, which should make for some thrilling finishes in the big races of ’09.

4)Fatal Bullet:  He ran 1:09 in the BC Sprint but got beat.  The horse who beat him retired.  He’s Canada’s champion 3yo and HoTY.  Plus, he’s a son of my fave Preakness winner, Red Bullet.

5)Proud Spell:  She duked it out with Pure Clan and Music Note and just missed a meeting with Big Z.  She’s on a break now, but watch out when she comes back!

6) Cowboy Cal:  Consistently in the money on turf, dangerous on poly, and just the type who may spring a big shocker on dirt, he’s gonna be a Darley horse, with all the benefits, next season.

7) Court Vision:  IEAH’s successor to Big Brown & Kip Deville, a son of Gulch who can get 1 1/4 miles on turf.

8)Go Between:  The always competitive son of Point Given who is best on polytrack.  Can’t wait to see him in the Big Cap.

9)Cocoa Beach:  Second to Big Z in the Distaff, winner of the Matriarch last month, she’s just now coming into her best stride.

10) The Entire 2009 3yo Crop:  The 2 top prospects are heading for Dubai to train, a slew of promising stakes winners are shipping to winter training grounds, and several talented maiden winners are stepping onto the scene…the 135th Kentucky Derby is only 6 months away!

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