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.
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…”
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!
- 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.