Commentary

Zenyatta heads for home

A devoted crowd celebrates a once-in-a-lifetime mare

Updated: November 22, 2010, 3:06 PM ET
By Claire Novak | ESPN The Magazine

GettyNot even the sight of a throng of fans can make the nearly unbeatable mare blink

OUTSIDE THE STABLES at Churchill Downs on Nov. 7, the line of cars stretches far into the distance. It's an unprecedented scene for the morning after race day. And at Barn 41, fingers grip the chain-link fence as necks crane for a glimpse of her: Zenyatta, the larger-than-life mare who, until the Breeders' Cup Classic yesterday, couldn't be beat.

In the postrace press conference after one last heroic closing rush came up a stride short, her Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith broke down and cried. "She's my everything," he said. "This hurts more than I can explain."

Zenyatta may have lost by a heartbreak, but that just made her fans love her more. And now it seems as if all of them have come to console themselves by consoling her. They bring peppermints (a favorite of hers), carrots and praise.

"Hello, big girl!" they say. "You're so beautiful." "What a race you ran." "We love you!" In the end, Zenyatta was 19-1 -- not quite perfect, but every innocent child and wizened track regular wants to celebrate her as if she will forever be a champion.

The showstopping mare grazes calmly by the fence line. A groom holds the leather lead shank but allows her to dictate her path. Sometimes she turns toward the cameras. Sometimes she brushes her soft muzzle against the wire. And sometimes she simply stands and looks off into the distance.

Inside the fence, trainer John Shirreffs breaks down the sawhorses that have provided separation from the masses all week. Now it is time for people to get closer. They approach slowly, almost reverently. Zenyatta greets each with pricked ears and gentle nuzzles. They touch her, smile, pose for photos. And when they walk away, they walk away beaming.

"When you watch a race on television, you don't get a feel for the Thoroughbred," says Shirreffs. "How often do people have a chance to get close to a horse like this?" Not often at all. In fact, this level of intimacy rarely exists in any sport. When do world-class athletes interact so casually with their fans?

The steady stream of memory-seekers continues well into the afternoon. At one point, a girl stretches on her tiptoes to drop an apple over the fence to the groom. Zenyatta takes a bite and everybody cheers. "She's the greatest female racehorse of all time, and she knows it," one bystander says.

This will be Zenyatta's legacy. Even in defeat she transcended it, providing, as always, something more: accessible greatness.