We the smitten


zenyatta-with-ellen.jpg

She was not a beautiful baby. She was big, and covered with a skin rash. Not exactly camera-ready.

So what's she doing in W Magazine, the glossy, high-fashion bible whose November 2010 issue features a naked Kim Kardashian on the cover? But there she is, on page 66, still big, still 100-plus pounds heavier than the rest of her crowd, there she is, naked and ready for her close-up. She spent four hours posing in that shoot with Robert Maxwell, a photographer more renowned for his portraits of Kate Winslet and surfers in Hawaii than for mucking around the hay in a barn, adjusting the light on a horse.

She's not any horse, of course. She's Zenyatta, and the world is in love with her. We can't help it, we slobbering groupies worshiping at the altar of the most exciting athlete in her sport. We think she is the best ever, and we are not people given to adoration of jocks. In fact, other jocks adore her. On Sunday, Terrell Owens, Cincinnati Bengals' wide receiver, dropped by the barn to pay respects. "She's a beautiful horse," he marveled. "She's a big girl."

In her presence, we stutter and gush our horse-love partly over her pure talent--she has never lost in 19 races--but also over her character. This animal is worthy of our love, this animal, says her groom, Mario Espinoza, "likes people more than horses." This animal loves attention and gives as good as she gets. She dances, she poses, she engages. She drinks Guinness beer. You want to hang out with her, you have a crush on her. Everybody does. Get in line.

On a recent morning at Hollywood Park, she breezes 5/8th of a mile along the backstretch under jockey Mike Smith, her first speed workout since winning her last race on Oct. 2. We the smitten are hanging over the rail, mouths agape at her power and acceleration. She even snorts pretty. "What you'd get her in?" owner Jerry Moss asks his trainer, John Shirreffs, who's cradling a stopwatch. "One-oh-three." "Is that what you were looking for?" "Yeah." Shirreffs is the only one in Zenyatta's entourage who remains normal in her presence. He must be sedated. Asked if he's ever had a specimen like her, all he says is "never."

She Who Is Adored walks back to the barn against a soundtrack of clicking camera shutters.

Zenyatta's unbeaten record will be challenged Nov. 6 when she attempts to win the Breeders' Cup Classic for the second time against the sport's elite racers. She will dance her way to the gate, she will, if form holds, run her drama-queen race, lingering at the back of the pack, then picking off the competition until, near the front on the outside, Smith tells her to go, and she finds the gear Porsche has yet to invent. She is the most exciting athlete we will ever see, and none has ever handled her gift so well. We love her. We can't help it.

At the barn, hot walker Carmen Samora spends 45 minutes guiding her around the stables in one-minute loops. Owner Ann Moss stands near the open barn door, holding a copy of W and feeling the love. "Zennie you are so beautiful," she says every time She Who Is Adored passes by. A group of people--track workers, training staff, media, Smith--crowd the barn door. When someone calls her name, or snaps a shutter, when a vehicle moves on the road outside, Zenyatta pauses, lifts her dark-chocolate head, flicks her ears forward and strikes the noble pose fit for a fashion magazine. She does it because you want her to, and because she wants to.

"She's an extremely curious mare," says Steve Willard, her exercise rider on the days she's not doing speed work. "She'll stop to look at a leaf falling from a tree." He points to a masonry wall beyond the barn that defines the periphery of the track. "Once I saw her watch a possum walking along that wall for about two minutes."

Who doesn't love a horse who loves leaves and possums? You watch Espinoza and Samora bathing her as she nickers and rolls her fat pink tongue around the bit, the soapy water splashing over her huge haunches, the sun rendering her dark coat shampoo-ad shiny. It's a good life.

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Grazing on a small patch of lawn, Zenyatta obliges when Smith's two friends want a picture and move in close. She raises her head, points her ears and waits for the sound of the shutter before dropping back down to nibble the grass. Smith kisses her neck, they leave and three other groupies move in to impose on her goodwill. One strokes her silky neck, clutching a Zenyatta poster as her friend fumbles with the camera, shaking with excitement. She would marry this horse if they would let her.

She can't help it, nobody can. "OK," read one recent tweet on Zenyatta's Twitter page. "I wasn't gonna get sucked in, but I caved. Now following a talking horse."

Southern California is blessed with natural wonders. One is a singular creature who soon will be off to Kentucky to defend her status as The Best Racehorse Maybe Of All Time. Soon, her handlers say, she will be retired to breed, in a new home far away. Dottie Ingordo helped raise a homely filly into a champion racer whose personality is as big as her famous frame, and the Moss racing manager will miss this special girl. "But it's like children," Ingordo says. "You have to let them live their lives. That's the next part of her life."

We can't wait to see She Who Is Adored in the pages of Parents magazine.

Photos of Zenyatta:Roberta Weiser


More by Ellen Alperstein:
Magic mountain
The uneven playing field of workers' compensation
Horsing around in Del Mar
Two Jews walk into a Catskills hotel...
Continuing education at the county fair
Previous Native Intelligence story: Angeleno Datebook-October 14, 2010

Next Native Intelligence story: So this isn't a new problem?

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