According to Google, “Girl Power” is a popular term in our culture generally referring to “an attitude of independence, confidence, and empowerment among young women.”
On November 6, 2009, at the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, Zenyatta, an undefeated Championship mare with rock-star presence and popularity, expanded the term to include not just young women, but equine athletes, too. She bested the boys, the best race horses in the world, in the $5 million Classic. She did it using her trademark deep, late closing style, running farther than she had ever run in her undefeated 13-race career.
I had the great fortune to be there, standing at the scales where her Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith weighed in after the race, tack in hand, tears of joy unabashedly streaming down his face. It was a transforming moment; one I will never forget. I never expected to be standing there, but because of the kindness of a gentleman I had met only once before, I enjoyed the race from start to finish at what felt like the best spot in all of Santa Anita Park. I would not just witness, but feel the most visceral display of Girl Power I could possibly imagine, and my view would be from a vantage point only God himself could have arranged…
I came to the race track that day in need of some confidence and empowerment. I had broken up with my boy friend only days earlier when I learned unexpectedly that he had decided I was not commitment-worthy.
It wasn’t just my life that had bumps in the road. There was escalated chatter during the weeks before the World Championships. It centered on the decline of the national economy, its negative impact on race track business, and the vacillating opinions about whether or not it had been prudent for Santa Anita Park to install a new synthetic track surface. In America, major companies were struggling, people were being laid off from their long-held jobs in droves, and Chrysler motors, an economic stalwart, filed for bankruptcy.
As part of a global economic slowdown, the United Kingdom officially entered into a recession with almost 2 million unemployed. Racing industry leaders banded together to revitalize the event’s wagering pools. America struck a deal with British based gambling behemoth Bet-Fair to combine wagers from abroad into the Breeders’ Cup parimutuel field. Races were added to the card, European powerhouse invaders were shipped in to run, and the hopes of many were that new records would be set, not only on the race track, but at the betting windows as well.
In the end, the strategy was a good one. Television ratings would be up 200% over the prior year and a record wagering handle would exceed $150 million for the first time in history. But at the time, it was a big gamble.
There were many new people around in the weeks before Breeders’ Cup, and I had the pleasure of seeking interviews and learning new things about racing. I had naively hoped people would read my stories in the leading thoroughbred magazines and publications. It was an amazing time for a new writer and fan to be at the race track.
One afternoon while waiting for an interview appointment, a very polite man with kind eyes, an easy smile, and a very impressive cowboy hat introduced himself to me. I had grown up around cowboys and horses… and I had seen a lot of cowboy hats. But I had never seen one that looked as impressive as the one he was wearing. I didn’t quite understand it, but it was sort of like the way a hand-tailored Armani suit looks more impressive and beautiful than a suit you grab off of the rack.
He told me his name was Kelly and he managed a thoroughbred ranch in New Mexico for his family. Cowboy hats, he explained, were classified in “X’s” and he was really proud of his 2X hats that he had become accustomed to buying and wearing. But his family had enjoyed some recent success with their horse, and it was the horse that bought him the new hat. He explained that it looked so special because it was a “10X!” We enjoyed a great laugh as he further explained that the horse with the deep pockets was, in fact, Mine That Bird – the recent gelding that upset the Kentucky Derby field by winning at 50-1. The horse had gone on to finish second in the Preakness and third in the Belmont. He had bought the family cowboy hats, and they were all there to cheer him on in the Classic. The family had a lot of confidence in their horse.
My appointment arrived, and I left Kelly’s good humored company to talk with Gary O’Gorman, an Irishman and member of the Breeders’ Cup selection committee. He provided me with a great deal of insight into the selection process and reinforced the industry-wide need for the presence of European horses at the World Championship races. He is also the Senior Flat Racing Handicapper with the Irish Turf Club since 2002. While very polite about it, Mr. O’Gorman openly explained that he was of the strong opinion it would be quite challenging for Zenyatta to beat the European horses entered in the Classic because of their class and experience; but agreed the racing industry needed some help, and she was certainly popular among the people.
Little did he know just how popular…and how good… she was.
At the last minute, I learned there were not enough credentials available, and my hopes for having a press-pass for the event were thwarted. Another disappointment, but I realized it meant I would go and enjoy the race. It simply wouldn’t be a work day, afterall.
I couldn’t wait to get to the paddock on race day to see Zenyatta interact with the crowd. A mare of extraordinary intelligence, she was bigger than life itself and made a habit of interacting directly with the crowd of supporters who came to see her greatness, first hand. Her owner, Jerry Moss, had said publicly this would probably be her last race and many other people were there to see her run, potentially for the last time.
As she came out of the chute from the saddling area and stepped onto the walking paddock, the remarkably hushed crowd that had gathered stood an unprecedented 20 deep. You could have heard a pin drop as she began her trademark prance. Up on her toes, her large body moving fluidly, we stared in amazement and sheer awe at her presence. This beautiful thoroughbred mare demonstrated more life in each of her deliberate steps than many of us had seemingly felt in our souls for a very long time. We didn’t know it yet, but we were about to unleash our emotions in a very big way. We were on the precipice of being pushed over the edge.
The push came from one small voice that cried out from the back of the crowd; a young girl yelled, “I love you, Zenyatta!”
Hearing the child, and acknowledging the sentiment as if to say, “I love you too,” Zenyatta stopped to bow. She lingered briefly with her nose near her outstretched hooves and then began her dance. The crowd erupted… cheers… tears… we couldn’t stand still. It was beyond electric. She transformed us with her moves. We could feel her spirit, and with it, we felt our doldrums disappear. We felt her power and knew something magical and great was about to happen on Santa Anita Park’s synthetic surface, and it was about to change our lives.
She embodied winning… she embodied truth… and she gave us hope.
As the crowd pushed through the now narrow pathway to the race track, I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder. Turning to look, I immediately recognized the good looking 10X cowboy hat of Kelly. He offered an arm, and I silently accepted. The crowd was overwhelming and the otherworldly experience of meeting Zenyatta left me weak in the knees.
“How about that!” he exclaimed. “I think we’re gonna be seeing a great race. A real run for our money. What about you?”
“I think it’s all life changing,” I sort of whimpered, barely able to speak.
“We’re gonna give an interview to the TV reporters. You want to tag along?” he asked calmly.
“I’m not dressed for it,” I smiled. That morning, I had thrown on a pair of worn, Levi jeans and a long-sleeved Dos Equis (XX) beer shirt. I loved the shirt because the sleeve bands fit just perfectly around my wrists, providing a comforting reassurance. Feeling comfortable and at home in my clothes was important, because I wasn’t feeling comfortable in my own skin. I was still a bit off kilter from the break-up.
“Nonsense,” Kelly chuckled. You’ve got your 2X shirt on! You look great!”
And the next thing I knew, the interview was over and the crowd had carried us to the front rail of the race track, right next to the scales. It was like being field level on the 50 yard line of the Super Bowl. Directly behind me seated in the stands were the owners and trainers of the horses in the race. As I stood in awe watching the horses approach the gate, the Irishman appeared. I was about to watch the race in the front row with a member of the Breeders’ Cup selection committee! It was the best Press Pass a journalist could ever hope for!
The horses broke from the gate, and Zenyatta was running last. “Dead last,” as Trevor Denman would famously call. But what we could see as she began to run parallel to where we were standing was mind blowing. Zenyatta seemed to be taking in the sights – and deliberately enjoying the ride. Zenyatta looked around as if she knew this was a special moment in time, that history was being made, and she was enjoying every sight and sound of this incredible experience. It was an example of being fully present that I had never seen or understood before. It was remarkable to watch.
“She’s not getting the pace she needs. The time is too slow… this is a BIG problem!” declared the Irishman.
“But you don’t know her!” I said loudly. I had watched every one of her previous races. She always ran this way. And she always ended up in the winner’s circle.
As they came back around and Zenyatta and her Hall of Fame jockey, Mike Smith made the now famous ground-saving move to the rail, we cheered and then gasped because she got momentarily stalled.
And then the Girl Power kicked in, as if she had a turbo switch and flipped it to ON. Nostrils flared, ears pricked Zenyatta leapt forward, her stride eating up the ground like nothing we had ever seen. First she passed the Derby and Belmont winners. When she passed the European horses, it was like she was saying, “Thanks for the visit boys! Not this time, though!”
I turned to look at the crowd of owners and trainers of the other horses in the race. They were screaming her name – not their own horses names. “Go Girl! You got this, Zenyatta!” Pink and green colored “Girl Power” signs were everywhere. The entire crowd was on their feet.
She came five wide, just devouring the track surface and passing horses like they were standing still.
Then, only Gio Ponti remained and he was working harder than he seemed to have worked in any of his previous Grade 1 wins. While being desperately urged by his rider, Zenyatta passed him in two giant leaps and the crowd erupted in shouts and cheers. I turned to see a virtual sea of tear streaked faces. Hearts seemed to burst aloud like balloons… Trevor Denman’s race call still rings in my ears.
“This is un-be-lieve-a-ble! Zenyatta! What a performance! One we’ll never forget!”
On the way out of the park that day, I ran into the former boyfriend. “You wanna go for a drink and talk?” he asked hopefully.
“No thank you.” The break-up seemed like a much better idea now.
Zenyatta had won the race. And somewhere deep down, I had too.
“Girl Power” at its finest… it was Classic.
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