By Ron Mitchell and
Temperatures in the mid-teens could not put a chill on the warmth shown by about 1,200 fans as super mare Zenyatta made her final appearance Dec. 6 at Keeneland before being shipped off to begin a career as a broodmare.
The daughter of Street Cry owned by Ann and Jerry Moss entered the rear outdoor walking ring adjacent to Keeneland’s sales pavilion in Lexington shortly after her 6 p.m. arrival that was delayed several hours so de-icer could be sprayed on the plane bringing the mare from warm southern California to the frigid Bluegrass state.
Many of the fans, some of whom came from states other than Kentucky for the send-off, were already at Keeneland before the original arrival time of 4 p.m. They bided their time inside the warmth of the Keeneland sales pavilion, sipping complimentary coffee and hot chocolate and munching on free popcorn. They also made liberal use of a stand selling Zenyatta memorabilia.
As Zenyatta’s arrival time drew closer, however, they braved the cold,22-degree temperature to stand three to four people deep around the walking ring. Some carried signs proclaiming their love for the mare, and others shouted words of congratulations to Zenyatta’s connections.
One sign read, “God’s gift to stallions.”
One fan thanked the Mosses for “one more year.” Following her 2009 campaign, the Mosses decided to keep Zenyatta in training for one more year.
After spending about 10 minutes in a stall in Barn 15, Zenyatta was led into the walking ring by Mario Espinoza. The mare was walked and stopped at different intervals so fans could snap photos, while the Mosses, trainer John Shirreffs, and a host of other industry professionals, including William S. Farish, observed.
Zenyatta will be boarded at Farish’s Lane’s End Farm while she is in Kentucky to be bred during the 2011 breeding season. There has been no announcement on the stallion choice for the mare, who is a candidate for Horse of the Year honors, as she was in 2009 when she lost out to another distaffer, Rachel Alexandra. Zenyatta retired with 19 wins and one second in 20 starts, with earnings of more than $7.3 million.
“This is awesome,” Jerry Moss said of the turnout in the inclement weather.
“We could not be more delighted,” Ann Moss said. “When you’re with her you’re in such joy, you don’t really think about anything but smiling. When you’re with her, everything’s good. And look at all the people that were here to welcome her on a cold night. It’s huge because the East Coast doesn’t know her quite as well and they’re all going to fall in love, and I think it’s already started.”
"I’ve never seen anything like this,’’ said jockey Mike Smith, who rode Zenyatta during most of her career.
After the mare was in the walking ring for about 20 minutes, Keeneland president Nick Nicholson presented Zenyatta’s owners with a basket containing some of Zenyatta’s “favorite things,” including carrots, peppermint sticks, pears, and even the Guinness beer for which the mare has an affinity.
Nicholson said Keeneland officials were not expecting as many people to show up once it became apparent that it would be colder than normal at this time of year in Kentucky. But, he said, the turnout was an example of the “relationship between people and special horses.”
Zenyatta’s presence in the Keeneland walking ring was appropriate for her final public appearance, since the last time she was in the ring was when she was purchased by the Mosses for $60,000 at the 2005 Keeneland September yearling sale. Bred in Kentucky by Maverick Productions, Zenyatta was consigned to the sale by Don Robinson’s Winter Quarter Farm. David Ingordo, the son of Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs, the trainer’s wife and the Mosses’ racing manager, played a role in the selection of Zenyatta out of the sale.
One day prior to her Keeneland appearance, Zenyatta was given her final send-off from Hollywood Park, where she was based throughout her career.
As fans took one last opportunity to snap photos and cheer as the mare was paraded in the paddock at the Southern track, Ann Moss shot video of the entire paddock proceedings with her camera.
“I’m a fan too,” she said.
Fans began chanting “Horse of the Year” both in the paddock and again when she pranced in front of the grandstand. Zenyatta stopped numerous times in the paddock to pose, giving everyone a chance to see her up close. When Espinoza circled her at the top of the paddock, she looked around quizzically.
“She’s looking for the other horses in the race,” said Jerry Moss.
Espinoza walked Zenyatta through the tunnel from the paddock to the racetrack. When they emerged, even the outriders took photos while sitting on their horses, as did several of the pony riders.
Signs have become commonplace whenever Zenyatta makes an appearance. They grew to giant size at the retirement ceremony. Hanging over the grandstand were two large ones that read: “We ♥ U Z” and “We will miss you Zenyatta.”
One group of women sported pink baseball caps with tiaras and brown horse ears attached. The ears came complete with the cotton habitually stuffed in Zenyatta’s ears.
The retirement ceremony ended Zenyatta’s California adventure, one that has culminated in recent days with visitors by the hundreds to trainer John Shirreffs’ Hollywood Park barn. Shirreffs and his staff have gone out of their way to accommodate everyone who has wanted their photos taken with the superstar mare.