"There’s no crying in baseball," Tom Hanks famously states in the film "A League of Their Own." There are many such unwritten rules in sports, such as "No rooting in the press box." That rule is broken every day in horse racing, since Turf writers are known to gamble on a race or two.
It is not because I had a bet on Zenyatta in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) that I stood and cheered her on from Santa Anita Park’s auxiliary press box just past the finish line. I hadn’t a penny on her. Once in a great while the emotion of a sporting event grabs you and won’t let go. It happens when one is witness to greatness, and when that greatness makes history. So I stood, not alone, and applauded wildly as the undefeated Zenyatta returned around the clubhouse turn and jogged back up the stretch to be unsaddled after her 14th consecutive victory, having become the first—and to this date only—female to have won the Classic.
Several other factors, if indeed they were needed, added to the magnitude of her achievement that day. First, the 5-year-old mare had more human-like qualities than any horse in memory. She pranced and danced and pawed at the ground in the paddock, signifying she knew it was time to go out and perform. She had already been the center of dozens of charity events as her equipment was auctioned off to raise money for those in need while other donors paid money to come to her Betfair Hollywood Park barn and have a meal in her presence.
Then there was the matter of her running style, loping along behind her field before igniting a sustained drive, employing huge strides to inexorably close the distance between herself and her targets. And there was her giant physical stature of more than 17 hands, the machinery from which those great strides sprung.
For those of us who watch sports to see those rare athletes that are poetry in motion, Zenyatta running represented the same Godsend as watching Michael Jordan drive to the basket or Willie Mays sprint around the bases or Jim Brown shed a tackler and cut up field.
So 58,825 witnesses screamed as the giant mare passed all 11 of her foes, the last one being the champion Gio Ponti , to win that Classic. And then many did something that rarely happens after a winning race. They cried unabashedly. Fans, photographers, trainer John Shirreffs. Because of the magnificence of this athlete, what people saw that day was much more than a horse race.
Said owner Jerry Moss, "A performance like we just saw is the greatest experience in life, because you feel more alive. It’s emotional to be around an animal that gives you that feeling."
And there was the call from track announcer Trevor Denman, which will become a classic as the years continue to grow away from that day. "Un-be-lieve-able."
In those magical two minutes, Zenyatta broke all the rules.