Saturday, August 7, 2010

I Saw Perfection Today

My comments about the race to come - I'm still digesting them

(Each summer, Del Mar hires a Press Box Steward, the young guy or gal who does the nitty-gritty things to make sure the track's Media contingent has what they need in order to do their jobs. The roster of individuals who have served in that role is long and varied, ranging from racing veterans to first-time starters at the track. This year our guy is Jeff Newton, freshly graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a degree in Communications and a writing resume that includes television and on-line. He's a big sports fan, but a rookie at the racing game (though he's picking it up fast). Here's his take on an event that stirred his sporting blood -- Zenyatta's run in Saturday's Clement L. Hirsch.)

Zenyatta, the Champion,Works the Crowd Just Like One
Throngs of exuberant racing fans poured in shortly after 11:30 Saturday morning, almost seven hours before super mare Zenyatta made her way onto the track at Del Mar. The turnstiles finally stopped spinning after she had captured her third consecutive Grade I Clement Hirsch Stakes in front of 32,536 mesmerized onlookers.

Much as gallery members at a PGA event inch and elbow their way to get a good look at Tiger Woods in the flesh, Zenyatta lovers made it their mission to steal more than a quick glance at the undefeated star. On a typical San Diego afternoon, marked by sunny skies and a cool ocean breeze, the massive crowd chose to spend its day on a race that lasted 1:45:03, not even two minutes, about the time it takes to brush your teeth in the morning.

Zenyatta's fans still wouldn't have changed a thing.

The mare enjoys a type of hero worship often reserved for sporting legends like Armstrong, Phelps and Ali at every turn. At Del Mar, her supporters created a buzz similar to what you might feel just before kickoff at an NFL playoff game. Their exuberance lasted throughout the afternoon and well into the early evening, as they soaked in every piece of the scenery.

It was a landmark event for both Del Mar and Thoroughbred racing in general. Outsiders unfamiliar with the regular track scene could still sense the energy and atmosphere behind a unique, momentous occasion.

Zenyatta is loved by all, and even the veteran horsemen and beat reporters who meticulously follow the mare's daily activities are among her biggest supporters.

Want to see a blue collar, grizzled, "all that is man" trainer or clocker go weak at the knees? Ask them to describe Zenyatta's influence and see how many superlatives they can string together. Keep a mental count of the "amazings," "incredibles" and "spectaculars" these lifers toss around without a hint of sarcasm. Better yet, intermittently check your watch to chronicle how their brief statements evolve into 10 minute monologues.

As crazy as it may sound, Zenyatta's superb qualities (see, the hyperboles have a way of catching on) justify all the heartfelt compliments.

She's the type of horse you build a meet around, let alone a day or a week. Whether she's galloping, trotting or posturing in the paddock, Zenyatta carries herself with pitch perfect grace, athleticism and personality. Her "it factor" immediately comes across to race rats and first-time patrons alike. The gazes and whispers aren't lost on Zenyatta. She senses her profound impact and relishes every second as a crowd pleaser.

Her confidence is easily detectable and you quickly grasp that she doesn't accept failure or embarrassment.

That's how I knew the Hirsch was over the moment Zenyatta crossed into the paddock at about 6:15. On a day that essentially became an ode to her remarkable career, what with the posters, T-shirts and pint glass giveaways with her face emblazoned across the surface, the great performer refused to let her audience down.

She went off at 1-9, but the tote board could have easily read 1-100 as she strutted towards the starting gate.

You don't know what this horse means until the show begins and the Zenyatta army kicks into full gear. Spectators go between 15 and 20 deep all the way down the stretch, with at least one small child perched atop their dad's shoulders every five feet or so.

The diva enters to a frenzy of screams and shouts that seem both genuine and spontaneous. You won't find any "Damn Yankees" mentality, where a few bad apples root against a proven winner just to appear edgy.No, Del Mar only had eyes for Zenyatta.

The rest of the pre-race festivities played out like a hall-of-fame induction ceremony, where the infield video monitor revisited some of Zenyatta's greatest performances as track announcer Trevor Denman articulately gushed over the prized animal.

While jockey Mike Smith and his wonderful ride weren't alone on the track, the other five jockeys and horses were little more than background props. Not to worry, though, they were too busy smiling along with everyone else. You almost forgot there was a race after all the hoopla.

Once the gates finally swung open, Zenyatta made winning by a neck look downright simple. (My note - Zenyatta had to go 4 wide in the race so, if you make all things equal when it comes to distance, she actually won by 6 1/2 lengths rather than a neck. This kid who wrote this article still has a lot to learn about horse racing)Although she didn't leave her competition in the dust , Zenyatta skillfully balanced a relaxed attitude with her fiery competitive streak. Smith kept Jerry and Ann Moss' wonder horse in the right spots and, like she always does, the golden girl passed a game Rinterval through the final furlong. Zenyatta wasn't on cruise control; it just appeared she was. Besides, she had to save her energy for the victory lap.

Over the top doesn't begin to describe the mare's salute to the fans, where the smiles, hugs and howls reach a wild crescendo. It's an adrenaline rush you can't even fathom. And that's where Zenyatta's true impact becomes perfectly clear.

Thoroughbred racing needs Zenyatta as an undefeated poster child. Tracks make their mark on big tickets nowadays, and they don't come any bigger than the Mosses' "miracle horse." Her presence brought some much needed romance to the sport of horse racing. Allowance races and maiden claimers have their place, sure, but it takes a winner like Zenyatta to capture the public's attention.

Her supporters, her peers and the game she dominates so consistently are all personally invested in the mare's success. She's a legend in her own right, a special talent worth the cost of admission and a full afternoon at the races.

Zenyatta's an easy sell and everything you'd ever want in a world class performer. She came to Del Mar with a sea of fans and left the track with the racing community wrapped around her hoof. She personifies all that is right in the sport.

Zenyatta led us all on a spectacular ride at Del Mar; Mike Smith just had the best seat.

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