Besides the horses, the attraction on opening night was advertised as Sugar Ray. I looked around for a boxing ring and couldn't find any. Then somebody told me that Sugar Ray was a rock band. "A new group?" I asked. "Since the 1980s," came the answer. The second day, in the sunshine even though it was a Friday and Hollywood has been known for its Friday-night cards, the crowd count barely topped 2,000. That many might have shown up Friday night, by mistake. Half that many might have gone to Santa Anita, by mistake. But then came Saturday and Zenyatta, making the next-to-last run of her career and her final appearance in California. Bingo, a throng of almost 26,000 turned out and sang in the sunshine. A throng in horseracespeak is anything more than 20,000 these days. I saw Roger Licht, former chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, and said, "If only we could bottle this, and open it up every day." Licht said: "I'd settle for opening it once a month."
Now, all Zenyatta has to do to silence Beyer and other critics is win the Breeders' Cup Classic, against the best male competition extant, for the second time and the first time on dirt. Many will line up at the betting wickets at Churchill Downs on November 6 to say with their greenbacks that she won't. It is one thing to make up about three lengths in the last eighth of a mile against the powder-puff field in the Lady's Secret, another thing to make up for lost ground in Kentucky. Zenyatta made up more than 13 lengths to win the Classic last year, but because that was at Santa Anita, on a synthetic strip, questions persist.
I think Zenyatta is diabolical, through and through. She knows she can win, she even seems to know where the wire is. She's in no hurry to get there, and she never gets there late. It's all one big game of hers, to make sure we're paying attention. "She likes to make it a little dramatic," said her jockey, Mike Smith. "It is just incredible. To be honest with you, I try not to get too caught up in it, because it's just too emotional."
One thing not open to debate is that Zenyatta is one of the most popular horses to ever run in California. For her West Coast finale, they lined up I don't know how many deep along the walking ring. On the terrace above the ring, they scrambled for position. "There she is!" somebody said as the horses' handlers brought the horses over from the receiving barn. Many of the fans wore the souvenir black, pink and green baseball caps Oak Tree gave out at the gate ("Unbelievable Zenyatta," they read, a line from Trevor Denman's call of last year's Classic). Some of them, wearing other caps from home, put the Zenyatta caps on top of those caps. I even saw a wrangler from Central Casting with a Zenyatta cap on top of his 10-gallon Stetson. The Mad Hatter, I wanted to call him. They carried posters (Girl Power!"), they strained with their cameras to get a pre-race shot of Mike Smith climbing aboard. There was even a woman carrying a homemade hand fan, not a bad idea on the sweltering day. "I am a Zenyatta fan," the fan was labeled. I wanted to go up to her and give her my originality award, if I had had one.
In one of the first flashes on the tote board, 85 per cent of the bets in the win pool had been placed on the 6-year-old mare. By the end of betting, 71 per cent of the bets had been dropped on Zenyatta's nose. In mid-stretch, the filly Switch, three years younger than Zenyatta, was clinging to the lead and showing no signs of backing up. Every time Zenyatta runs, I smell an upset, and every time I am wrong. If I had been right this time, 26,000 hearts would have been transplanted to the topsoil. It would have been the biggest Hollywood funeral since Valentino. Instead, it was another celebration. Small boys and girls, not old enough to really know, joined in the applause. For one glorious afternoon in the sunshine, horse racing had its soul again.