By Walfred Solorzano — Ten years ago on Breeders’ Cup Saturday, darkness was covering Churchill Downs and the crowd of 72,739 people was just about completely cleared from the track.
I was standing at the sixteenth pool looking around, soiling my shoes with that distinct clay mud of the Churchill surface. Zenyatta had just experienced her first loss and I finally understood why sports fans cry when their team loses the championship game.
Just a bit earlier, I felt deflated, full of sorrow, and now I had reached a point of melancholy and reflection.
Looking back on the 10th anniversary of Zenyatta’s final race, I reflected on the moments of my life when I was inexorably linked with the Amazonian mare.
My love for Zenyatta and horse racing traces back to Thanksgiving Day 1986, on November 27 that year.
As a 7-year-old kid I was excited for a few reasons that morning. I was hoping the infield was open because Hollywood Park had the coolest swings in its playground even if those swings were probably a hazard, as most playgrounds back in the day.
The track was serving a Thanksgiving lunch which from memory probably resembled the kind of turkey and gravy of a typical school cafeteria. But is wasn’t about the swings, or the lunch.
I was most excited about seeing Super Diamond race, with my favorite athlete of all time, Laffit Pincay, Jr., run in that day’s On Trust Handicap. Horse racing was just so exciting!
Southern California had the strongest jockey colony at the time. Along with Pincay, there was Bill Shoemaker, Eddie Delahoussaye, Gary Stevens, Chris McCarron, Fernando Toro (mom’s favorite), Patrick Valenzuela, Alex Solis, Sandy Hawley, and many more.
To that, add a very underrated rivalry between Ferdinand, who won the Kentucky Derby that year with one of the greatest rides of all time by The Shoe, and Snow Chief, who won the Preakness with Alex Solis. Both colts raced each other nine times over two years creating much excitement.
But this day was about Super Diamond and Pincay. Getting to see that race turned out to be a challenge. I was the oldest of five and bless my mother for wrangling five kids while my pops was busy wagering.
Like most kids, I was playing where I wasn’t supposed to, ended up with a giant gash on my right knee and mom took me to the first aid office so that I can be treated. The medic told my mom that we should head to the hospital to get stitched up.
I panicked: “No! I want to watch Super Diamond.”
I didn’t know much about betting or odds but Super Diamond closed at 1-5. It was well chronicled that Super Diamond had injury issues and the late Eddie Gregson was masterful at getting him back to the track in his long career.
Super Diamond was good that day as he and Pincay made quick work of the competition. From that day forward, Thanksgiving would always include horse racing in my life and I had the two-inch scar in my right knee to remind me.
Nineteen Thanksgivings later I was eager to see one of my favorite events, the Autumn Turf Festival at Hollywood Park. I loved seeing great turf horses and great jockeys ship in for it.
But Hollywood Park was forced to reschedule the turf races to the main track. I learned that racing is going to disappoint you, even when it’s not your fault.
Two Thanksgivings later, the filly Balance retired about a month after losing to Ginger Punch in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. I looked at the Daily Racing Form and saw that she had a half-sister running that day by the name of Zenyatta; unusual but easy to remember, like Vertigineux.
Before the races I like to head to the paddock to see the horses up close. David Flores was riding Zenyatta that day.
My brother told me Flores was especially good at riding young horses, noting he is patient and allows them to get comfortable. It was definitely worth a bet; Zenyatta since she closed a tick above 5-1.
She broke last as she would do in every start of her career. At the turn she looked like she had a lot to do, like so many times in her career. As she hit the stretch she surged forward with a full head of steam and won fairly easily. She was definitely a filly to watch.
She followed it up by easily winning an allowance race and then the El Encino Stakes. Deeper waters were to follow and I had added an additional Thanksgiving Day memory, another notch to the scar on my right knee.
Santa Anita Derby Day is my favorite social horse-racing event of the year. I wake up early to attend the 5K foot race, place to catch up with friends. In 2008, my friend Luke brought about a dozen of his friends to the track. I had the responsibility of giving them picks and I was happy to do so, taking advantage of any beginner’s luck.
People were confused when I told them to unload on a filly who would be racing in Arkansas. We had a good start so there was no questioning me until the field for the Apple Blossom broke and it finally dawned on them on what I meant that “Zenyatta usually brakes slow and is usually last.”
Ginger Punch was the returning champ, and at 2-5, most betters thought she was unbeatable. I made my biggest win bet to date on Zenyatta that day along with all the newbies. As we watched on one of the small infield monitors, I sensed the despair of my new friends.
We were barely able to hear Terry Wallace’s race call so I had narration duties. I don’t think they understood anything I was saying, all they saw was that Zenyatta had one horse beat and a lot of ground to make up. I finally saw Mike Smith move his hands in the far turn and hoped that my faith was about to pay off.
Zenyatta started to circle the field on the last turn then I heard Terry Wallace shout, “AND HERE COMES ZENYATTA UNDER A FULL HEAD OF STEAM ON THE EXTREME OUTSIDE,” and we all erupted. It was just celebratory cheers from us past the wire.
At that point I knew that I would never miss a live Zenyatta race again.
Zenyatta came back a champion without a crown but now with a legion of fans, which continued to grow after each victory. From then on, she had a string of come-from-behind victories that culminated with Trevor Denman proclaiming, “This is UN-BE-LIEVE–A-BLE!!!”
We all have our memories of that moment and mine was the moment I jumped for joy doing a 180 so that I can see my dad. He was jumping with his arms raised in a way I never saw before. I’ll remember the look of jubilance he had in his eyes.
The moment brought us back to the purity of sport and having the exhilaration of victory. I hugged my dad and we jumped up and down. I then let him go and I told him, “Voy al winner’s circle!”
Zenyatta then retired and thankfully lost Horse of the Year to Rachel Alexandra that year because it meant that Zenyatta would have to come back next year, and sure enough, she did. Zenyatta came back impressively and would head back to Oaklawn Park. This time I would be there, too.
“You’re going to Arkansas to see a horse?!” exclaimed Shaunna, who I had been dating for six months. What she didn’t know was that she’d come to Louisville with my sister. She also didn’t know that we’d go to Paris just to go to bet the races at Longchamp, or that every major city we’d visit would somehow have a racetrack that we would visit.
She also didn’t know that I would invite Zenyatta to our wedding only to get a nice reply wishing us well with a commemorative horseshoe. And what my wife really didn’t know that we’d be taking our kids to the track so they can get that same feeling I have for the horses, jockeys, and all the beauty that comes with horse racing. Zenyatta rolled through 2010 with a 19-win undefeated streak. We flew off to Louisville to enjoy a weekend of racing.
Fora few years, Garret Gomez was the greatest jockey in the world and the day before he took a fall that resulted in two hairline fractures in his shoulder—and as the field went away for the Breeder’s Cup Classic, we witnessed two great sporting feats; one of the all-time greatest rides by a jockey, the other was Zenyatta’s greatest performance.
Zenyatta was dead last early. I know the chart has 16 lengths behind, but it looked more like than 20. The mare struggled the first time down the stretch; she was wincing at all the dirt hitting her face. Meanwhile, Garrett had Blame running comfortably in the second group on the inside.
The pace up front wasn’t too fast but one could tell that the second pocket had a tactical advantage and Garrett had to make sure that Blame had enough run for the charge of Zenyatta.
Mike Smith was asking for more run from Zenyatta and it finally looked like she was comfortable enough to do some serious running but there still was a lot of ground to make up. Now the pack made its way around the final turn and suddenly became very crowded.
Zenyatta was about to finally get into full flight but just before Zenyatta could get going, Gomez and Blame squeezed in between Lookin at Lucky and Espoir City and shot out like a cannon to the front. Zenyatta now with a clear run looked like she was about to accomplish an impossible feat but as they approached the finish.
Zenyatta was catching with every stride but the finish line was coming fast. Then Garret made the winning move. He saved enough run and shifted Blame to the outside so the horse could muster out the motivation to hold on. I was watching this uncoil and I can still hear Trevor Denman, “AND ZEN-YA-TTAhhhhh! BLAME, won it a head!” My heart sank.
It’s hard to know how long we hung around Churchill Downs that night but as we made our way towards the exit, my sister insisted on stopping near the jockey’s room hoping she’d take a picture with Mike Smith. I thought it was a horrible idea but I didn’t have the energy to tell her not to, so I stayed.
A few minutes later Mike popped out It was obvious that he wasn’t his usual chipper self and why should he be? My sister called him and asked for a picture and I truly thought this would end up with a polite rejection.
Then Mike put on a big smile and took the picture. I was in complete admiration for the humility and grace Mike showed at that moment. Nobody lost that day. We got to see several champions show their best, and we got to experience all the emotions that come with the sport of horse racing.