Zenyatta comes full circle

LEXINGTON, KY -- Ann Moss stood outside Barn 15 at Keeneland Race Course in the chill of a dark winter evening. Behind her, fans pressed against a barricade, craning for one last glimpse of the great Zenyatta. In front of her, a chaotic scramble of vehicles and photographers and reporters and horsemen was churning. In spite of the cold and confusion, the California owner couldn't help but smile.

"When you're with her you're in such joy," she said. "When you're with her, everything's good. And look at all the people 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. I think it's already started."

We came to see the most famous horse in the world.

-- 13-year-old fan Mahayla West

Moss and her husband, A&M Records co-founder Jerry Moss, were accompanied by many of the big bay mare's West Coast connections including trainer John Shirreffs, racing manager Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs, groom Mario Espinoza, and Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith during Zenyatta's final public appearance at Keeneland on Dec. 6. A crowd of approximately 1,200 people turned out to catch a glimpse of the 6-year-old daughter of Street Cry, who retired as North America's all-time leading female money winner with earnings of $7,304,580 and 19 wins from 20 starts.

"We came to see the most famous horse in the world," said 13-year-old Kentucky native Mahayla West.

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The temperature in Lexington began to plummet early Saturday morning on the weekend before Zenyatta's arrival. By the time she stepped off a charter from California on Monday evening, thermometers read 22 degrees, just seven with the wind chill. It was by far the coldest weather the area had seen that season, and the Commonwealth was covered by a solid blanket of snow.

At Keeneland, just across the road from Blue Grass International Airport, fans had been arriving since early afternoon. They drove from New York City, from Virginia, from Colorado, from farms just down the street and from homes across the nation. Young and old, they gathered to watch Thoroughbred racing's modern legend parade before the brief van ride to Lane's End Farm in Versailles, Ky. Her days on the racetrack were over. Life as a broodmare lay ahead.

Those who came were a mix of hardcore racing pundits, longtime sports nuts, and the horsemen and women who keep the Kentucky Thoroughbred industry alive. A group of retirees from Wisconsin represented the middle category. Sporting a vibrant Green Bay Packers jacket, James Blank of Slinger, WI, said he was wearing long underwear to combat the cold. According to his friend, Wisconsin Dells resident Bob Fredrick, the NFL games have them well-trained for attending historic sporting events.

"We go to a lot of Packers games," Fredrick said. "We'll be out there at six in the morning, getting our spot to tailgate. We've learned all the tricks. We've been following Zenyatta for a couple of years. Back in April we stopped at Oaklawn Park and saw her run in the Apple Blossom there. We were disappointed because we thought we'd see her running against (2009 Horse of the Year) Rachel Alexandra, but I think they were afraid to put Rachel up against her. She's gotta be horse of the century as far as mares go. There's nobody that can touch her."

"I never saw Secretariat in person, so the next best thing I can do is see this girl in real life," said Leslie Haynie, a retired resident of Paris, Ky. "I put her right up there with him. I don't know about the racing times or surfaces, but she beat the competition every time she ran but one. The most important thing is to see her."

It was fitting that Zenyatta, the first female to win the Breeders' Cup Classic (she did it in 2009 and ran second by a neck to Blame in this year's edition, her only loss), made her last public appearance at Keeneland. She was purchased as a yearling for $60,000 by owners Jerry and Ann Moss at the association's September Yearling Sale, and passed through the same outdoor pavilion in 2005 as she did on this chilly winter night.

"Jerry Moss just told me the first time he saw her was when she was walking the same walk up here," said Nick Nicholson, President and CEO of the Keeneland Association. "As cold as it is out here, that people would come out here at this time and stay so long shows how special she is. It's great to see her come back, it really is."

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It was also fitting that Zenyatta would be retired to Lane's End, that sprawling Thoroughbred breeding operation owned by former U.S. Ambassador William S. Farish III. Countless times, Farish had driven to the airport to meet Queen Elizabeth II, who calls the farm home during visits to the state. Now he drove to meet horse racing's royalty.

"This is the queen of our sport, for the moment, and she's certainly caught the imagination of the whole country," Farish said. "So many people that have had nothing to do with horses have become enthralled with her."

They obviously were at Keeneland on Monday evening. Parents held children bundled up against the elements. Couples huddled together for warmth. Fredrick's wife, Sue, stood with Blank's wife, Sally. Together, they lifted a sign that read "Zenyatta -- God's gift to stallions."

"Mister Moss, thank you for one more year!" a man shouted.

"This is incredible," Smith said. "It's just so amazing to see. I have never experienced or seen anything like this in my life. What a great tribute and more."

And Zenyatta delivered quite the appearance, striding into the track's back sales ring as flash bulbs popped and a few stray flakes of silver snow drifted down through the golden rafters. Parading with the presence of a champion, she stopped to pose, pricked her ears, and circled, dapples shining. Keeneland presented her owners with a gift basket, Guinness, peppermints and other treats. And just before her final lap, Shirreffs took the big mare close to the railing, allowing fans to reach out and touch her sides before he turned the lead shank back over to her faithful groom.

Thirty minutes later, the last dance was over.

"All right, Mario," the trainer said. "Let's go home."

Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the Thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse magazine, the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.