Published Sunday, August 1st, 2010   ( 13 years ago )

Zenyatta, John and Me

By Mac McBride
Mac McBride is the Director of Media at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.
He can be seen in this clip of the ESPN coverage of the Breeders' Cup Classic at the 2:15 mark with the double fist pump.
Sometimes -- if you're lucky -- you might get lucky at the racetrack.
I did.
On a lovely Saturday afternoon at Santa Anita I was handed an assignment: We need a quote for the eastern guys on deadline. You're the man; go get it.
Let's try to put some context to that. My normal gig sees me wearing a Panama hat, a tie and a set of shades as I chase around all things media related under the sun at Del Mar, the racing playground sitting alongside the blue Pacific and shining brightest during its summer season in Southern California. But a couple of times a year I get to take the show on the road to places like Louisville, New York City, Chicago, Dallas or Los Angeles to do "notes" for the Notes Teams that surround racing's biggest events -- the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders' Cup.
The Notes Team concept is a simple one born out of reasonable logic: major racing events draw major media coverage, which means many bodies on board, all needing their own special spin to the race(s) or the horse(s) that fit their bill. In the spring in Kentucky, it means one race and somewhere around 20 horses. At Breeders' Cup time it's now up to 14 races and somewhere around 150 or so horses. Simply put, with hundreds of media types on board at the various locations -- and thousands more around the world -- all wanting info that they can provide to their readers, viewers, listeners, there needed to be a quick and sure way to "get the word out." The Notes Team was the answer to that.
In Kentucky there are a half-dozen or so "Notes" folks with a fair share of knowledge/background in the racing game who spread out around the Churchill Downs' barns each morning for the week or so leading up to the race to talk to trainers, owners and various other connected parties to get the "scoops" -- what did your horse do today? what will he/she do tomorrow? -- the next day? -- who is going to ride? -- why did you do this? will you do that? -- and so forth.
It saves hordes of Media types -- many experiencing a first-ever, or a once-a-year, assignment -- from stumbling around a strange environment, looking for people they don't know and asking questions they're not real sure of. Using "The Notes," they can pinpoint their true needs, fill in some blanks and/or plan opportunities for coverage as the pre-race week unfolds.
Those morning roles are the Notes Team(s) nuts-and-bolts jobs and -- no chest-puffing or back-scratching meant -- they are accomplished professionally and practically each year at these major events, serving a most useful purpose in allowing Media types to tell their stories. In addition to the pre-race run-ups, though, the Notes Teamers have further assignment on race day(s). They again fan out to their racing people after each of the contests is run and quickly turn around quotes on what has just unfolded. Both trainers and jockeys are covered, and -- when appropriate and/or available -- an owner or breeder gets thrown in, too. Journalists on deadline often rely heavily on these tidbits that, in effect, allow them to be many places at once.
And so it was in this latter role of post-race-quote-getter that I got lucky.
Jack Will, the long-time Florida-based publicist who regularly serves as the Breeders' Cup Notes Team's chief editor and assignment maker, was the one who sent me off for what -- on the surface -- appeared to be a relatively easy special assignment: Get an immediate quote from trainer John Shirreffs after they run the Breeders' Cup Classic. That's all. No chasing around three jockeys and a trainer or two. Just get Shirreffs -- win, lose or draw -- and get it quick. The Eastern boys (not to mention the Euro writers) need it fast.
But, of course, special assignments are usually special for a reason. This one had several around it.
First off, John was saddling the mighty mare Zenyatta, who was nothing less than the favorite for the Classic, even though she was scheduled to step into a gate with 12 serious male rivals alongside. Secondly, John was John, which means he doesn't do things the way other trainers do, especially those things surrounding a race. He doesn't go up to his box and watch his horse run; he likes to go off on his own and find "his" spot to watch it unfold. Then he doesn't come back to the winner's circle afterwards (assuming a win) and stand in for the picture. He likes to go off to the side and just take it all in; watch his horse, watch his people around it. In this regard, he is not your average trainer at all. (In other regards that is true, also, but we're merely talking nitty-gritty get-your-man-and-get-your-quote thinking here.) So there were going to be some challenges.
But I had a couple of things going for me going in. John and I go back a way. He's been coming to Del Mar with good horses since the mid-1990s and we've touched base along the trail doing our respective things. One of my first recollections of him was shaking his hand one morning at the barn and coming away feeling like I'd just been death-gripped by Paul Bunyan's brother. He's got a massive pair of rough-edged mitts that tell you right away he hasn't spent his life pouring tea.
I also happened to work with John in my Churchill Notes gig for the Kentucky Derby in 2005, the year he brought a "no shot" colt named Giacomo to Louisville -- and we all know how that one turned out. I remember standing with him and his horse very early outside their barn during Derby week as he grazed the roan on some of that good Kentucky grass. And I remember thinking how quite and calm both the horse and trainer were. Maybe too quite, I thought. Well, then again, maybe not.
John and I also teamed up previously at a couple of Breeders' Cups, when he finished fourth in the Classic with Giacomo in 2006 and third with Tiago in the same race in 2008. Additionally, we also share a bit of history from our younger days -- a membership in that club know as the U.S. Marine Corps, complete with a 13-month travel bonus in the late '60s to a tropical locale named Vietnam. And though we never met in that context, and realized we experienced quite different paths along the way, old Marines are old Marines and the respect radar is always strong.
So -- armed with a righteous cause and a belief I could accomplish the mission -- I started to put my quote plan in action immediately after the running of the Breeders' Cup Turf, thinking I'll head down to the saddling enclosure, or maybe the paddock, and pick up John and the horse there. But as I make my way through the milling masses and try to get near the saddling stalls, it becomes obvious it isn't going to work. There are 13 horses down there, their saddling crews, friends, family and hanger-oners, not to mention swarming security doing their best to herd the cats. No chance. I've got to pick them up in the paddock.
Retreating to the walking ring, I find out that I've got to all but squeeze myself into the center of that suddenly-too-small oval, with bodies back-to-back and belly-to-belly in an amazing display of open-air sardine canning. The Santa Anita paddock on a normal big race day might draw 100 folks. For this time and this race there were somewhere between 400 and 500 people putting on the racetrack ritz, and when the horses starting entering the ring I realized I had an additional problem: I could hear them coming by the buzz from the crowd, but I couldn't see them at all because of the massing of bodies -- even though the runners were just 10 to 12 feet away. Uh, oh.
Nonetheless, Plan C was now put into action. I know that Zenyatta is the #4 horse and I also know that she's going to draw the biggest buzz of all. She does and I can hear and feel it when she comes waltzing (almost literally) into the ring, and I tell myself she must be doing her strut for the crowd. (Subsequent viewings of the day/race -- not to mention several YouTube postings -- confirm that thought.) Just for a second there, too, I hear in my head Keb' Mo's wonderful little ditty "She Just Wants to Dance." Oh, yes, she does. And she can. And she will.
By now I can tell that all the horses have arrived in the ring and are doing their walk-arounds. And I know I've got to get out there with them, next to Zenyatta and John, 'cause they'll soon be headed trackside. So I follow the biggest buzz and then do the only thing I can do under the circumstances -- a little pushing, a little shoving, a little slipping, a little sliding sideways and somehow I burst through the crowd out onto the pathway. Just a bit surprisingly, I find I am right behind John, who is right behind Zenyatta, who has Mike Smith on her back and is starting to dance/strut/walk/wiggle her way out of the paddock and through the adjoining area leading into the tunnel to the track. I notice that John is wearing his racing-afternoon tan sports coat, a big green tie and his ever-present Mill Ridge baseball cap. He's ready, and we're off.
The reaction to the big mare is just this side of amazing. She is a rock star, she is a head of state, she is Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky and Joe Montana and Willie Mays and Mickey Mouse and Luke Skywalker all rolled into one. The crowd lining the aisle outside the paddock roars for her -- and she dances. Going into the tunnel, they are 15 deep in the passageway to her left and they scream and clap and wave signs and flash cameras and shout her name. And she struts some more. Only once is the spell broken ever so briefly when one of the fans whacks the rail, or his leg, with a program and she rears up. "Knock it off," shouts Shirreffs into the crowd. He recognized quickly that the sound projected out like that of a whip popping in the air. So did Zenyatta, and she knows what she's supposed to do when she hears whips popping. But the moment is brief. Mike Smith soothes her and they go on -- moving forward through the din. There is light ahead now and the racetrack beckons. She dances on to it and -- now in view of the full crowd -- the roar goes up for her once more. She is accepting of it. She understands. She is part of it now and it is part of her. She reaches that long right leg out and puts it down, like a conductor flicking a baton. It is not so much a movement as a statement. I am here, she says. And this is where I was meant to be. The roar grows.
John watches her just for another few seconds, then hangs a sharp left and begins moving up the break between the track's outer rail and the crowd rail holding back the thousands of racing fans crushed together in anticipation of what is about to unfold. I am behind John now, about 10 feet back and tracking him. I know he is going to find his special spot, his place to take it all in. What I don't know is if he's going to allow anyone to watch it with him. I'm not sure about that one at all as I travel in his slipstream going farther and farther up the stretch. He's approaching the sixteenth pole now, a football field from the finish, and I'm wondering just how far he might forge on. And then he stops and leans up against the outer rail. And I'm alongside him and a bit afraid to ask, but I must.
"John, would you mind if I watched this one with you?"
He thought about it, but only for a second.
"Oh, no, sure. Of course. In fact, I need someone to watch this one with me. I'm glad you're here."
I'm in. And I'm the one that's really glad. I know now that no matter what comes down, I'll be able to do my job. I'll be able to hang back and take it all in, then swing into action. Quick and clean. In and out. A couple of fast thoughts, a few quick lines scribbled down and I'm out of his hair and on the way to making our constituents happy. Easy as pie. Very professional.
Oh, what a dreamer.
The Classic field was moving by us now, most alongside their ponies. Some broke into an early gallop; some threw their heads. Zenyatta just continued to high step and do her glide. She was in no rush to let this part go. It was the run-up to the show and it obviously was a part of the production that she held dear. She was going to enjoy her amble down to the starting gate.
On the racetrack -- in that context -- she was an absolute picture moving by us. So big, so strong, so tucked up. Friday morning, as I made my round of trainers, I'd seen John and Zenyatta coming out of the paddock and heading back up into the Santa Anita barn area and was taken aback by just how stunning she looked. I'd been following her for the last three years now -- watching her races, seeing her train, visiting her stall, bringing TV crews and writers by to visit her -- and I'd never seen her look as good as she did that morning. Her coat shone; her dapples had dapples; her eyes were brighter than summer sparklers; her belly tucked up like it had been cinched with a yard-wide belt.
"She's looking great, John," I called across to him in admiration as our paths crossed.
His face went to a big smile. "She's never been better," he said.
Oh, my. Oh, my. Oh, my.
And now, while her dozen male rivals went through short bursts of speed, or extended gallops, or some high stepping of their own, the mare just did her thing, floating down the Santa Anita stretch like the biggest ship in the Navy -- never once so much as breaking into a trot. The cruisers around her steamed; the battleships wheeled and fired; but the aircraft carrier merely glided through the waters just as she damn well pleased. Tie on, sailors. This battle was about to be joined.
John and I didn't speak. I was not going to interrupt his routine and he found no need. The horses were moving down the chute now and starting to file behind the starting gate. The mood tightened; you could feel it. The first few horses loaded just fine, then it was Zenyatta's turn -- and she wouldn't go forward. John saw why immediately.
"They've only got one of the gates open," he said in a concerned tone. "She needs both open -- they know that."
Only one of the front gates on her #4 stall was fully open. The other was partially closed. The mare paused and there was a bit of commotion. John shifted unhappily. Assistant starters moved to her and around her and she reluctantly came forward. The gates in front were opened and closed and finally she was in. That part, at least, was done.
The loading continued and was all but done when the 3-year-old colt Quality Road, who was slated for the #12 stall, began balking. For the next four or five minutes the apparently angry and obviously unnerved horse turned a scuffle into a full-out wingding, putting himself, his handlers, the race (and perhaps all of racing) in very dire straights. At one point the unhappy horse -- blindfolded and forced into his starting stall -- burst through the front of the gates and nearly ran straight off down the stretch in a potential scenario that could have only led to disaster -- on national television. But the strong hands, quick reflexes and courage born of long experience of assistant starter Junior Hungerford saved the colt and saved the day and allowed for his eventual safe withdrawal from the race.
John, the horseman, was empathetic to the colt's plight. But John the trainer of Zenyatta saw something else in that late scratch.
"They just took some of the speed out of the race," he noted correctly. "Maybe the main speed."
Quality Road was expected to be in the vanguard of the big Classic field -- perhaps even the pacesetter for the 10-furlong journey. John's mare, of course, ran from the back -- all the way in the back usually. The one thing the trainer was hoping for, the one thing he thought he might really see for the first time in a long time in her test of tests, was a good, honest pace to run at. She'd been at the mercy of some dawdling fractions in many of her starts, even moreso lately now that everyone knew her M.O. But this time, the trainer reasoned, they won't be walking up on the lead. They can't do that with a bunch like this.
And then they scratched a big chunk of the speed.
So with Zenyatta's touchy gate load and the late withdrawal of the colt, you couldn't blame the trainer if he saw strike one and strike two come sailing down the middle. He shifted uneasily as the horses -- back behind the gate again -- began their reload.
John had talked beforehand about the decision to run his mare against males (a first for her) in what normally is the toughest race of the year in the United States (and which turned out to be so in spades). He was running her, too, at a distance that was a full eighth of a mile (more than two football fields worth) farther than she'd ever been before.
"We're going all in," he noted, using a poker player's term. "But I believe we've got the horse to do it with. I wouldn't put her in that spot unless I thought so."
So now the final cards had been dealt and every chip was on the table. They loaded the horses back in once more -- Zenyatta, perhaps remembering her unhappy experience of a few minutes earlier, forcing Mike Smith to dismount before finally going in after stating her reservations -- and at last the gates on 12 stalls were sealed tight. Then a ring and a roar and they were running, with the big mare coming away -- not really surprisingly -- slowly and very last.
They galloped toward us and then right on past -- a true herd in the early going -- and there in the back was the favorite, a point Trevor Denman underlined repeatedly for drama in his call. We watched them move into the clubhouse turn, then shifted our glance to the large infield LED board to follow their progress. The 3-year-old Regal Ransom cut out the early splits with the older horses Einstein and Colonel John pushing it along and the Euro ace Rip Van Winkle making his presence known. As the times registered up on the board, it became apparent that Zenyatta -- alas -- was not going to be the beneficiary of a wicked pace battle. Just as she had been doing since she started racing, she was going to have to take the heat to them when the real running began.
As the field came 'round the far turn, we could see Mike Smith had started to ask his big girl to get serious. The two of them were coming, but they had far to go. The leaders cleared the corner and straightened away and the roar of the crowd started to grow. I saw Colonel John's white silks flash forward and something in dark green (it was Gio Ponti) come up inside him and then I saw Zenyatta -- and I don't think I saw another horse other than her after that.
As Smith and his mare started to hang the left for home, they did something that appeared totally out of character for a duo that had made the art of high-wide-and-handsome a virtual signature for a winning style. They dropped down and went inside!
Oh, sweet gravy, they'd cut the corner and gone inside three or four horses and were entering a zone that they might not ever have seen before. I was amazed, and concerned. So was John and I could hear and audible gasp -- an "oh" -- come from him. We weren't ready for this, and we had to wonder if Zenyatta was, too.
(A subsequent look at the video of the race shows quite clearly that Mike anticipated, then made, the absolute correct move with his charge coming past the five-sixteenths pole on the turn. If he had not pointed her down inside, he would have had to go 10 to 12 lanes wide to get clear outside and -- even with her powerful stretch kick -- it would have been unlikely at best that she could have caught a perfect-tripping class act like Gio Ponti in the run to the wire. There are reasons some riders get elected to racing's Hall of Fame. Quick, proper decisions in big races is perhaps the most important one of all.)
But inside now she was and Smith was getting busy, throwing reins and scrubbing on his mare, looking for a place to get through the crowd in front of him. And I heard John shout: "Come on, Mike." And then I heard myself shout: "Come on, Mike." And then professionalism be damned: I was there for one reason alone -- to help John root his running machine to the promised land. And root we did.
"Come on, Mike; come on, Zenyatta," we both shouted again and again. You'd have to ask John if he ever rooted harder for a horse. You don't have to ask me.
There was Mike and his mare going for a hole between two colts -- and then the hole was gone. The danger of the inside trip! The dreaded getting stopped. And not just any horse getting stopped, but a giant-sized 17-hander being asked to put on the brakes -- a scenario that doesn't play well with smaller, more nimble runners, never mind long-striders who find being asked to rebreak in mid-race akin to a downhill San Francisco cable car conductor trying to throw it in reverse. And she still had a lot of ground to make up.
"Come on, Mike; come on, Zenyatta." The screams grew louder.
And there was Mike, steering just a tad to the right. And there went Zenyatta, with a move a ballet diva would have died for, shifting out over a set of heels (they belonged to the Brit Twice Over, who would finish third). And there went Mike again, steering just a tad back to the left as he threw reins and reached for his saber.
"Come on, MIKE! Come on, ZENYATTA!"
A crack of the whip and she was leveled out and leaping forward. She was full-tilt boogie before he could swing his arm a second time. Inside of her a half dozen of the best male horses in the world were running their legs off; running very, very fast through the Santa Anita stretch as a throng of racing fans raised the din to a ruckus level rarely heard in that old beauty of a cavalry grounds. But she was running, too. Oh, yes, she was running.
When they came by us -- some 40 feet or so directly in front with just about 100 yards to the wire -- Zenyatta was taking one stride for every one and a half the boys were trying. She was reaching far, far out; a mare on a mission; a racehorse racing like she'd never raced before. But she wasn't there yet. She -- and three or four others -- whizzed past us and then all John and I could see were rear ends -- and the finish line ahead. Would she make it? She had to. She had to.
(We would not hear Trevor's inspired call of the race until later. The crowd roar -- and our own hoarse shouting -- drown out everything else. A subsequent listening, however, caught his tense "She's got a lot, a lot, of ground to make up. Zenyatta, if she wins this, she'll be a super horse" intonation as she cut the corner and began her dash down the lane. Next came the excited rise in his pitch as he knowingly projected what was about to unfold and his good-as-gold finish of "Un-be-lieve-a-ble!" -- each syllable timed perfectly with her huge leaps forward -- was Monet and brush alongside a flowery lake. Simply perfect.)
And in the few seconds left, as the wire became all, John and I shifted our eyes from rear ends to that big infield board and there you could see it clearly: one jump and she was even with the best of them; another jump and she was clear. And then, miraculously, it was done. She had won. She had run the race of her life. The race of races. It was like a movie. But they've never made a movie that good -- not yet.
John and I both shouted something. Or maybe we howled. It was really real and it felt wonderful. We were throwing each other high fives (including a double slider that John had to show me twice.) There were fist pumps. There were big, big smiles and more shouts of joy. The marvelous mare had been absolutely, positively marvelous. Any pretensions I had had of being a dispassionate observer had long been washed away -- and I loved it. I had to be the most fun I've ever had at a racetrack rooting home a horse. Everything else a distant second.
And suddenly upon us, there was Jay Privman, the ace Daily Racing Form reporter now wearing his ESPN hat, with a camera crew and a mic for John. Instant reaction for the television watchers and John gave him some great stuff -- about tears in his eyes, his great filly, how she performs for the crowd and the crowd loves her and she loves them.
Thankfully, I remember what I'm actually there for and start scribbling as quickly as I can, piggybacking on his TV quotes to accomplish my goal. I've got most of it down and then I see another dandy piece of spontaneity unfold in front of me. John slips underneath the outer rail and stepped up and onto the track itself, turning to head down the stretch to rejoin his horse. In doing so, he put himself in full view of the thousands of racing fans directly behind us and they knew just who he was.
The shouts went up: "John! John! Zenyatta! Zenyatta! Congratulations! Unvelievable! What a horse! Oh my God!" The railbirds sang and shouted out the joy that everyone at the track was feeling. And John, in a wonderful piece of theater -- totally out of character for the measured man that he is, yet totally correct for the moment -- turned to his immediate audience, grabbed his never-take-it-off Mill Ridge cap and hurled it into the crowd in a statement of sheer joy. And they loved it, roaring all the louder. Then this old-school horseman, this racetrack veteran who had just accomplished the feat of feats in a business that breaks a hundred hearts for every one it allows a lift, pumped his arms above his head in pure exultation and jogged off down the track to reunite with his four-legged wonder maker. Talk about a happy man! Talk about a man who has had the weight of the world lifted off his shoulders! Talk about a man who had risen to the top of the mountain! And that would be the mountain of mountains -- that rare place where it just doesn't get any better.
So as John heads off, I'm on my cell and calling in my quotes. Totally professional about it, too. Good quotes in a timely fashion -- just like the doctor ordered. Piece of cake.
Then it's down by the winner's circle to hang out for a bit and catch all the delirious commotion. There are more smiles down there than there are avocados in Escondido. There are tears, too -- tears of joys, and it's not just the ladies bawling. Among the hugs and the hand slaps, I hear the word "unbelievable" about 40 times. "Amazing" finishes second. The mare and her rider return and the roar ricochets everywhere. Like the queen bee returning to the hive -- everyone loved her.
Billy Rappaport, the network field producer who calls all the shots in and around the winner's circle for all the big racing shows, is looking like a traffic cop in Times Square on New Years Eve. A real racing fan, you know he's caught up in the moment, too, but -- though his heart is beating fast -- he's waving arms and grabbing the players and lining up pictures along with the TV quote questers and the quotees. Somehow, as he always does, he manages to bring some order to the storm.
But the buzz continues, back dropped by the ongoing cheers and claps from the crowd; folks who stayed on and on, even after the last race had been run. People didn't want to leave. It felt so good -- she made us feel so good -- that people just wanted to stay and continue to feel that delicious feeling.
And for me, there was still one more piece of sweetness to savor. One more touch from the racing gods. As I turned to head back up to the Notes Team area, coming out of the winner's circle and heading back toward the tunnel came John once more. And, as he saw me and broke into a big smile, I put my arm on his shoulder and he put his on mine.
"I want to thank you, John, for letting me be part of the most fun I've ever had at a racetrack," I said to him.
"Oh, thank you," he fired back with emphasis around a big laugh. "I'm so glad you were there. I needed you there for that -- and you were with me!"
Lord almighty. Here the man provides me with the front door to a thrill of a lifetime and now he wants to thank me for it. How can you explain that one? The answer, of course, is that you can't. Sometimes you just get lucky at the racetrack.
The following morning I made my rounds for the final time, touching base with all my trainers, checking on their horses in the afterglow, or aftermath, of the Saturday battles. And always, the conversation surely turned back to Zenyatta and her remarkable run to glory.
Bob Baffert, who saddled Richard's Kid in the Classic, reported his horse had pulled up none the worse for wear and also expressed a feeling that many no doubt felt. He said at the eighth pole he had stopped rooting for his horse and started rooting for Zenyatta. Richard Mandella, who won four races on a Breeders' Cup card and is on the trainers' roster in racing's Hall of Fame, threw Shirreffs a huge salute when he said we'd all just witnessed one of the great training jobs of all time. Other horsemen called it the greatest Breeders' Cup race ever held. Still others went beyond that and called it one of the greatest races ever, period.
I ran into a serious racing fan from Chicago named Gary Leverence as I passed through Clocker's Corner. He's come to Del Mar the last few summers just to take it all in, and here he was at the Breeders' Cup because he loves the game so much. And he tells me this delightful tale about being in the stands Saturday with an Hispanic fellow he didn't know on one side and a Chinese lady he'd never met on the other as Zenyatta came dashing down the stretch. They were all jumping up and down and rooting and screaming for her, he said, and then she won and he and the chap next to him fell into a dancing embrace. And when he turned back the other way the little lady all but jumped into his arms. Total strangers united in a thrill. Oh, that we could bottle that and get lots of folks around the world to drink it.
And then as I made my way through the empty plant and on up to type that final set of Notes, I passed a TV in the Clubhouse where they were replaying yesterday's races. They were going in the gate for the Classic, magically enough, and I stood and watched it unfold one more time. And though I knew the outcome, and I'd screamed my screams and shouted myself all but out about it the day before, something happened to me there that has never happened to me before watching a race on television. Chills ran up and down my body as I watched it play out in front of me one more time. Absolute chills.
Like I said -- sometimes -- if you're lucky -- you might get lucky at the racetrack.