Saturday, March 13, 2010

Jamie, meet Zenyatta

Much has happened since opening day at Santa Anita for the winter meet. It was Boxing Day, December 26, and I thought I was going to be looking at the already legendary racemare, the undefeated, uncontested Zenyatta for the very last time.

Opening day was my first trip to Santa Anita Park. That day, I fell hopelessly in love. Many times before I'd bashed the park due to its synthetic track, and though I do not retract those comments, I can never look back at Santa Anita the same way again. California's greatest race place is stained with an imperfect surface on its main track, but the park itself a mecca. I now know why so many people in the industry flock there and never return to the East. It truly is a horseman's paradise. Anyone who's never been can never truly understand the swell of emotions one feels when looking upon the San Gabriel Mountains in the background, and how between these mountains and the grandstands, the track seems to be cupped in a large, nurturing hand, like the ground itself is protecting the history that has been made here.

The first thing I did upon entering the gates at Santa Anita was rush to that darkened doorway, past the bettors, food vendors, and TVs, toward the grandstand apron outside. I felt my heart lift out of the winter doldrums as I looked upon that view for the first time: the track, the turf, the palm trees, the hills and trees, the mountains--paradise.

The day was chocked full of events. Opening day would see the unveiling of the brand-new John Henry statue in the paddock, several stakes events, and of course, the farewell ceremony of Zenyatta. And I wanted to be there for it all. Though it is a cliche, I really can't find a better way to explain my demeanor that day: I was like a kid with a $100 bill let loose in a candy store. I picked up my credentials from the press office, after some convincing that yes, my boss had called in over a month ago to confirm, (I'm hoping that when I visit a track after the initial time, people will stop scrutinizing whether or not I've actually had credentials reserved for me. Obviously, I need to visit the track more often.) and after I breathed a breath of fresh air, blessed with the Right to Walk Anywhere, I threw myself headlong into all things Santa Anita and never looked back.

The day was extraordinary--from photographing my favorite jockeys, stepping into the paddock the first time, and witnessing the stars of tomorrow, it was all like some kind of dream come true for me. I got a great shot of Chantal Sutherland winning her first race of the meet, her fist flying in the air like she'd just won a stakes race, and then had to make like a roadrunner and zoom to the paddock to thrust myself in the crowd of media and fans surrounding the John Henry statue. Once you get credentials, you become a little emboldened. I saw a small me-sized window between a John Henry fan and a child and dove into it, crouching so as to not block someone else's view, and I was front row for the whole unveiling. I have a special spot for John Henry, and I think that's one reason I felt like I needed to be up in the middle of all the action, besides my obvious rights to shoot it with my credentials; I used to visit him every year at the Kentucky Horse Park before I was living and breathing horse racing. I got to know him as the "Angry Old Man," and had a healthy respect for him as the retired old pro in the Hall of Champions. He died on my third wedding anniversary, and I felt like I'd lost a family member. Seeing him immortalized in bronze twice since his death (the first being at his grave in the Horse Park) has made me feel even more connected to John. Though I never saw him race, I'll never forget the time I was handed a few hairs from his mane before his appearance at one of the Hall's shows; I followed him (at a safe distance, of course) to the walkway between the barn and the pavilion, and when they called his name, a fire lit in John's eyes and he transformed into a young charger again--he leapt into a trot and entered like the superstar he was.
In the throng of reporters, I found two of my photographer buddies, whom I'd been missing since running all around by myself. Of course Charles Pravata had to make an appearance that day: he's practically Zenyatta's personal photographer! I also ran into Bob Mayberger; it was like the Hollywood Park experience all over again. Bob hadn't been sure he was coming to Santa Anita, but since he's trying to break the record for the most tracks photographed by a single person in one year (at least that's what it seems he's up to), he obviously couldn't afford to miss opening day.

Directly following the John Henry statue unveiling was the California Breeders' Champion Stakes, which was won by Caracortado. I'd never heard of this game little chestnut before, but I was stuck by how excited his connections were when he crossed the finish line well clear of the rest of the field. It was like they'd just won the Santa Anita Derby for how they were celebrating! It's sad, but a reality that many people don't look that excited after their horse wins a race, and there's just something ingenuine about a bunch of people who seem like they're entitled and don't get caught up in the excitement; Caracortado's connections are anything but. I actually took a shot of one member of these connections celebrating, but I don't know his name. I wish I could send him the shot, especially after now that Caracortado looks like he is Kentucky Derby-bound. What a rags to riches story for "Scar Face..." another reason this sport is so great.

My stomach was doing backflips after Caracortado's victory due to the next scheduled event, and I think their celebration helped calm me a little bit. I mean, I was going into the following events with the knowledge that this was to be my absolute last chance to get good pictures of Zenyatta, the living legend. You never see racemares after they're retired, NEVER. If anyone knows how I can get a shot of Rags to Riches or Proud Spell, please let me know, because it seems once they become broodmares, they're out of the picture unless they're entering the auction ring. Images of my Woody Allen moment flashed through my head, and those sad, two shots I had of Zenyatta galloping at Churchill Downs. This was it. The final curtain. After her retirement ceremony, she would be out of the picture for good. Thank God my camera didn't fail me... I think I would've thrown myself onto Hollywood Boulevard if it had.

She arrived like a mirage. While Santa Anita's grandstands played "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic" by The Police, she entered the track from the backstretch; as a wave of applause and cheers greeted her, she became larger and larger. I was standing in the middle of the track in front of the winner's circle, and I think my heart was pounding so hard it almost popped out of my throat. Zenyatta was about to come right %^$@*&! in front of me. I gathered my wits and began to shoot like a crazed member of the paparazzi. She came jogging past me once, then turned around at the end of the grandstands and came back again; she turned around and came back toward me once more, then into the winner's circle, which I traversed like a spider monkey and somehow was able to perch right in the center of the ledge overlooking it so I could get her in the place she had visited after her greatest triumphs. I had her, and I had her again and again... Finally, finally; it was almost as good as being able to see her race. There was no pressure, she was so accessible. I couldn't have asked for anything more. When Mike Smith took a leg up on her exercise saddle, I saw the transformation take place that Charles had always spoken to me about. She thought she was going to race. I saw her muscle up and start her Spanish walk, so fitting we should see Zenyatta, who danced like a fighter before a big match, on Boxing Day. I couldn't help tearing up. This was going to be the last time she ever danced that dance on a race track. It became so tragic all of a sudden, and I wanted to whirl around and scream, "Why the hell are you retiring this horse! Look at her!" I'd barely seen a fit race horse look like she did on that day when she was supposedly being wound down from training. She looked like she could race that day. Mike was all smiles. Before they went into the winner's circle (I know, I'm back-tracking), I knew a Moment in Time when I saw one, and though a slew of photographers were in my way, I quickly jutted my way through legs and fell to my knee, where I took the shot I knew would capture that moment and her career: Zenyatta and Mike Smith, "Perfection." From low on the ground, looking up, she looked larger-than-life, which is a perfect analogy for an unbeaten freak like this mare. There is a feeling you get when you take a shot like that. It's sort of like I could die the next day and it would be okay, because I'd just captured something so special that would never happen again, and I was lucky enough to get it. I'd only ever felt that way once, and that was my photo of Rachel Alexandra winning the Kentucky Oaks, something I don't know if I could ever have been lucky enough to shoot the same way again. I saved my "Perfection" shot in five different places that night so if anything happend to my camera or my memory card or the computer, I would still have it, if nothing else, when I got home. I don't know if it'll ever be published, because of the events which happened only a month later, but that photo will forever be one of my all-time favorite pictures I've ever taken. And there was a pantleg in the frame before I cropped it out. This is why you should never be afraid to take risks if the vision is there.

I got one last poignant shot of Zenyatta walking out of my life forever as her farewell ceremony came to a close. Her trainer, John Shirreffs, watched her being led off the track one last time to the cheer of the grandstands. I couldn't have planned a more storied shot. Imagine how sad this photo would be if Zenyatta wasn't un-retired a little less than a month later!!

I took my first plane flight ever to be at Santa Anita on opening day, and I'd still never change my experience knowing what I do now for a million dollars. To see something so special as this once-in-a-lifetime superhorse is to feel fulfilled, and I was able to make my peace of never having a decent experience with her in the two years I'd followed her. Now that she will race again, I feel like Zenyatta is finally going to be able to have the sort of campaign she has deserved for so long, and was cheated out of. Her Breeders' Cup Classic race proved how special she really is, and after she was finally able to prove what I'd thought all along, I can't wait to see what 2010 has in store for her.
And now the Apple Blossom awaits... but that's another blog.


  1. "She arrived like a mirage."

    Beautifully stated. Outstanding article. I can relate in so many ways. I too was somewhat opposed to the synthetic surface (really as it pertained to back-to-back BC's), and I absolutely agree that you have to be there before you can truly appreciate how breathtaking the place is.

    Thank you for sharing the heartfelt parts at the end. I always enjoy hearing the more personal elements. This is a game of unique emotional attachments. I grew up with "favorite players" that I hero-worshipped, but nothing comes close (really only pets and family) to how deeply one can love these horses.

    And hopefully in a few hours we'll have two champions in top form now heading towards the Apple Blossom

    But like you say, that's another post. :-)

  2. I haven't read something that heartfelt in a while. You really get the allure of this sport. With Rachel out of the Apple Blossom do you think they will ever meet?

    Is it even fair to race them since one is a synthetic specialist who tolerates the dirt and the other is a dirt specialist who hates the synthetics?

  3. TBCG- Yes, I do think they will meet. I really do believe that both camps will stay true to their word, if both horses are fit, to target the Breeders' Cup Classic at the end of the year, which takes place at Churchill Downs. And I think they will likely meet one time at least before then. I am of the opinion both parties are looking out in the best interest of their horses, so once the year gets into gear, and more races have been plotted, we'll see it come together again.

    For the record, Zenyatta's trainer, John Shirreffs, has said more than once he thinks Zenyatta is better on the dirt. So would I consider her a "synthetic specialist?" Absolutely not. She just happens to be based in California, where they have the bad fortune of all-weather tracks. As for Rachel Alexandra, she won her lone start over a synthetic track, which was on the quirkiest track of them all: Keeneland's Polytrack. It's her owner, Jess Jackson, that is allergic to the stuff. But since it is harder to convert from dirt to synthetics, there is no reason she needs to run over it. But then again I'm biast and hate synthetics. The dirt is the natural place for the both of them to meet if they both love it.