So last year at this time, I was recovering from major surgery. It was supposed to be minor surgery, but one tumor turned out to be seven tumors (named after the 7 Dwarfs or most of Santa’s reindeer, depending on which friend you ask) and instead of three little holes, they sliced me open like a watermelon. The nurses in the recovery room were very excited about the whole thing and had to show me photos the minute I woke up. (Sadly, I never got any copies of said photos or else I would inflict them on you now.) But even lying there carved up like a jack o’lantern, I was happy about three things. One, I’d actually made it through the surgery, two, even split open I felt better than I had all year, and three, Zenyatta’s farewell appearance was still three weeks away.
Ironically, a year earlier, I probably wouldn’t have cared one way or another. Not about being cut open, but about seeing Zenyatta. Because I’d lost my horse racing mojo. You see, back in high school, I was all about horse racing. My friends Bruce and Kathy had introduced me to the sport back in Junior High and you know how it is with addictions, it just escalated until suddenly I was writing and illustrating an entire newspaper about horse racing called The Weekly Turf Freak. (It wasn’t so much weekly as bi-weekly and later on more monthly, but weekly was what we aspired to.) But it wasn’t anything boring like actual racing statistics. We had our own racing world with characters loosely based on actual racehorses. Cougar was the smart one, Royal Owl was the innocent one (he still believed in Santa Claus, but then he was only a three-year-old), Manta was the “red light horsie” who owned a stable of ill repute on the edge of the backstretch and Buzkashi was the dumb one who could never win a race. (To be fair, the real Buzkashi did win at least one race. His real claim to fame was the race where he threw his jockey, fell over a sawhorse and took off across the infield. He even had a poem in his honor. “Buzkashi’s not a slow horse, Buzkashi’s not so fast, but Buzkashi is consistent, he always comes in last.” You see why I gave up poetry.)
Kathy and I published Turf Freak for several years, but eventually real life intruded on our little horsey paradise. Royal Owl, the real one, broke his leg and had to be humanely destroyed. He was Kathy’s favorite and she sort of lost interest after he was gone. I moved on from talking animals to vampires who can turn into talking animals. (Maybe in another ten years or so, I’ll move on to actual human beings who can’t turn into anything, but don’t hold your breath.) Bruce and I still kept in touch. He’d call the first Saturday of May to ask “So who do you like in the Derby?”
And then Bruce died.
It wasn’t fast and it wasn’t pretty and it happened when he was way way too young. And when Bruce died, so did horse racing. For me anyway. Derby Day was particularly painful because I knew I wouldn’t be getting that phone call ever again. It was like part of my heart had withered up and dropped off. I didn’t even write about vampires anymore.
But vampires are more persistent than racehorses. After ten years, my characters started nagging me to start writing again. And I did. I cranked out that first story in three days. Locked myself in my room with a spiral-bound notebook and wrote the whole thing out longhand. Filled the entire notebook.
Probably not a coincidence that the plot involved the death of a major character.
So fast forward a few more years. I started hearing a lot about a mare named Zenyatta who was tearing up the track. Undefeated. Special. All the usual hype. Zenyatta’s last race was going to be the 2009 Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita. I’d only been to a racetrack a handful of times since Bruce died, but I decided I needed to go. I talked my friend Barb into going with me. (Barb and I have different approaches to horse racing. Barb likes to study the Racing Form. I like to bet on the ones who are related to horses I knew back in the day, or, failing that, the gray ones.)
Barb didn’t really know what she’d signed up for. Because when I go to see a racehorse, I mean I want to be front and center in the paddock looking at it as long as humanly possible. Which, in this case, meant missing the race before Zenyatta’s entirely because we had to get our spot on the rail before anyone else got there. (We actually made it onto the national broadcast of the race. You can find us if you know where to look. It’s a little harder than Where’s Waldo because I’m not wearing a red and white striped top and a beanie.)
So the horses finally come out. The crème de la crème of thoroughbred racing. There’s Mine That Bird who just won the Derby, there’s Summer Bird who won the Belmont, there’s Einstein who won the Santa Anita Derby. Then out steps this gigantic dappled bay mare, so big that tiny little Mine That Bird could almost walk under her belly.
And suddenly I was in high school again.
Not only is Zenyatta gorgeous, she’s a rock star, posing and prancing around the saddling enclosure. And she’s noticing everything. Most of the other horses are just marching around in a circle. She stops to study the big posters on the back wall advertising the sponsors of the race. She stops to study the people standing at the rail. Smart horses notice things. Less smart horses don’t. (Insert appropriate Buzkashi joke here.)
She’s doing some weird kind of move with her right front leg, like maybe she’s favoring it, only not quite. But people cheer when she does it so she does it again.
By this time I’m in love. I’m so in love I’m ready to start up Turf Freak again.
She’s the only mare in the race and the professional handicappers are saying there is no way she can win. But they would still like her to. She’s last coming out of the gate, last on the backstretch, almost last coming into the far turn. Trevor Denman, the track announcer, says “It would take a miracle for Zenyatta to catch them.”
The crowd is jumping and screaming and waving signs. The roar is so loud you could probably hear it on the far side of town. And it doesn’t stop. They keep cheering until she has circled back around to the winner’s circle. They keep cheering as she enters the winner’s circle. They are still cheering when she gets ready to go back to the barn.
And Barb is done. “Okay, let’s go.”
“Cash your ticket and let’s go.”
“I don’t want to cash my ticket. I want it as a souvenir.”
“It doesn’t even have her name on it. In a month, you won’t even remember which ticket it was.”
I succumbed to peer pressure.
That was supposed to be Zenyatta’s last race, perfect, undefeated, 14 for 14. But then she came back for one more season. And I made it to almost every one of her races. I had to keep dragging different friends along with me because I was the only one obsessed with Zenyatta, but I’m sure all that fresh air was good for them.
Meanwhile, I had this tumor which was growing faster than it should have been. I felt like I was wearing too tight jeans after Thanksgiving dinner with no way to open the zipper.
All the time.
Zenyatta lost the 2010 Breeders’ Cup by a nose. Her only defeat ever. I had surgery the following Friday.
Three weeks aren’t as long as you think. And going to the racetrack involves a lot of walking and standing and I was not very good at either. On top of that, it was supposed to rain. But I convinced my good friend Elaine that I was perfectly capable of standing next to the paddock for hours waiting for one last up close and personal glimpse of Zenyatta before she went off to Kentucky to make baby Zenyattas. I wasn’t able to drive, I was hardly able to walk, but there I was, leaning against the paddock fence at Hollywood Park, hoping I didn’t pass out in the daisies.
She came out before the seventh race, huge and dappled and dancing, stopping to check out the crowd, posing for the cameras, and I forgot I was about to fall over. When she walked through the tunnel to the front of the grandstand, I ran up the stairs to meet her on the other side. They paraded her around, played Bob Hope singing “Thanks for the Memories” then she started back toward her barn.
I was standing by myself down toward the middle of the grandstand so I could get closer to the fence. As she walked past, I began to clap. She turned at the sound and I realized that her kind curious eyes were looking straight at me, watching me clap as she walked past.
I followed her down past the white sawhorse marking the end of the vital part of the ancient grandstand, down into the closed area where no tote windows were open, where no monitors blared, where the ghost of Seabiscuit still ran. Followed her with a handful of the faithful, watching until she turned off the track and disappeared from view.
The rain held off until the Queen reached her barn, then even the skies wept.