Ever since the track opened in 1938, and Seabiscuit won the first Gold Cup that year, equine stars have drawn the crowds to Hollywood Park. They came to see Swaps in the 1950's, Native Diver in the 60's, Affirmed in the 70's, and later, the likes of Cigar and Lava Man, to name a few.
In the final years, however, the main attraction was a female star.
The great Zenyatta began her career at Hollywood Park, winning her first two races at the end of 2007. She would go on to start eight times at Hollywood, the most of any track in her 20-race career. She, of course, won all eight, including three consecutive Grade 1 Vanity Handicaps.
Zenyatta's rise to stardom coincided with my own blossoming obsession with horse racing. The Queen was always a reason to endure the traffic-laden, two-hour round trip to Inglewood, instead of staying home to watch from the comfort of my couch.
In one of the many racing books I read at the time, the writer suggested watching a race from the far turn. I followed that advice July 5, 2008, the day Zenyatta won her first Vanity. I was surprised to find myself alone on the turn, waiting in the quiet with my camera poised. Vic Stauffer's call and the crowd's mumble were barely audible as the field approached me. For an instant, I had the best view in the house as Mike Smith and Zenyatta made their move, and I clicked away, hoping to capture one still frame of Zenyatta's “poetry in motion,” as Trevor Denman would later call it.
The horses disappeared into the distance, and I couldn't even tell if she won, but my Nikon did manage to freeze that one moment just for me in what would become Zenyatta's storybook career.
As her streak and legend grew, the racetrack was old-school electric on the days she ran. My wife and I got married April 10, 2010 at The Arboretum across the street from Santa Anita, and the day before, we invited all our guests to join us at the racetrack (her idea, I swear). I was excited that Zenyatta would be part of our event, as she was running in the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park, and I knew Santa Anita would put it up on the big screen. As the race went off, everyone stopped. I mean, everyone – our hosts, the bartenders, the wait staff, the clerks – to watch her run.
“Which one is she?” one of our guests asked me as the horses headed into the backstretch.
“Oh, she's off the screen, you can't see her.”
“But how is she going to win from there?” he asked.
“Just watch,” I said with a confident grin.
Two months later, Zenyatta was back at Hollywood Park, and so was I, as she tried to win 17 in a row and her third straight Vanity. The paddock was elbow-to-elbow as people jostled to get a view or quick photo of the Queen while she pranced and did her show for the crowd. Every so often, she'd stop, lift her head, prick her ears, and pose, like the star she was.
With the gate loading, I squeezed into a spot at the rail near the finish line. On the sloping apron, I was essentially eye-level with the track. I saw hooves at the top of the stretch. The crowd was soaring, and Zenyatta was coming, but she had a lot to do. On the far turn two years earlier, I had mostly been an objective observer, but in this moment, I was all in. I wanted so badly for her to win, and it did not look like she would get there. The next five seconds lasted an eternity, and I remember specifically my breath catching in my throat and my eyes burning.
“St Trinians, all out!” shouted Stauffer. “Zenyatta's trying to run her down on the money! St Trinian's still a neck in front! Here's Zenyatta… Yeeeeessss!!”
What followed was pure elation from all of us there at the rail and the crowd above. The iPod video I was trying to shoot only captured a shaking sky and screaming. Life doesn't give you too many of those moments.
“Stamp this day in your minds and hearts!” screamed Stauffer.
I took that advice, too.
Zenyatta returned one more time to Hollywood Park, later that year, and won her 19th race in a row with another heart-stopping, crowd-frenzied finish in the Lady's Secret. I wasn't on hand to see it, having already moved to Kentucky, but I did see her final race in person, and despite losing the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs, she saved her best for last, like always.
People can talk about the fields she faced and the races she entered – I was something of a doubter myself until her 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic win. In the end, she was a legendary race mare, but Zenyatta also entertained and thrilled. She brought out the crowds. She gave us a joyful escape and all the drama we could handle.
In a word, she was Hollywood.
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