Hollywood Park Memories: The Queen and Her Castle

by | 12.19.2013 | 2:10pm
Zenyatta, after winning the 2010 Vanity Stakes at Hollywood Park

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.

Zenyatta, #3, makes her move on the far turn in the 2008 Vanity

Zenyatta, #3, makes her move on the far turn in the 2008 Vanity

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.

Zenyatta takes in the paddock crowd before the 2010 Vanity

Zenyatta takes in the paddock crowd before the 2010 Vanity

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.

  • DinkyDiva

    Yes, she was and always will be the Queen! Her fan base keeps growing on fb as well. Love all of her connections and Anne and Zenny have a special bond. Actually, she had a special bond with every single fan. She’s magical and good for the soul. I don’t know what else to say, or how to put into words what she did and still does in my life.

  • GloriaU

    Great article. I can relate to trying to take photos of Zenyatta coming down the stretch the couple of times I saw her run at Santa Anita. As a fan, being there live to watch her race was exciting and nerve-wracking enough, but trying to compose myself (and my camera) to take a picture of her coming down the stretch? Never got a good shot of that because I was too busy shaking with nervous excitement wanting her to win and rooting for her as was everyone else standing near me judging by the screams and cheers. Zenyatta was special and the last major race horse to be associated with Hollywood Park. That’s a memory I’m happy to be left with.

  • Kerry Fitzpatrick

    When I saw the caption on this article, I thought it was going to be about Marge Everett!

    • Don Reed

      I did, as well. Thanks for the reminder that she had a real last name.

      That’s racing in a nutshell. PR runs a positive article about a fan favorite and the first impression was that we were going to read the story about another human stink bomb racing executive.

  • 4Bellwether666

    She could damn sure come from way way out of the clouds and bring the rain…Just wish they would have run her on the East Coast one time…

  • Kris

    I remember after her victory in the Santa Margarita, all of the other fillies returned absolutely drenched in sweat. Then here comes Zenyatta without a single drop of moisture on her. After her saddle was removed she had a wee bit of sweat on her, but it wasn’t until she started for the testing barn that she began to show some sweat. I thought her run in that race was the most extraordinary display of dominance I’ve ever seen. Not only did she destroy a quality field of fillies/mares, but she did so literally without breaking a sweat. Amazing.

  • Don Reed

    Aw, nuts. I thought this was going to be about Marjorie Chicago, the former owner.
    But the wife will love reading this. Thanks.

    • bruce walker

      Me, too, Don. Love Marjorie stories. I can tell you a few. My favourite involves her bulldog, Biff, at a dinner party held in her suite atop the grandstand at old Arlington Park. Classic

      • RayPaulick

        Stay tuned. We’ll have a little reminiscing about Ms. Everett tomorrow.

        • Don Reed

          Don’t forget the one about how Marge inspired the creation of the character of Roma Downey in “Touched By An Angel.”

          (Sorry. I don’t do Leona Helmsley jokes anymore.)

  • got2bmarty

    Thanks for the great article. I loved watching her race and was so excited when I got to meet her. I miss seeing her race and wish that she was still living in L.A. But we have wonderful memories of her. I can’t wait to see Cozmic One run.

  • jponyplayer

    Lucky I got to see her at SA for her farewell post parade amidst a sea of flashbulbs and adoring fans. What really got to me was Sting`s “Everything Little Thing She Does is Magic” over the PA system. I wonder who brought her to our world as she definitely was not of this earth.

  • Cgriff

    The term “starlet” doesn’t fit the bill. She was no starlet – she was a STAR. Elizabeth Taylor, Betty Davis, Kate Hepburn full fledged STAR.

    • Victoria

      Yes, great piece but PLEASE dont demean her stature by calling her a “starlet” that word implies less than a star…SHE IS/WAS A SUPER STAR!

  • Rich Wilcke

    The Queen of Hollywood Park for the old-timers like me was Marge Everett. I assumed from the headline that she was what this essay would be about.

  • dacorn

    This is a wonderful article and the clips brought back goosebumps for her stretch runs. I have a photo of Z on my desk to remind me that coming from behind and winning is always possible if you have talent and heart. We all miss her on the track. Thanks for the memories.

  • David

    Picking a “king” would be difficult but the Jeopardy muse on “. . . the best horse to have ever lost at HP”, the answer is clearly “who is the great SEATTLE SLEW”? In one of the dumbest moves in the history of the Sport, the “Slew crew” unceremoniously dump Billy Turner and decide to go cross country and take on a dead-fit JO TOBIN in the ’77 Swaps at a middle distance following the rigors the Triple Crown. Due respect to SECRITATIAT, FORGO, AFFIRMED, SPACTULAR BID and SUNDAY SILENCE, SEATLE SLEW was, IMO, the greatest of my lifetime and it was shame he ever lost a single race, especially one at this legendary track.

  • Margaret

    I got to see Z win the Lady’s Secret. I also got to see her at Barn 55. Such a marvelous animal. She treats her fans with class and charm.

    I’m glad that Z is safely retired and won’t see her beloved home demolished.

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