Most days the old racetrack stands like a museum piece, its grandstand a 61-year-old battleship-sized, pale-green monument to a bygone era, surrounded by endless acres of empty asphalt, adjacent to a neon casino where the desperate and the dreamers shuffle from sunlight into darkness. Inside Hollywood Park, small crowds rattle around in the grandstand and the only real noise comes from the airplanes taking off at nearby LAX. Seabiscuit and Swaps once ran here. Bill Shoemaker and Laffit Pincay took a leg up. Movie stars watched in splendor. Those days are gone, written into a grand history that fades with each passing year.
But on the first Saturday in October, Hollywood Park has risen from the dead because today Zenyatta runs. Valet parking attendants scurry about with fists full of dollars. Long lines form at the turnstiles, and employees consult one another in a giddy improv, trying to service the outsized crowd of 25,837—the likes of which they seldom see. Little girls hold their mothers' hands and carry pink signs praising a 6-year-old queen who has never lost. It is 2010 but feels like 1948. Many horses run fast, but precious few can travel through time.
Late in the afternoon, under a falling autumn sun, Zenyatta walks onto the track and performs her prerace ritual, her pawing at the ground the equine equivalent of LeBron's flinging talc into the air. Most people can scarcely tell a thoroughbred from a carnival pony, but Zenyatta's greatness fairly bursts from the skin beneath her coat. She towers over her four opponents, who look as if they could be her foals. Her chest is dense with muscles. When fans cry for her to look their way, she turns briefly and then dances for them. Her jockey, Mike Smith, says that at this moment Zenyatta is "almost humanlike." This is her stage.
In the race, the Lady's Secret Stakes, she falls behind early, then stays there for what seems far too long. A game and talented 3-year-old filly named Switch takes a wide lead in the middle of the homestretch, and there's no way Zenyatta can run her down. Yet she does, as she always does. "When she moves," says Smith after the race, shaking his head, "it's just different from any other horse. She's so powerful, but agile, like a gazelle." It is her 19th consecutive victory, the longest streak in modern racing by a horse competing at the highest level. Afterward fans hang over the railings and fences that frame the winner's circle, again beseeching Zenyatta to look in their direction, shouting plaintively. Standing nearby, screenwriter David Israel, a member of the California Horse Racing Board, looks at the crowd and says, "She has saved racing here for the last two years."
Since Zenyatta's first start, on Thanksgiving Day 2007, she has beaten 112 horses, each time unfurling her 17-hands-plus frame in a finishing rush from far off the pace. In 2008 she won the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic and was named champion older female horse; last year she became the first female to win the Breeders' Cup Classic—as well as the first horse to win two different Breeders' Cup races—beating the best male horses in the world. Again she was named champion older female but finished second in the Horse of the Year voting to the brilliant 3-year-old filly Rachel Alexandra, who bested the boys three times, in the Preakness, the Haskell and the Woodward. The argument over who was most deserving of end-of-year honors splintered the racing community.
There is one more race to run. On Nov. 6 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Zenyatta will again enter the Breeders' Cup Classic against the finest male horses on earth. "She already deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as any great horse in history," says Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey. No argument. And with another victory in the Classic—only Tiznow, in 2000 and '01, won it twice—Zenyatta would have an almost airtight case as the greatest female ever. Ruffian won all 10 of her starts against females before she was tragically injured and destroyed in a 1974 match race against Kentucky Derby--winning colt Foolish Pleasure. The sport's other first ladies (Winning Colors, Lady's Secret and Personal Ensign) all beat males, but not at the level of consecutive runnings of the Breeders' Cup Classic. Rachel Alexandra was brilliant only as a 3-year-old. And none of them ever won 20 in a row.
But the story of Zenyatta is about more than her place in history, more than the boost she has given a flagging sport. It is about family and friends; patience, trust and love; and the curious turns of the racing game. It starts with the music man, nearly half a century ago.
In 1962 musician Herb Alpert and music promoter Jerry Moss, both 27 and looking for traction in life and business, scraped together $200 between them and started a recording company in Alpert's Los Angeles garage. That venture would become A&M Records, which launched many of the best-selling music acts of the 1960s, '70s and '80s. In the Zenyatta story Moss is the music man. He lived a fantastic life that now, at age 75 (and we should all look so good at 75), he is loath to re-create. "There were a lot of great days," he says, sitting with his wife, Ann, in the living room of his L.A. house, where saddlecloths from Zenyatta's victories are draped over the second-floor brass banister, a touching, hardbooted contrast to their opulent surroundings. "I won't bore you with the stories."
He consents to describe one of those days: Aug. 17, 1969. Woodstock. A few years earlier Moss had signed a deal with 25-year-old British rocker Joe Cocker. "I thought," Moss recalls, "that Joe sounded like the future." Moss drove to a Catskills resort with lawyer Abe Somer, a friend and associate, and the two of them helicoptered into the festival with British producer Denny Cordell. "The helicopter took us right to the back of the stage. At 4:30 in the afternoon, we're onstage with Joe. There was this enormous cloud approaching, but there was no way I was going to leave. It was so amazing to see half a million people responding to the music of a guy that I just loved so much. It started to pour at the end of Joe's set, and we wound up in a caravan with a bunch of kids from San Francisco, and Denny is falling in love with this girl and reciting poetry. Then the rain stopped; we found Joe and we walked up the hill, and there's the helicopter. By dinnertime we're back at the hotel." And that was just another day.
Moss started in the racing game in 1970 and nine years later he met Ann Holbrook, then a New York City--based fashion and cosmetics model, at the wrap party for the pilot of what became the long-running TV series Hart to Hart. They wed in '83 and have since been partners not just in life but in the ownership of their horses. They were successful at the track, winning the '90 Santa Anita Handicap with Ruhlmann and the '94 Kentucky Oaks with Sardula, among many others.