I’ve been traveling again—this time to Louisville, Kentucky, where I spent several days following in the footsteps of Thomas Merton. More on that next week. But I also spent a day touring some horse-related sites (for if you’re in Kentucky, horses loom large). So a few thoughts on those horses today.
First, I think I may be nearly the last person in America to catch Zenyatta fever. If you’re one of the clueless as well, let me give you some background. Zenyatta has been called the greatest racing filly/mare of all time, winner of 19 consecutive races. Last week, she lost her 20th and final race, though she came within a few inches of winning.
“People who didn’t know anything about horse racing became fans because of her,” said the jockey of the horse that beat her, sounding almost sorry that he was the one who helped end her phenomenal winning streak.
I’m writing about Zenyatta because when I was in Kentucky, I finally got it about horses. I know the exact moment when it happened. On a tour of a horse farm, I was standing by the side of a paddock, watching a stallion run in the sunshine. He was clearly doing it for the joy of the movement, and he was so beautiful and so strong and so graceful that the breath caught in my throat and I couldn’t help but look at him and marvel.
Later I asked my guide how they identified promising race horses, how they knew that this one might have the right breeding and the right body, but no spark, and that this one may not have the best credentials but still had potential. “When they’re foals, you watch them play,” she explained. “The ones who might become winners just love to run. That’s what you watch for. You pick out the ones that love to run.”
So I think that’s part of what appeals to us about Zenyatta. There are so many sports that are tainted by greed and doping and bad sportsmanship (and certainly horse-racing has some negative elements too). But when you see a truly amazing horse compete, you get a sense for the joy behind their movements, because it’s clearly something they do for the sheer love of it.
And if I could wax poetic for a moment, isn’t that what we all want? To do something that requires all our strength and heart and breath, something that taxes us and brings us out of ourselves? Perhaps when we watch a racehorse like Zenyatta we get a glimpse of what that feeling is like.
Really, the one consolation of her losing is that it doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference to her. And that is another lesson she teaches us, is it not?