Horse Racing's Zenyatta Puts The Boys To Shame
SCOTT SIMON, Host:
Who's the best athlete in the world? We can make arguments in favor of LeBron James, Lance Armstrong, Usain Bolt - the Jamaican sprinter known as the fastest man in the world, or Serena Williams.
What about Zenyatta?
(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE RACE)
Unidentified Man: She's starting to pick them off though. Zenyatta (unintelligible) to the outside, meanwhile it's Colonel John. Summer Bird in the (unintelligible) Zenyatta has come to the outside. Zenyatta coming, flying on the grandstand side...
SIMON: Zenyatta is a six-year-old thoroughbred mare who is undefeated in 17 races, including last year's Breeder's Cup Classic; the first time a female thoroughbred won. She is the winningest horse of all time.
And who better to tell us Zenyatta's story than our friend Laura Hillenbrand, whose epical book "Seabiscuit" tells the story of the greatest horse of another era. We join Laura at her home.
Thanks so much for being with us.
LAURA HILLENBRAND: Thanks so much for having me.
SIMON: Zenyatta is six years old. She's owned by Jerry and Ann Moss. Jerry Moss owns A&M Records, I guess. Why didn't Zenyatta run as a three-year-old?
HILLENBRAND: She ran at the end of her three-year-old season. That was the first time she had ever run. She didn't run at two, which most horses do. I believe it's because she is so large. Horses need to kind of grow into their bodies. She is an absolutely spectacularly huge horse. I mean if you hollowed her out, she would make a great hotel.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HILLENBRAND: She is simply and possibly the biggest great horse in history.
SIMON: And what makes her a great horse?
HILLENBRAND: She's got it all. I mean for one thing, she's never been beaten. And to put that into perspective, in the whole 20th century, only two elite horses went unbeaten in their careers. One of them won 13 races, one of them won 15. She's won 17 and has never been beaten. And that's the biggest reason why she's a great race horse. But she also went to arguably the most prestigious horse race in the world last year, the Breeders Cup Classic, against the best males in the world, and she didn't just beat them, she blew them away.
SIMON: And she wins in particularly dramatic fashion, doesn't she?
HILLENBRAND: She's got that old crowd-pleasing style. She drops back very, very far at the beginning of the race. She let's everybody else exhaust themselves. Every single time I have seen her run I've thought she's not going to make it. She's too far back. And then she gets that gigantic butt going and she starts just flying by horses.
And she's so large that her stride is absolutely enormous. She just swallows the ground. And if you watch her by herself, you're thinking she's not going that quickly, and then you notice little blurs going past her, and that's other horses that she's passing and putting away. So she's - she likes to cut it close. She likes to toy with her opposition and wait until the last second to get her nose in front. But she's amazing. She never loses.
SIMON: Who's her daddy?
HILLENBRAND: Her father is Street Cry, who was a horse who won the Dubai World Cup. He's a very, very hot sire, so she's really got the good bloodlines going for her.
SIMON: I've read interviews with her jockey, Mike Smith, who seems to be genuinely in awe of her.
HILLENBRAND: I think she must be an incredible thrill to ride. You can actually go out on Youtube and have the experience of riding her. They put a camera on the helmet of her exercise rider, and so you can actually get that feel of being up on her back, and it's extraordinary.
SIMON: And tell me a little something about her training regimen.
HILLENBRAND: It's a fairly ordinary training regimen. You know, she works out every few days, and just like every other horse. But there is something that she does after her workouts - she drinks Guinness with her trainer, and you can actually go out in YouTube and watch this. She has a little plastic bowl and she'll drink a pint of Guinness after her workout. She seems to love it. She slurps it right up. Maybe that's the secret to winning 17 races in a row.
SIMON: But she doesn't have a - as far as you can tell, she doesn't have a problem yet.
HILLENBRAND: A problem with alcohol?
SIMON: Yeah. Yeah.
HILLENBRAND: No. I think she's all right. I think she's all right.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SIMON: She also seems to have real personality.
HILLENBRAND: She does something that has come to be known as the Zenyatta dance. I have seen tens of thousands of race horses. I've never seen a horse do something like this. When she is being led to the paddock, she begins to walk in this strange and balletic way where she'll begin hopping from one four leg to the other and thrusting the one that's in the air out straight ahead of her like she's pointing to something.
It's a beautiful little motion she makes and everyone stares and wonders what she's doing. And I think she's just playing. I think she's just so excited about being out there and getting to do her job and getting to rub the other horse's noses in their inferiority, and she's loving it. She will do it during the warm-up; she does it right until she goes into the starting gate.
SIMON: Are there commercial pressures to have her start, you know, producing offspring?
HILLENBRAND: I think there are some in that she's going to be a very, very valuable breed mare. She's very well-bred herself, and of course she has the racing record that nobody can compare to. But she only cost $60,000 and she's won more than six million, so there are plenty of reasons to stay on the race track and she's - her owners are such wonderful sports people. They give her to the public and they let everyone enjoy her.
Horseracing in the last few years has really taken a few blows to the gut. We had the death of Barbaro, the death of Eight Belles. We've needed some good news and Zenyatta has given that to racing. And the most amazing thing happened when she ran her last race, the Vanity Handicap in June. She crossed the wire and the crowd was going insane, screaming at Hollywood Park. Then she galloped out. She stopped and she turned around, and as she's coming back, the crowd was still on its feet, they were still cheering as if she was still running.
That is something you rarely see, not just in racing but in sport. She is a real treasure and people feel such gratitude. There's a rapture gathering around this horse. And you know, even if you don't like horseracing, you should get out and see this horse because we may not see the likes of her ever again.
SIMON: Laura, thanks so much.
HILLENBRAND: Thank you so much.
SIMON: Laura Hillenbrand, the author of "Seabiscuit," talking about Zenyatta. And you have a new book coming out. You can tell us the title, can't you?
HILLENBRAND: It is "Unbroken." It will be out in November.
SIMON: All right. Talk to you then.
HILLENBRAND: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.