The View from Mattie’s Pillow


Mattie is a big black horse—or a dark bay, when she’s been in the sun a lot.  There’s a way she moves sometimes that’s powerful and graceful all at once, a quality that drew me to her when I first saw her.   Sometimes, standing the corral, scanning the house for movement that might indicate I’m coming with hay, she has a high-headed,  alert look that seems classic, the way we dream a horse should be.

I write this because there’s a horse out there, Zenyatta, who has so much of this dreamy quality it’s as if she were bred from our dreams of what a horse could be.  I had heard about her from a friend who had been following her career over the last couple of years, and I knew she had been winning races, but I didn’t really know what the fuss over her was about until I went to my friend Casey’s to watch her run on the big screen.

I have watched the Triple Crown races on TV since I was around 7 years old.  I remember certain horses I chose as my favorites—the gray, Carry Back, was the first I remember though I forget the year.  And there were whole eras I missed when I didn’t have TV—graduate school years and the out-of-work years after that.   But now, I don’t miss the Derby, Preakness, or Belmont.  I remember Funny Cide and Barbaro, Street Sense and Eight Belles, Rachel Alexandra.  But Zenyatta skipped the Triple Crown, skipped her whole three-year-old year to keep growing sturdy bones and long muscles.  And then she started winning races.

So, today, I went, again, to Casey’s to watch Zenyatta’s 19th race.  She had run undefeated in 18.  19 would be a thoroughbred record.  She won and now holds the record, but that’s not what I remember about her.  She’s built differently than any other horse I’ve seen—a bit longer in the neck, wider-set in the hind legs.  Her gaskins, the muscle above the hock that allows the hind legs to extend and lift, seem exceptionally long so that her hind legs stride deep under her at the walk, like a Tennessee Walking horse.  She is so full of eagerness to run at the start of each race that she paws the ground and extends each front leg in a Spanish walk.  Her muscled back and loin distort the movement of her walk from behind so that she almost looks like she’s waddling or lame—until she’s saddled and moves out onto the track in a smooth trot.

She stands a full hand or two above the other mares she raced against today, which makes her easy to spot in a race—the large graceful black horse who seems to be loping along behind the pack.  The front-runners strain and scramble for the lead, but Zenyatta is having a nice easy hack.  Then, her jockey gives her two smacks with the crop, like a reminder of the business at hand, and she unfolds.  A plucky little bay, Switch, pulled ahead as Zenyatta was working up to her full stride, and, for a minute, we all thought she had waited too long.  But Zenyatta stretched out her frame and those long fluid muscles, and, in two huge strides, she had won.  We were bouncing on the couch and screaming.

So, why this horse?  She seems like a horse out of Walter Farley’s Black Stallion books.  It sounds corny to say it, but she seems to take everything in: her large ears swivel to every sound and movement, she looks at the camera as if she understood posing, she looks at the crowd as if she intended to be admired.  Hardened sports announcers marvel at her ability to know where the finish line is and cross it ahead of the others at the necessary moment.

And everything about her is large—her large diamond blaze that covers her wide forehead, her long, arched neck that tapers up from the width of her shoulder to the crest to the narrower poll, her wide back and loins, the dappled gleam of her coat.  When we watch her, we know we are seeing something we may never see again.  She touches some deep longing in us for perfection or for the ideal.  She makes everything she does seem easy.

I’ve been thinking of her all day on a day when people I love and care for are dealing with troubles: a bad breakup, a serious illness, unfinished projects, the onset of winter.  She lifts us out of it all for a couple of minutes that we can replay and replay in our memory (not to mention You-Tube).  She balances us out—heartbreak/Zenyatta; runaway dog/Zenayatta; political shenanigans/Zenyatta; the waning moon, the dark night of the soul….Zenyatta.

She will run again on November 6, in the Breeder’s Cup, against colts.  Maybe she will lope less and run more.  Maybe she will find that extra speed her jockey, Mike Smith, believes is there.   Maybe we’ll all hold our breaths, endure what we need to get to that day, cheer her last race before retirement to the lazy life of the brood farm, let a little of her beauty, her strength, her confidence into our lives at that moment, in hopes it will carry us on through the winter ahead.

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