Learning from Zenyatta, Secretariat and Seabiscuit

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“He cannot stand still when the trumpet sounds…” – Job 39:24 NIV (from the movie, Secretariat)

Three horses, three different stories, three legends of all time. I could not have predicted even a month ago that I’d be enthralled with the tales of three horses and writing about it.

First off, I’m not crazy about horses; I’ll admit to that. While I have a brother who grew up with the love of horses in his blood, I shied away from them after a childhood scare. To me, horses were too big, too powerful, too headstrong.

However, I’d always admired their magnificence and, in essence, their spirituality.  In truth, many stories of humans and their horses have inspired me throughout life. Horses were favorite topics of books I’d check out from the library, growing up, as well as of movies and TV series; and I’ve always enjoyed my interviews with people who love horses. I just couldn’t see myself as a horse person.

Apparently, I’ve needed to take a closer look at the horse as a symbol in my life, because I took to heart the plea of the host of a forum I’m on, telling us to go see the movie Secretariat — the new Disney movie based on the true story of that marvelous 1973 Triple-Crown winning race horse — because we need more inspirational films. The more people who go see this movie, the higher it will place on the charts, he said, and maybe the studios will pay attention.

Then, someone posted about  Zenyatta.  Not being a horse person, or following horse racing, I’d not heard of Zenyatta. This week the horse thing burst forth on my consciousness.  Zenyatta, with jockey Mike Smith, was to race at the 2010 Breeder’s Cup Classic.  If she won, it would be the “Quest for Perfection” – a perfect 20, after 19 straight wins.

The night before Zenyatta’s big day, we went to see Secretariat with friends. We were not disappointed. Secretariat, and the way the story was portrayed, stole my heart – and stopped my heart when I watched the racing scenes. Just as heart-stopping was watching Zenyatta race from the back, only to lose to Blame, a stallion,  by  a nose  – ironically, on the 100th anniversary of the founding of Claiborne Farm, the former home of the legendary Secretariat.

In a New York Times interview, Melissa Hoppert interviews Secretariat director Randall Wallace (director of Braveheart). The film highlights the story of the family of Penny Chenery Tweedy (played by Diane Lane) and how she “bravely navigated a man’s world to save the family farm.”

That story is inspiring, because what Tweedy accomplished, being a woman, was challenging in that generation. The Zenyatta story is another come-from-behind inspiration. She’s a horse that comes along and becomes part of the pop culture, as they said of the third legendary horse on my mind, Seabiscuit.

In this Triple Crown field, the hallmark is pure determination: persistence, perseverance, running the race before you with power, grace and dignity.  It was powerfully moving to have been drawn into the world of Penny Chenery Tweedy’s Secretariat and the racing culture of the 70s; and the very next day to witness Zenyatta nearly break that perfect 20.  And, I don’t know horse talk, but I saw the race and the clips; and, to me, she only lost by a nose, not a head.

Seabiscuit, the movie, was one of my all-time favorites, and not because it was a horse story. It’s a beautiful story of grit and determination, woven together by Laura Hillebrand in her book Seabiscuit: An American Legend. Seabiscuit, by the way, has his own postage stamp. As Maggie Van Ostrand wrote in Huffington Post, when the stamp debuted on May 11, 2009, “This stamp is significant for one huge reason: WE the people did it! It took us eight long years, but we did it.”

“The stamp shows ‘the people’s horse,’ Seabiscuit, beating the horsey crowd’s favorite, the magnificent Triple-Crown Winner, War Admiral, in their famous match race, still regarded as the greatest horse race in history.”  Seabiscuit became a national icon, just as Secretariat, and I hope also that Zenyatta will be, as well. Perhaps one day, she’ll have her own postal stamp.

That story came to my attention by mere coincidence, as if to emphasize to me, the principle of three, including three horses. Not having known a thing about this Seabiscuit stamp, on the day of Zenyatta’s big race, I was walking in from the mailbox, ruffling through the envelopes. I know this sounds improbable, but there was a letter with a huge 44 cent postal stamp of SEABISCUIT.

I love it when things show up in my life to make a point.  So, back to my quest for horse symbolism: Power, Grace, Beauty, Nobility, Strength, Freedom. Yes, I’ll go with those aspects. Aspects of myself that I’m working on, being brought before me, enmeshed in the stories of three great horses.

I loved Melissa Hoppert’s New York Times interview with Randall Wallace, director of Braveheart, about directing Secretariat, especially these interview questions: “Are you a horse racing fan?” and “How did you come to direct the movie?”

His answer to the “Are you a horse racing fan?” is why I loved Seabiscuit and Secretariat, and when I think back, to all the beautiful horse stories of childhood.  I’m not a horse person at all. But, I’ve always loved these “all things possible” stories. And, at this time in our culture, we can sure use all the positive, uplifting  stories and films we can generate.

Zenyatta is a beautiful inspiration for us all. While Hoppert writes about her  “come-from-behind running style and a quirky personality that is made for the cameras,” I like to think she’s telling us, “Run your race as you are inspired, and never give up on your dreams.”

After she lost to Blame, writes Beth Harris of Associated Press, “Jockey Mike Smith wept. Owners Jerry and Ann Moss stood in stunned silence. Trainer John Shirreffs trudged slowly back to the barn, hands in his pockets.”

“This wasn’t the feel-good ending that most people wanted,” writes Andrew Beyer in the Washington Post, “but it was as thrilling as any race in years and a fitting climax to a day of great competition.” “If viewers of the ESPN/ABC telecast didn’t get juiced up about horse racing Saturday,” he said, “there’s no hope for the sport.”

Zenyatta’s Quest for Perfection brought 72,739 people to Churchill Downs to be inspired. “They shouldn’t have despaired,” said Beyers. And, then he adds, “Zenyatta was more ennobled by this defeat than by almost anything she did during the 19-race winning streak she brought into Saturday’s race.”

It’s heartening to view the phenomenon from Beyer’s perspective. “Although she regularly won races with electrifying rallies in the stretch, none was so impressive as her charge from a hopeless position with a half mile to run-dead last and 15 length behind the leaders-that brought her into a photo finish with Blame.”

As for a Quest for Perfection, we all have that. But, I think it’s time to rethink perfection. If you look at the big picture, what Zenyatta gave us was what is possible if you run your heart out.  With passion and purpose, you can weave your way through the challenges of life, reinvigorating your creative spirit and dreams. You can reach the finish line; second, by a nose, perhaps, but definitely in style.

Happy Trails to Zenyatta, I say. May she remain an icon in the hearts of us all.  May we remember her valiant come-from-behind power, grace, beauty, nobility, strength, and yes…freedom.  With the vision of that race playing over and over in my mind, I have to think:

When the trumpet sounds, for my next project, my next dream, will I heed the call to burst forth from the starting gate? And, whatever the outcome – like Zenyatta — to not look back?

Links to stories about Secretariat, Seabiscuit, Zenyatta:

A montage of the 19 Zenyatta wins:

Breeders Cup race

Blame ends Zenyatta’s streak

A virtual matchup with Zenyatta and Seabiscuit

Betting on Seabiscuit: Lauren Hillenbrand’s story

New York Times: The Rail – Filming Secretariat’s Story

Seabiscuit Gets the Last Laugh

About Susan Parcheta 101 Articles

Susan G Parcheta dreamed of being an inspirational writer, even as heading off after college to a teaching job. While teaching was not her passion, words were — writing many years for Livingston newspapers, especially in the areas of education, health and wellness. The dream continues: to inspire creative, healthy living and to explore new concepts of body, mind, spirit. Her signature theme “All Things Beautiful” invites you to embrace the beauty and imagine the possibilities that life has to offer. She lives in Gregory with her husband, Jerry, and their fluffy, pointy-eared — and always lovable — cat, Spock.