by Bill H. Walmsley, Arkansas HBPA President
April 9, 2010, was a very special day for racing at Oaklawn Park. I believe it was also a very special day for racing in the United States. It was reminiscent of the public response to races run by Seabiscuit. Thoroughbred racing was the preeminent story in the press and on television in Arkansas.
45,000 fans descended on Hot Springs, a town with a population of about 35,000 people, and they were all there to see one race and one horse – Zenyatta. The race had almost become truly a race for the ages. Charles Cella had agreed to supplement into the Apple Blossom Purse by $3,500,000.00 and the Arkansas HBPA had agreed to put a $1,000,000.00 supplement into the original purse of $500,000.00. These supplements were contingent on Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta both starting in the race.
As all of you probably know, the contest did not occur because the connections for Rachel Alexandra chose not to come. However, the failure of the duel to occur did not diminish the enthusiasm of the fans nearly as much as I thought it would. They were still anxious to see the champion mare Zenyatta run, and she did not disappoint them.
Zenyatta’s magnetism became obvious while the fillies and mares were being saddled in the infield. As the announcer initially introduced Zenyatta to the huge crowd, she turned and faced them. Thereafter, she crossed one leg in front of the other and bowed her head. It was a perfect bow, or curtsy, and the crowd went wild at the spectacle. If I had not seen it with my own eyes, I would not have believed it.
The bow was not the only pre-race exhibition performed by Zenyatta that day, much to the delight of the crowd. During the post parade, she literally danced along in steps that almost mimicked a Tennessee Walker or a German Storm Trooper. As she pranced along, both front legs were extended fully, and the crowd went wild again. Naturally, she won the race at odds of 1-to-20, and the crowd responded with a thunderous steady cheer lasting for ten minutes.
When Mike Smith came back in front of the crowd at the finish line after the race, he took the mare all along the apron as close to fans as he could get. She pranced and she strutted for the crowd, and they responded in kind to her. People were crying and screaming out her name. In all my years in this industry, I have never seen a reaction by Thoroughbred fans like the reaction that day. It was like a journey back in time to the days when memorable horses were adored superstars.
As Oaklawn Park General Manager Eric Jackson said, “Today, 45,000 people watched a true champion compete. In years from now, there will be at least 100,000 people who will claim they were here to see this spectacle.”
I was as awe struck as I have ever been at any sporting event, and I suspect so were 45,000 other people.