Zenyatta bid a final farewell to her legions of fans Dec. 5 at Hollywood Park, pricking her cotton-stuffed ears at the gaggle of cameras one more time before heading into retirement.
The superstar mare who won 19 of her 20 career races and more than $7.3 million patiently walked around the paddock before taking to the track for a last stroll. Fans cheered and snapped photos as Zenyatta made her way along the grandstand so everyone could see her.
"It's amazing the following she has and we're fans ourselves," Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said a short time after he collected his 2,000th lifetime victory.
Zenyatta entered the paddock in between races wearing a pink saddlecloth from one of her wins in the Apple Blossom Handicap. Groom Mario Espinoza walked her in circles as 11,216 fans yelled her name and photographed every shake of her head.
She made her farewell tour without a rider in the saddle, a way to keep her low-key in an atmosphere that otherwise suggested she would be racing. It was several minutes before Zenyatta briefly high-stepped, a move that drew an approving roar from the crowd that mostly ignored the running of the sixth race while watching her.
"You can have a 20-year lull and when something like Zenyatta comes along, the public responds," said Bo Derek, a member of the California Horse Racing Board. "The fans confirm I'm not the only horse racing fan."
Owners Jerry and Ann Moss looked on lovingly as the 6-year-old mare made the rounds.
"We've been very lucky and blessed to have Zenyatta. This is a great day," a smiling Jerry Moss said, his arm wrapped around his wife. "We're feeling fantastic. We have a great horse retiring 100 percent sound."
The Mosses were joined by trainer John Shirreffs, his wife and the Mosses' racing manager Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs, jockey Mike Smith, exercise rider Steve Willard, Espinoza, hotwalker Carmen Zamona and pony boy Freddy Wilson.
"It was a tough morning to say goodbye to 'Big Mama'. I think I'm going to miss her more than all my wives," said Wilson, who said he has been married four times.
As Zenyatta walked onto the track, a replay of her victory in the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic played on the video board. Smith leaned against the rail, watching intently as she beat the boys in a race that bolstered her credentials.
Smith briefly took the reins from Espinoza and walked Zenyatta around as planes headed for nearby Los Angeles International Airport roared overhead. Smith handed over the reins and twice tapped his heart with his right hand before walking away.
"I'm really excited and really happy, but very sad," he said, tears welling in his brown eyes.
Handmade signs decorated the grandstand, expressing the fans' affection and appreciation of a horse who became a crossover star, with her own Twitter and Facebook accounts and appearances in national magazines and TV shows.
"We will miss you Zenyatta," read one sign. Another said, "Zenyatta thank you!!"
A young blond-haired girl carried a homemade pink letter 'Z' decorated with pink feathers in the paddock. Several fans donned pink-and-green clothing in a nod to the colors of the Mosses' silks.
"You have special feelings about horses, but a lot of people don't share that feeling," Shirreffs said. "But everybody shared it with Zenyatta. That was the wonderful thing about her."
Zenyatta retired last month shortly after finishing second by a head to Blame in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs Nov. 6 for the only blemish on her record.
She heads off to Kentucky Dec. 6 and will soon begin a breeding career. Espinoza will accompany her and stay a few days to help Zenyatta adjust to her new surroundings. She will make a public appearance in the paddock at Keeneland before being sent to Lane's End Farm near Versailles.
"We're going to miss her, but that's what happens," Shirreffs said. "The big thing is to enjoy the ones that you have when they're with you."
The Mosses couldn't resist a bit of campaigning, with both of them wearing "Vote Zenyatta" buttons in reference to her bid to win Horse of the Year honors in January.
Fans did the same, chanting "Horse of the Year" while Zenyatta was on the track.
"I think the industry will miss a huge opportunity if they don't give her Horse of the Year," said Shirreffs, though he didn't wear the pin.
(Originally posted on BloodHorse.com)