Through a Champion’s Eyes

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
July/August 2011

Mary Jessica Woods

The crowds roar for me as I step on the track. I listen, and I arch my neck and dance as my groom leads me down the stretch. Mike, my jockey, sits still on my back and listens too. But I know he is excited. I can tell by the way he grips the reins, clutching them firm. I prance a little more to assure him of my confidence.

Now my groom unsnaps the lead rope, and Mike stands in the saddle and lets me break into a canter. We are approaching the starting stalls, and other horses and riders canter past us. Some are nervous and skittish, so that an assistant must lope out on his own mount and steady them by the bridle. I continue my canter down the track. I know what is expected of me.

We jog past the starting gate. Mike lets me go a little more before turning me around. We slow to a walk. An assistant trots up beside us, and he leans over and takes hold of my bridle. Again I stretch my legs and dance. Slowly, all the racers turn and are ponied up to the stalls. We have the number four post position. The assistant lets go, and Mike steers me towards my stall. A starting handler takes my reins and leads me in. The gates are closed behind me. I feel Mike’s hands leave the reins for a moment as he reaches up to pull his goggles over his eyes. Then they are back again with a ready hold.

I flick my ears down the row at the sound of more gates being closed, one by one. Nearly all are in position now. Jockeys shift, horses stamp. I relax and feel Mike let out a breath as well. We know what to do.

Through a Champion’s Eyes horses racing

Mike keeps me steady, but I can sense his tingling excitement

Everyone is still now. The air is electric. Even the crowd feels it, and a shout surges from them…

Riiiiiiing!

The gates slam open, and for a few moments I see the track, clear and unoccupied before me. Then horses begin to crowd forward and bunch at the rail. Mike eases me to the back, some lengths behind the pack. I prick my ears and settle into that long, slow gallop I know so well.

“…Zenyatta’s dead last, Zenyatta’s dead last early…” The voice of the announcer fades in for a moment, but then it is lost again in the thunder of hooves. Mike crouches in the stirrups, his hands, legs, and whip motionless. I keep a steady stride, watching the rumps of the horses ahead rise and fall, rise and fall.

A little farther on, I feel the bit moving in my mouth and Mike’s hands rubbing against my neck. It is my signal. I extend my stride. We sweep by the first horse with no trouble and settle in second-to-last. Mike keeps me steady, but I can sense his tingling excitement.

*          *          *

The pack ahead begins its sweep around the first turn. I follow unhurriedly. We come out of the turn easily and I continue to breeze. I watch the jostling of the horses ahead and I am glad we are in the back, where I can concentrate and prepare for my real run at the end.

We are closer to the pack now, only a length or two behind the racer in front of us. The second and final turn is approaching. Still I wait for the signal.

We swoop around the turn. Now it is a straightaway for the wire. The drone of the announcer becomes momentarily audible.

“…if she can win this, she’ll be a superhorse…”

Mike gives me my cue a second time. I glance at the outside of the pack, for that is where I usually go, but this time Mike steers me towards the inside rail. The horses are breaking, and there is a hole there wide enough for me to slip through. I take it. Now I am in the middle of the pack, and I can feel Mike glancing around for another opening. There! Something is opening up on the outside. I prick my ears up and head for it. A horse rushes into our way, and we have to go around. But now the track is free and clear before us. Mike urges me with his hands and his whip. I fly over the ground. My strides lengthen and push me forward with ever-increasing speed. We are gaining… gaining… gaining… The crowd screams, but the voice of the astounded announcer sails above it all.

“ This—is—un—be— l i e v e- a – b l e ! ZENYATTA!”

We flash under the wire, half a length in front.

Mike punches the air with his fist in victory. The feeling is surging through him, and it makes me want to gallop further, but he eases back on the reins. I slow, even though I love the soaring sensation of running. The race is over. And when a rider lopes over to lead us to the winner’s circle, Mike takes off his helmet and lifts his eyes to heaven, thanking God for once again giving us wings.

*          *          *

On November 7, 2009, the Breeder’s Cup Classic was run at Santa Anita Park, California. The winner was the first female horse to ever capture that race—a five-year-old mare named Zenyatta. She was undefeated. In 2010 she went on to win five more races, all piloted by jockey Mike Smith. She retired in November of 2010 with a total of twenty starts and nineteen wins. Later, she also won 2010 Horse of the Year. Though her brilliant career is over, she will remain in our hearts for many, many years to come.

Long live the Queen.

Through a Champion’s Eyes Mary Jessica Woods

Mary Jessica Woods, 13
Frankfort, Illinois

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