Race Horse as Rock Star: Fandom and Zenyatta

Curator's Note

Six days before the movie Secretariat was scheduled to open in the United States, another star racehorse graced American screens. On October 2, 2010, in a race televised on ESPN and on cable and satellite racing network TVG, Thoroughbred racehorse Zenyatta remained undefeated by winning an unprecedented 19th consecutive top-level race.   Secretariat's owner and breeder, Penny Chenery, joined Zenyatta in the paddock before the race and the winner's circle after the race.  Most Americans have never heard of Zenyatta, a six-year-old mare owned by A&M Records co-founder Jerry Moss and his wife Ann Moss and named for a 1980 album by The Police, a one-time A&M act.  Zenyatta gained more widespread recognition when Oprah Winfrey revealed her 2010 “O” Power List,” which urged us to “Meet 20 women (and one amazing horse) who blew us away this year.”

Zenyatta is a site of meaning creation: she is alternately and simultaneously a feminist icon who in 2009 was the first mare to beat males in the year-end headlining race, the Breeders’ Cup Classic; a savior of a dying sport; the subject of fierce debate among racing fans who disagree about whether she should have won the 2009 “Horse of the Year” title instead of the actual winner, fellow female Rachel Alexandra.  She is a star, albeit one with a small – but wildly devoted – fan base. Richard Dyer tells us “Star images are always extensive, multimedia, intertextual,” and the proliferation of digital tools and online social platforms enables fan co-creation of stars.  Participating fans include Zenyatta’s trainer, John Shirreffs, who has uploaded videos taken from her exercise rider’s perspective to YouTube, and scores of others, mostly women and girls, who create video tributes, including “song videos” like the one on this page.

Like most Zenyatta fan videos, this example highlights the qualities that caused veteran turf writer Steve Haskin to state that more than any horse, Zenyatta transcends mere racehorse-ness because of her “diva-like presence and prima ballerina moves,” “her uncanny showmanship and ability to take on human traits.” The articulation of Zenyatta with Lady Gaga, whose song “Starstruck” provides the fan video’s audio track, is intriguing.  Both are stars with niche, femininely gendered fandoms; both are symbols of female empowerment; both are subjects of passionate debate; both have fandoms that believe their stars, and thus the fans themselves, occupy marginal social and cultural roles; both are Other yet one of us; both are becoming-human and becoming-animal.  Although relatively few people have heard of her, Zenyatta matters.


Paula's comment is actually very appropriate as a starting point for the discussion.  I think many people would say both of those things: who is Zenyatta, and why haven't I heard of her?  Especially in light of this video.

It's very interesting how fan videos like these, in the age of rampant 'textual poaching,' seem inherently to give us so much more to connect to:  the editing that puts Zenyatta's steps in time with Gaga's music is just one example of the personality that comes through in the editing.  And as you say, Holly, the linking with Gaga's star is another.

This form of animal-fan expression is fascinating.

I'm really interested to continue exploring this sort of fandom, especially because it exists at the intersection of two industries/forms of involvement I've studied separately: popular music and horse racing.  Of particular interest is how girls' fandom is expressed using technology and music in non-traditional forms of musical production.  (And it makes it cool that a musician has weighed in – thanks, Paula!)

I thought the timing of my post worked well, given that this column – called "David Beckham, You're No Zenyatta" – appeared in the LA Times this weekend:


In light of the Los Angeles Times piece, it's salient that Zenyatta's fame is quite limited.  Horse racing would argue, ironically, that it needs a Zenyatta, or a series of Zenyattas.  A few big races attended by rabid fans and followed by the mainstream media can't save a sport.

I was so glad to read this, because I have been enjoying horse media for a long time and nobody writes about them.  The media's representation of fillies racing in high profiles stakes races with male horses clearly appeals very strongly to feminist stars like Oprah Winfrey who see them as points of identification--just like when Secretariat was listed as one of the greatest athletes of all time (he was the only non-human listed in this group), there's a compulsion to view horses as more telegenic athletes and more star-like than are other animals.  Though Donna Haraway focuses on dogs as better examples of interspecies communication in her writing on agility as a sport, it's really horses that are the stars on television. 

The kind of feminism embodied or invoked by Lady Gaga is deeply problematic to many, and seems to embody the divide between second and third wave feminists all too well.  Susan Faludi writes a scathing critique of Jack Halberstam's reading of Lady Gaga as a feminist figure in this month's Atlantic in an article entitled “American Electra. Feminism's Ritual Matricide."  Lady Gaga exemplifies empty spectacle without politics, queer identifications without risk, an engagement with the surface of things rather than their depths. Or so Faludi thinks.  She doesn't portray Halberstam as trying to convince her otherwise. 

Likewise,the kind of feminism that invokes female horses as models of can-do female competency has problems too.  Kentucky Derby watchers might remember when filly Eight Belles broke down after crossing the finish line in 2008 and had to be euthanized on the track because she couldn't be moved.  Horse racing can be a brutal sport, with little incentive for owners and trainers to preserve the health and well being of their horses when there is so much to be gained from stud fees.  A horse that retires with a great record at age 3 after having broken down is worth much more than a horse than wasn't driven to win in the first place.  

Though of course after Eight Belles fans speculated that fillies are too delicate to race with the boys, that it was exploitative and cruel to enter her in a colt's race rather than keeping her with the fillies, that conversation has faded into the background since Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta.  Big stars like these two do create a kind of cultural amnesia--just as Lady Gaga's fans seem to have forgotten a little bit about a certain performer named Madonna who crystallized a lot of the same debates about feminism a few years ago.

Both debates fail to call the system to oppresses both horses and humans in equal measure.  All racehorses regardless of gender live risky lives, race while injured or in pain, and are viewed as disposable bodies that only accrue value through winning, and later as producers of valuable genetic material.  What kind of feminism is this?  In some sense fillies are protected precisely because their star power is much less, their races are often not televised--most people couldn't name a single horserace for fillies (interesting, one of the ones I can think of right off is the "Distaff": filly racing is always gendered in a way that colt racing is not).  Horse racing is beautiful, and it is utterly exploitative in its current form.  Can or should we say the same thing about the music industry or other forms of human celebrity where gender is both an obstacle to be overcome and a sale-able commodity?

There's a lot to talk about here, Lisa, and I can't touch on all of it, but you make some excellent and interesting points.  (And I will be doing the final -- I hope -- revision of my horse racing and new media book manuscript in the next couple of months.)

The exploitation point is an especially rich area for exploration, and one that gets quite nuanced and complicated in the industry.  It is, however, at the crux of much of the "Zenyatta vs. Rachel" debate: the binary that is posed is that Zenyatta's people want to do what's best for her, have spaced out her races to keep her happy and healthy, didn't retire her because she wanted to stay at the track and race; while Rachel Alexandra's team bought her after she won the Kentucky Oaks, ran her hard  for more glory, tried to push her when she'd already lost heart, and then retired her when it was clear she wouldn't be able to beat Zenyatta this year.

I'd say that within the industry, Eight Belles' tragic fate tied and ties into a larger conversation about breeding for sale versus breeding to race, fashionable sires who produce unsoundness, and the state of the thoroughbred breed in the U.S.  In Europe, fillies and mares frequently race against males and beat them (witness Goldikova, including this past weekend), and it's not a big deal.  Oh, and the Breeders' Cup Distaff was renamed a couple of years ago.  It's now the "Ladies' Classic," which is even worse.  The industry has huge blindspots when it comes to members of the public who aren't likely to bet much money on horse racing.

Articulations of the human-animal connection in media are of great interest to me.  I'm also a dog exhibitor, trainer, and very occasional breeder.  I'd love to see more commentary on the Lady Gaga point.  My initial thought on the fan video was that combining Zenyatta and Lady Gaga was an interesting move, since in their own ways, both have been polarizing figures.  Obviously the exploiters in their cases are very different.  The fandom was what particularly interested me... but including how controversies are negotiated.

This is actually a beautifully-made little film. Knowing how most horses actually live in the business and the fact that the horse racing/gambling business appears to be on its last legs, so to speak, the film is also sort of unsettling to watch.

What I wonder: in the public construction of this horse's fame does it matter that Zenyatta doesn't know she is famous? When people are famous, they know it and can choose to engage with their fans and the media in various ways--mugging for the camera or slugging paparazzi, tweeting or blogging, or attending events where they know they will be seen. Zenyatta (probably) has no conception of human-made celebrity and the ways people who will never meet her nonetheless project their own needs onto her image. Is Zenyatta all the more powerful as a celebrity because she cannot talk back to her fans? And what might she say to them?

This is one of the things that makes the figure of Zenyatta so compelling, Susan.  Many fans believe that Zenyatta knows she's a star, knows she's being admired, and that this is why she prances in the paddock and "acknowledges the crowd" after her wins.  It's a thread that runs through the texts of Zenyatta, from grizzled racing veterans' columns to fan videos.  YouTube hosts many videos that claim to show Zenyatta consciously playing to the crowd (see, for instance, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KsNlfmvcJ0Q&feature=related).  Such discourse demonstrates that her mannerisms make her a rich site for projection.  It's also convenient for racing that this star represents what's "right" with the sport, that her owners are closely identified with racehorse welfare issues (they are major supporters of the Old Friends thoroughbred retirement facility), that her trainer is known as a good guy who loves his horses, and so on.  (This is different from the problematic case of Rachel Alexandra's connections.)

Your comments also raise the interesting question of animal consciousness.  We assume this narrative of Zenyatta is anthropomorphism, projecting.  But is it possible that Zenyatta really does know she's a star, like jockey Mike Smith and others close to her say?

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