Race Horse as Rock Star: Fandom and Zenyatta
by Holly Kruse — Rogers State University
October 04, 2010 – 16:58
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.