On a three-acre patch of Texas ranchland, just south of the city of Austin, a 6-year-old son of Worldly Manner named Spot the Diplomat has found a home with the family of Grant and Greta Hays.
Funny where horses end up. Funny what they end up doing.
Spot the Diplomat was a real racehorse. He won three of his first four starts, including two small stakes at Del Mar, finished third in the 2006 Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita, and was favored in the California Cup Juvenile.
Over the following four seasons, Spot the Diplomat appeared in 35 more races, drifting up and down the class ladder for six different sets of owners and trainers until, last January, he was claimed for $20,000 by the Summit Racing partnership and turned over to Jeff Mullins. Spot the Diplomat won at first asking for Summit in March and followed that with a third in April, but he cracked a sesamoid in the process. His days as a racehorse were over.
Around the same time, Grant Hays, a local radio sound engineer, and his son Jack made a pilgrimage to the John Shirreffs stable at Hollywood Park to visit Zenyatta. They were living in Long Beach at the time, so the journey was not far, and for Zenyatta, it was not an unusual event. She does not get as much traffic as Lourdes, say, or the Grand Canyon. But over the past three years there have been hundreds upon hundreds of fans who simply want to drop by and enjoy the view, and, if possible, lay hands upon the remarkable beast.
Shirreffs let Jack Hays get very close and personal, and Zenyatta, as usual, submitted without fuss. With his father nervously observing and Shirreffs as confident guide, Jack poked and prodded the big mare, making the kind of noises associated with a combination of wondrous discovery and delight.
Jack Hays was 5 at the time. He turned 6 on the Fourth of July. He was born in Oregon, but his roots trace to Texas, and to the legacy of his great-great-great grandfather, John Coffee Hays, the legendary Texas Ranger whose mounted likeness commands the plaza in front of the Hays County Courthouse. Hays was hailed across the Texas Republic as Captain Jack, but to the Commanches he battled he was referred to by the tribal honorific “Bravo Too Much.”
At the time he met Zenyatta, young Jack Hays already had been diagnosed with a form of autism. The outward signs include a persistent restlessness, lack of eye contact, little or no verbal communication, and an almost violent resistance to intimate physical approach. Imagine for a moment not being able to caress your child, not having that child want to cuddle in the crook of your arm, lean his head against your chest, fall softly to sleep.
Is it any wonder then, that the parents of autistic children curse whatever fates are at hand, beating their arms against the sky. Grant and Greta Hays, already dealing with Jack’s disorder, soon discovered their second son, Dylan, was exhibiting similar autistic behaviors.
“The divorce rate is something like 85 percent among autistic parents,” Grant Hays noted. “We walked on coals of fire for a long time.”
Neither did they take no for an answer. After watching Jack with Zenyatta and other horses, on several visits to the Shirreffs barn, Grant Hays reached out to horse trainer and author Rupert Isaacson, who has told the story of his autistic son in the book and documentary “Horse Boy.” Inspired by the tale of young Jack and Zenyatta, Isaacson invited the Hayses to join another family with an autistic child for a horse camp in the East Texas hill country.
“They had horses, a trampoline, and a river to play in,” Hays said. “Rupert would have the kids riding three hours a day, and the transformation was miraculous. It was becoming clear to us that such a setting was where our boys needed to be.”
Clear as crystal, especially on the day Jack was bouncing on Rupert Isaacson’s trampoline, when his father heard him say, “Be!”
“Be, Jack, yeah, ‘Be!’” his father replied.
“Be hap-pee!” said Jack.
“Yes, Jack, let’s be happy.”
“Be happy Daddy!”
The epiphany complete, Grant and Greta Hays moved their family to the land of his ancestors. Not long after that, Spot the Diplomat followed. With the noted Southern California handicapper and Summit Racing manager Bob Ike riding point, Spot the Diplomat got the rehab he needed in the wake of his injury, and then was delivered to the freshly settled Hays family at their spread, about 30 miles south of Austin.
“He’s totally okay for walking, and slow trots with the boys riding him,” Hays said. “Dylan runs under his belly and behind his back legs. Jack yanks on his tail, things that would make you cringe in fear. But Spot doesn’t flinch. They have really good energy around Spot. You start to tune into that, and I don’t see the way they are as negative any more. They can be productive, and we can tap into their gifts.
“Spot’s brought a lot of peace to our world,” Hays went on. “Just being around him, when I’m under stress, or I’m frustrated with autism, or life in general, I just hang out with Spot and it seems to just go away, just giving him a hug, talking to him. This whole experience has brought us over the mountain. I know we’re a rarity, but it’s made us better people. We’re not sad anymore.”
And what they learned, they plan to share.
“What we discovered, after all the tests and all the doctors, is that nature is the best cure for these children, and horses can be a big part of that,” Hays said.
“Thoroughbreds are notorious for being extremely difficult, for being hypersensitive, unpredictable, very hard to understand,” Hays added. “That is exactly how autistic kids are. And when you bring them together, you get this harmonic. This peace. I think there’s a real future for Thoroughbreds and autistic children. I’d like to adopt more, create a program for other autistic families.”
Be happy Daddy. Bravo too much.

Summit Racing LLC was only fortunate enough to own Spot the Diplomat for the final two races of his 41-race career. A career that saw him win seven races, including a stakes race as a 2-year-old, while earning more than $342,000 over five seasons.

After winning a Cal-bred allowance race at Santa Anita first time off the claim in early March, the 6-year-old gelding came back a month later and ran a terrific third against similar, earning a 91 Beyer speed rating–his best figure in nearly two years. We were riding high, having earned back our $20,000 investment in two races, and owners of a horse who clearly was in top form.

However, three weeks later the bad news came. He had fractured a sesamoid bone in a workout at Hollywood Park and would have to be retired.

After letting him rehabilitate at a farm in Murietta, we were able to find him a home with the Hays family, who would be relocating from California to Texas in August.

Grant Hays and his wife Greta are not your typical “horse people”. Grant was working as a producer at a radio station; Greta, in the fine dining business and a mother of two young boys, Jack, age 5, and Dylan, 2. But as the parents of two severely autistic children, they were moving to Texas so their young boys could be around horses, which are known to have a tremendously therapeutic effect on autistic kids.

“Spot” is enjoying his retirement in a large, shaded paddock and the Hays family is thriving. “Our family is so happy to be adopting Spot. All of us feel the good energy,” said Grant. “Being around these horses has changed my perspective on life. He is an angel around the kids. Worst he ever does is being too friendly and social!”

Trainer Jeff Mullins put it best. “He is one of the coolest horses I’ve ever trained, and he deserves a good home. Hopefully he can make a difference in these little kid’s lives. Thank you all for giving him a great life.”

And a special thank you to our partners Neil Haymes, Jeremy Peskoff and Selman Shaby, who continued paying bills after Spot’s racing career was over while we waited to find him that good home, one this old warrior richly deserved.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – When it is so perfect that everybody at the track is looking down the stretch gauging the distance from the closing horse to the frontrunning horse to the wire and screaming for something far more significant than a horse race or history or really anything tangible, you almost want to freeze the moment, never knowing how it ends.
Zenyatta was a feeling. Just like Smarty Jones was a feeling at the 2004 Belmont Stakes. And every time you are there for something you may never experience again is a feeling, along with a concern that you may never get it back.

You can’t script horse racing’s storylines. The best of them have more than a bit of fantasy. The action on the track consists of a few minutes so the opportunity to feel it must be developed over time, the years it took to develop a champion, the weeks leading up to a big race, the final moments when the horses come on the track.

The one thing the sport consistently gets wrong is the endings. The humans can only do so much. Sometimes, the racing gods determine the outcome.

Zenyatta passed 117 horses in her brilliant 3-year-career. If just about everybody in the Churchill Downs crowd of 72,739 had their way early Saturday evening, it would have been 118.

The great mare, however, finally found two obstacles she could not overcome – racing reality and a really tough colt named Blame.

Jockey Mike Smith wanted to take the blame for Zenyatta’s first defeat, but there was none to be ascribed. The shock wasn’t that she finally lost. The miracle was that she won for so long.

Zenyatta’s career will end with those 19 consecutive wins and one loss, by a head to Blame in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. Blame likely will be voted 2010 Horse of the Year and that is fine. The colt had a terrific year and won the sport’s championship race.

That will be just an award. There is one of those every year.

What will linger is the emotion of anybody who saw Zenyatta charge at Blame, the wire and perfection in those final yards. That she didn’t get there will matter in some historical context. That she was trying so hard to get there will matter more.

Which is why the great mare’s trainer John Shirreffs removed the barricades around Barn 41 yesterday morning. He wanted anybody who was there to get right next to Zenyatta while she was grazing. It is why dozens of cars stopped on Longfield Avenue to take in the scene outside the barn.

Asked if he had watched the replay, Shirreffs said: “Well, maybe later. It was her last race. It’s all over. Why watch it again?”

He will watch it someday and he will see the horse of his lifetime stroll out of the starting gate. By the time the field had gone a quarter-mile, Zenyatta was 10 lengths behind the second-to-last horse, seemingly startled by the amount of dirt coming her way.

Zenyatta had only raced on dirt twice before and that was against a six- and then five-horse field. There were 11 horses ahead of her in the Classic and the dirt was flying back. Smith went through all six pairs of goggles. Kickback was never an issue on the synthetic surfaces in California where she raced the other 17 times.

The field consisted of three divisions – the four frontrunners, the next seven and Zenyatta. As the horses ran around the far turn, the first four began to retreat. The next seven were closing on them. And Zenyatta was in gear.

By the quarter pole, all 12 horses were within 5 lengths. It was very congested. Quality Road backed up into Zenyatta’s path. Smith had to alter her course slightly. Then he had to swing her outside a few other horses for a clear path. Blame, meanwhile, found a crease. And was gone. At least he looked gone.

Zenyatta had to make up 5 lengths in the final 440 yards. She ran the last quarter-mile of her career in a tick under 24 seconds, about as fast as a horse can go at the end of a mile-and-a-quarter race. She rolled past Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky. In the final yards, she seemed to be gaining a few inches with every stride. She fell maybe 6 inches short. The wire came too soon.

“I feel like I let her down,” Smith said. “I left her too much to do.”

Really, bad racing luck got her squeezed at the break, the flying dirt put her too far back and the traffic is just part of racing. Smith and Zenyatta were simply victims of circumstance.

“I truly believe I was on the best horse today,” Smith said. “If I had to blame anybody, it would be me.”

He shouldn’t. But his emotion is understandable. When perfect is that close, who doesn’t want perfect?

Horses run as fast as they can. Zenyatta was different. She ran as fast as she had to. She would beat inferior opponents by small margins and confuse the unknowing. The mare simply was determined to pass all the horses in front of her and do nothing more than necessary.

When it seemed impossible for her to catch Blame and she had to run really fast just to get close, she did it, just like she did when she won the 2009 Classic. She earned a 111 Beyer speed figure in defeat.

Zenyatta was to be flown back to California last night. She will be there a month and then head to Kentucky where she will be bred next year.

If you’ve seen the movie “Secretariat” you saw an actor playing the young Seth Hancock when he took over Claiborne Farm in 1972 and put together that syndication deal after Secretariat’s memorable 2-year-old season.

Blame is co-owned by Claiborne. Blame will stand stud next year at Claiborne in Paris, Ky. Thirty-eight years after he took over the farm where Secretariat lived out his life, Hancock very likely has the farm’s first Horse of the Year in its 100th year.
“I’m just proud to win the race,” Hancock said. “I take no pride in beating Zenyatta. She is what she is. She’s awesome. She’s been great for racing. Her human connections are wonderful people and I feel bad for them.”

Blame has raced five times at Churchill and won four. It was Zenyatta’s first start under the Twin Spires.

$1.8 million was bet on Zenyatta to win, and $163 million on the 14 races over 2 days.

If one star left the stage, another may have emerged. Uncle Mo overwhelmed the Juvenile, earning a Beyer figure of 108, the kind of number that could win the Kentucky Derby in 6 months. And if the colt improves, watch out in 2011.

The amazing Goldikova won her third straight Mile. As fast as Zenyatta was running at the finish, Goldikova was going even faster, running her final quarter-mile in 23 seconds.

Maybe we can split the distances, conjure up a surface and have an imaginary race between two of the greatest mares in history.

That new fall-racing bonanza at Parx Racing paid national dividends. Chamberlain Bridge, who won the Turf Monster on Labor Day, took the Turf Sprint. And Pennsylvania Derby winner Morning Line led until the final strides of the Dirt Mile.

Zenyatta’s presence overwhelmed the event. She was the story. And who knows when or if there will be another like it.

Man o’ War lost once. Native Dancer lost once. Now,

Zenytta has lost once.

Those horses are still considered among the all-time greats. They just were not perfect. Zenyatta was perfect from November 2007 until November 2010. She will be great forever.

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