Maureen Dowd: Cleopatra, Zenyatta and us

From hoofbeats to hieroglyphics: divas who dared

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It has not been a stellar year for women in politics.

Some of the women who have wanted to lead are cartoonish, others charmless. Some are smart but tightly wound. Others are dumb and completely loose.

The first female speaker of the House has been dumped, and the paltry number of women in Congress has shrunk for the first time in three decades. Alpha women in politics and business are in a slump.

So instead, I have found myself obsessing on two enchantresses who knew how to win -- one equine and one who claimed to be divine.

In an era when it's hard for women to be powerful and flamboyant at the same time, to be uninhibited and unflappable, Zenyatta and Cleopatra are not merely legends, but role models. They dazzled with glamour, while fiercely and daringly pursuing shrewd strategies to win against the biggest, fastest, most competitive boys. Both divas were renowned for coming from behind, until those last heartbreaking times when they couldn't pull it off.

Zenyatta drinks Guinness, while Cleopatra quaffed poison. (That asp may be the ancient world's version of George Washington's cherry tree.)

Zenyatta, Hollywood's "aging Amazon," as one of the commentators at Churchill Downs called her last weekend, is statuesque and beautiful, with stylish bangs and a mink-brown coat.

Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen, was not beautiful. But she was certainly sensual and theatrical, glowing with gems, pearls, intellect and charm as she sailed around the Red Sea in a cloud of incense, once dressed as Venus to greet Marc Antony's Bacchus.

She spoke nine languages, and was especially fluent, as Plutarch notes, in a 10th: flattery. She sent her love letters on black onyx tablets.

In the enthralling new biography "Cleopatra: A Life," Stacy Schiff describes the Egyptian ruler with the same imagery used to limn Zenyatta: "self-assured, authoritative and saucy." Certainly, both ladies were masters at demanding, and deserving, attention.

Cleopatra had powers of persuasion and seduction so potent that male historians often attributed her sway over the fathers of her children, Caesar and Marc Antony, to magic or drugs. The men instantly lost their heads, before they instantly lost their lives.

I was quickly beguiled by Zenyatta in June when I gazed up at her at her home track, the pink deco Hollywood Park, with my friend David Israel, the vice chairman for the California Horse Racing Board.

Zenyatta got her name from The Police album "Zenyatta Mondatta." (Jerry Moss, who with his wife, Ann, bought the filly for the bargain price of $60,000, co-founded A&M records and signed The Police.) She had the star power and rabid following of fans, especially women, that Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina could only dream of.

The 6-year-old mare won her race, making her record 19 for 19, after a heart-stopping rush from behind, and then pranced and posed for the cameras and fans. That was the way she always ran, David explained. That was the way her love-struck jockey, Mike Smith, always rode her.

I stood in line to buy a T-shirt with her picture. I eagerly awaited her last run, where she would make it 20 for 20 and retire with a record that even Secretariat could envy.

"The fans are in awe because of the human traits they've superimposed on her actions, blurring the line between a starlet and a horse," Wright Thompson wrote on ESPN.com, noting that Zenyatta did not run so much as ski.

At the Breeders' Cup Classic in Louisville, which was supposed to be her finale before retiring to a Kentucky farm to have babies, Zenyatta had a late start, got squeezed on the break, lost momentum, but still flew past the boys with a velocity so astonishing that commentators were left gushing about her as a Hall of Famer.

She came so close to beating the colt Blame that Ann Moss, crushed, said the mare could have won if she'd just stuck her tongue out.

"When a horse has that late running style, it's always playing with fire because there's no room for error," David explained afterward. "If the race had been two jumps longer, she'd have won."

Zenyatta's modern world began, Stacy Schiff claims, with the death of 39-year-old Cleopatra in ancient times. Quoting Euripedes -- "O would that the female sex were nowhere to be found -- but in my lap!" -- Schiff contends that the dangerous intersection of sex and power for women has been a continuum.

"It has always been preferable to attribute a woman's success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life," Schiff writes, adding: "Cleopatra unsettles more as sage than as seductress; it is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent."


Maureen Dowd is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.


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