With the Hall of Fame Nominating Committee diligently trying to come up with horses worthy to be on this year’s ballot, we could be looking at two of the surest bets in a long time – that Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra will be elected to the Hall in their first year of eligibility.
So let’s take a break from the Derby trail and turn the clocks back to those glorious years when Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra became the greatest rivals to never meet. Theirs was a rivalry of the mind and heart, leaving us with perpetual thoughts of what might have been.
Turning to Zenyatta for now, during her reign from 2008-2010 she infiltrated the imagination and touched people in an almost spiritual-like manner never seen before in Thoroughbred racing. An Amazon of a mare who was a fierce warrior on the battlefield, she was like a lap dog in the friendly confines of her barn.
Because of the intense off-the-track rivalry with Rachel Alexandra, one of the most brilliant fillies of all time, Zenyatta had her detractors, with Rachel supporters criticizing her for racing almost her entire career on synthetic tracks, rarely leaving California, and on several occasions at Del Mar just barely beating fillies who were far inferior to her. Ironically, many believe it was her final start and only career defeat in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs that was her greatest and most courageous performance.
There is a fine line between excuses and reasons, and in Zenyatta’s case, she could answer her critics with reasons, most of which few people, if any, were aware of. Not that a horse who won her first 19 starts needed any reasons or excuses.
The bottom line bond is that whatever mystical hold horses have had over humans for centuries seemed to manifest itself through Zenyatta.
So, here are several things you might not have known about this remarkable Thoroughbred.
DISLIKE OF SYNTHETIC SURFACES – As mentioned earlier, many of Zenyatta’s detractors liked to point out that, with the exception of three races – two victories in the Apple Blossom Stakes at Oaklawn and a courageous head defeat in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, all of Zenyatta’s races were on a synthetic surface, which they felt detracted from her amazing 19-race unbeaten streak.
What people didn’t realize was that Zenyatta actually detested synthetic surfaces, and had such a dislike for Del Mar’s Polytrack, she refused to even gallop over it, which is why trainer John Shirreffs kept her stabled at Hollywood Park to train over the dirt training track. The fact that Zenyatta won the Clement Hirsch Stakes three times at Del Mar, struggling each time to win by narrow margins, showed how great and competitive she really was.
She did work over Hollywood’s Cushion Track and won several stakes over it, but that surface had worn down and kept being replaced with dirt, which was basically piled onto what little Cushion Track remained.
But Del Mar was a totally different story. “Each time after she won the Clement Hirsch, she refused to train at Del Mar,” Shirreffs recalled. “We would take her out to the track and she would gallop about a half-mile and pull herself up into a jog, then jog to the nearest gap and go off. There was no sense going on with her. We would take her out there every day and say, ‘OK, let’s see how far she wants to gallop today.’ And every day that’s as far as she would gallop. What are you going to do, hit her with the stick to try to make her go? She just hated that track. She tolerated it in a race, but after she ran she was done with it. So, each time we shipped her back to Hollywood Park and trained her on the dirt.”
She did handle Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride surface well enough to win six races over it, but that was because this version of it acted more like dirt, and let’s face it, a great horse will run on any surface, just as Zenyatta managed to win three stakes at Del Mar despite hating the surface.
“Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride surface went through many changes,” Shirreffs explained. “They weren’t using the Australian material. They got it from local businesses and theirs was not spongy. Rebound is important to muscles and helps with fatigue, and a spongy track works well for absorbing shock, but does not return that energy back. In simple terms, it acts too much like a pillow, so that’s why she could handle this Pro-Ride because it had a rebound effect.”
And we all know how Zenyatta liked to bounce off the ground to propel that massive stride of hers. Santa Anita provided that, while Del Mar’s Polytrack did not.
TRAVELING – Throughout 2010, racing fans back east kept urging Shirreffs to ship Zenyatta to Saratoga to perform on racing’s greatest stage, where she would be treated like royalty and given a hero’s welcome. But what no one realized was that her trip to Oaklawn Park that April had taken a lot out of her physically, and Shirreffs did not want to risk another long trip, with the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs. Another reason Shirreffs remained in California instead of shipping back east was that he felt a responsibility to support the grade I races back home, and because of Zenyatta’s massive frame and high-strung nature, shipping her was not easy.
“We always had to be careful with her weight,” Shirreffs explained. “We wanted to make sure she didn’t lose too much weight. And there was the dehydration factor.”
When Zenyatta returned from Oaklawn she had become dehydrated and had lost weight. In addition to running in the Apple Blossom, Zenyatta spent a good deal of her time at Oaklawn outside the barn, posing for pictures with the fans and media, and all that activity likely added to the stress.
“The day after the Apple Blossom, we had people lined up the entire length of the shedrow waiting to have their picture taken with her,” Shirreffs said. “One time, she was grazing between the barns and some lady walked up to her and grabbed the side of her halter and lifted her head up away from the grass so she could have her picture taken with her. You want to yell, ‘Don’t do that,” but you don’t want to startle the horse, because then Zenyatta would think something was wrong.”
So it made sense why Shirreffs was reluctant to take Zenyatta on another long trip, especially to Saratoga, where she would get little down time, with visitors flocking to the barn at all hours of the day. He certainly did not want to risk getting her dehydrated and losing weight with another cross-country trip scheduled in two months.
DISLIKE OF THE STARTING GATE – This is another thing most people didn’t know about Zenyatta, and is why she broke so slowly every race.
“She was so big in the gate and so claustrophobic that until she actually cleared the starting gate and the open doors she would not get in gear,” Shirreffs said. “Some horses break like Quarter-Horses, but she wanted to get completely out of the gate before she clicked into gear and that’s why she was so far back in every race. Most people weren’t aware of her dislike of the starting gate. We tried schooling her in the gate, but the starter finally said, ‘There’s no sense breaking her anymore, because this is as good as it’s going to get.’ In the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs she not only broke slowly as usual, but two horses crossed over into her path and that pushed her back even farther.”
DISLIKE OF THE LIGHTS – In the Breeders’ Cup Classic run at night at Churchill Downs, Zenyatta looked as if she were going to go by Blame, but seemed to pause just a little nearing the finish line, and then put her head in front after the wire. Did the lights affect her in any way?
“Without a doubt,” Shirreffs said. “No doubt at all about that. First off, it was cold that night and she had never raced in cold weather before. When she ran at Hollywood Park in the evening, the lights were high overhead. It’s like a harness track with a big bank of lights around the outside. At Churchill Downs, it was night and the lights at the sixteenth pole to the wire are not only very bright, they’re only about 15-feet high. At the finish line they have a light that’s on a pole and it’s very low to the ground. We were worried about that when we saw it the day before. It was a concern. Also, Garrett Gomez, who was on Blame, had been beaten three times by Zenyatta on Life is Sweet, so he knew what was coming and knew he had to save something for the end. I think it was a combination of both things.”
Also, Blame was virtually unbeatable at Churchill Downs, his home track, and often trained there early under the lights.
Did Zenyatta get distracted by the lights just enough to get her beat a short head? No one can say for sure. The bottom line is that Zenyatta ran a sensational race that night, and it appears that there were several factors that contributed to her defeat – a horrible start, dropping some 20 lengths back, a traffic-laden trip, some hesitation by Smith nearing the head of the stretch and altering course, the lights at the finish line, and a great effort by Blame.
THE DANCE – So, did Zenyatta actually break into her patented dance steps before a race to put on a show?
“She was very strong and needed to stay in control," Shirreffs said. "That was just her way of expressing all that pent up energy and adrenalin she had going when she went to the races. When she was going to the races her adrenalin would really kick in. She just had all this energy and that was the only way she knew how to let it out, through that extension of her legs.
“In California where it was warm, we were very careful how much we warmed her up, because, as she did in her ‘dance,’ she would warm herself up pretty good before the race. One day early in her career, I believe it was before her first Vanity, she got really hot warming up and that’s when we decided to teach her in the morning. We took her and stood her at the quarter pole, because we knew from the quarter pole to the gate it was just an eighth of a mile walk and not a big deal. So she would back up and stand and wait for the other horses to warm up and then go to the gate. If we had warmed her up like a normal horse she would have wound herself up too much.
“That night at Churchill Downs, that’s when she really needed to warm up and not just stand there, and that might have also affected her, because she had never been in a cold climate and didn’t do what a normal horse would do to warm up in the cold.”
FROZEN FANS AT KEENELAND – If there was one image to aptly demonstrate the love and adulation people had for Zenyatta, it was the hundreds of fans waiting for hours in the freezing cold outside the Keeneland sales pavilion to get one last look at the great mare before she was sent to Lane’s End Farm. Standing in the snow at night, bundled up in thick layers of clothing, people kept reaching out to touch her as she walked by.
“Boy, I can’t believe all those people stayed that long in that cold waiting for her to arrive,” Shirreffs said. “When we got there, the ramp leading to the barn area and sales pavilion was too steep, so we had to take her down to where the unloading ramps were and then walk her back up the road in the dark on the ice to get her to the sales walking ring where the people could look at her. I took her to the outside edge of the ring so people could reach over and touch her. And she was pretty cool about that. I just know it was so cold that night; we were really bundled up.
“A lot of these people were from Kentucky and they hadn’t been to her races in California. They had read about her or seen her on television and they wanted to see her in person. It was really heartwarming.”
So, now we have a better idea who Zenyatta was. She was a complex individual and her complexities dictated her career in many ways and how she had to be trained.
“She was a perfect horse when you took the tack off her and led her out in the afternoon and let her graze,” Shirreffs said. “She was as content as can be and people could do anything they wanted with her; she was beautiful about that. Put the saddle on her and point her toward the racetrack and, boy, you better stand back. She was a totally different horse.”
No truer words were ever said about Zenyatta. She was a totally different horse, the likes of which we will never see again.