It was 10 years ago today, on Nov. 7, that the mighty Zenyatta put on the show of shows. I am reprinting my recap of that special event in order to relive all the magic and excitement.
On Jan. 13, 2008, John Shirreffs watched his 4-year-old filly Zenyatta win the El Encino Stakes (gr. II) at Santa Anita for her third career victory in as many starts and knew he was witnessing something extraordinary. He leaned back in his seat and turned to his wife, Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs, who is racing manager for Zenyatta’s owners Jerry and Ann Moss, and asked, “Who is ever going to beat her?”
Twenty two months and 11 races later, that question can be answered in two emphatic words: No one.
That’s right, no one. A total of 88 opponents have stepped into the starting gate to do battle with Mighty Mare and all have fallen. The latest 11 came in the Nov. 7 Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I), which carved its own niche not only in Breeders’ Cup history, but in the annals of Thoroughbred racing.
With her last to first dash through and around traffic, Zenyatta not only became the first female to win the Classic, she defeated eight grade/group I-winning males, including the winners of the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, two Travers, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Santa Anita Handicap, Pacific Classic, Arlington Million, Man o’ War, Santa Anita Derby, Champion Stakes, Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, Sussex Stakes, Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, and Manhattan Handicap. And she did it in her usual style – bounding past her opponents with gargantuan strides and winning with her ears pricked as if out for a morning’s exercise.
The crowd of 58,825, many holding Zenyatta signs, let out a roar that rocked the Santa Anita grandstand to such an extent it could have been felt along the San Andreas Fault. A wave of emotion poured out of the stands. Superlatives flowed, as did tears. Several professional photographers standing outside the winner’s circle wept openly. The pursuit of perfection had been completed in resounding fashion.
As a result, Rachel Alexandra no longer sits alone atop racing’s throne. The Sport of Kings is now the Sport of Queens, and it is a shame, barring a tie, only one will wear the crown at year’s end.
The affection that flowed from the fans not only was directed at Zenyatta, but at Shirreffs, Dottie, the Mosses, and jockey Mike Smith, all of whom are well liked and respected by everyone in the sport. But it was Zenyatta who has danced, strutted, and raced her way into people’s hearts.
After the Classic, Patrick Biancone, who trained All Along, one of the rare female Horses of the Year in North America, said, “She is not the Horse of the Year. She is the Horse of the Century.”
The greatness of Zenyatta even moved her opponents. “I switched camps at the eighth pole,” said Bob Baffert, who saddled Pacific Classic (gr. I) winner Richard's Kid . “When I saw my horse wasn’t going to win, I started yelling for Zenyatta. My owner said to me, ‘What the heck are you doing?’ I have never seen a grandstand like that; nobody wanted to leave. The crowd was captivated. It felt like a horse had just won the Triple Crown. That was incredible; that made the Breeders’ Cup. If they don’t give her Horse of the Year, or at least co-Horse of the Year with Rachel Alexandra, it would be a travesty. All I know is that I had a bad day, and she made me feel good.”
WinStar Farm’s Bill Casner, who sent out fifth-place finisher Colonel John, was just as moved as Baffert. He and trainer Eoin Harty stopped by the Director’s Room following the race to congratulate the victors. “I’ve been around horses for 61 years,” Casner said. “What I saw today I’ve never seen a horse do in my life. We witnessed history today.”
Harty had a brief moment in the race where he felt he had shot to win. Colonel John was making a run at the leaders, while Zenyatta was still far back after relatively slow early fractions.
“I turned for home and I’m in a spot to win,” he said. “Then, all of a sudden I hear the announcer screaming Zenyatta’s name and I say ‘Zenyatta? The last time I saw her she was behind Mine That Bird in last.’ ”
But that is the magic of The Great Zenyatta, who appears from out of nowhere quicker than Houdini. And when she does, she is larger than life, leaving hoof prints so deep it will take an eternity to fill them in.
Shirreffs had felt that magic even before his prophetic question following the El Encino Stakes. Six weeks after Zenyatta arrived at his barn from Jeanne Mayberry’s farm in Ocala, Fla., he told Dottie, “If I can get her right, she’ll be my Michael Jordan.”
When Dottie’s son, bloodstock agent David Ingordo, saw her at Mayberry’s farm, he said to his mother, “Mom, I hope they give this filly a good name.” When Dottie asked him why, he replied, “Because she’s galloping around twice to everyone else’s once, and those are good horses.”
It’s been three years and Zenyatta is still seemingly “galloping” around twice to everyone else’s once.
The big decision leading up to the 2009 Breeders’ Cup was whether Zenyatta would take the easier route in the Ladies Classic, a race she won last year, in her quest for perfection or tackle one of the deepest Classic fields ever assembled.
Many speed handicappers felt she was not fast enough for the boys and had little or no chance to win America’s richest race, especially in a 13-horse field..
The Mosses and Shirreffs thought long and hard and decided if her final workout at Hollywood Park was satisfactory, they would give her the opportunity to scale Mount Olympus and use her brute strength to break down the gates of the pantheon and join the immortals of the turf.
So, a week before the Breeders’ Cup, Zenyatta, with Smith aboard, went out and breezed six furlongs in 1:12 2/5 in company with stablemate Green Cat. Zenyatta’s regular exercise rider, Steve Willard, was on Green Cat, who has made a career as the big mare’s workmate. As usual, Zenyatta sat several lengths behind Green Cat and then blew by him down the stretch, finishing five lengths in front. In the blink of an eye she was 20 lengths in front galloping out.
“When she comes alongside you she just glides by you in a high lope,” Willard said. “I’ve worked with a lot of good horses, like Alysheba, Gentlemen, Gate Dancer, Dixie Union, and Siphon, but to get on one like her in the twilight of my career, as long in the tooth as I am, is a real blessing.”
Following the work, Smith said of running in the Classic, “I believe she can run with anyone and I stand by that. I know if she gets the opportunity to run her race, she’s going to be something special to see. I’ve never gotten to the bottom of her; we don’t even know how many gears she has. If she runs in the Classic she’s certainly going to have to hit some she’s never hit before, but I believe they’re there. She’s just amazing. When she walks out of the paddock and sees the crowd, she just stands there and lifts her head up, looking like some Roman god.”
That work sealed it. Zenyatta would run in the Classic. But it wouldn’t be easy. She would have to face top 3-year-olds Summer Bird, winner of the Belmont, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup; Mine That Bird, runaway winner of the Kentucky Derby; Florida Derby winner Quality Road; the Godolphin pair of grade II winners Regal Ransom and Girolamo, and Europe’s top male miler Rip Van Winkle, a multiple group I winner who tested superhorse Sea the Stars in the 1 1/4-mile Coral Eclipse Stakes, despite a troubled trip and a hock injury. The older horses consisted of Santa Anita Handicap winner Einstein, the top turf horse in America, Gio Ponti, who had already won over Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride surface; Richard’s Kid, and Twice Over, winner of Newmarket’s Champion Stakes.
The Classic had been on Shirreffs' mind since the beginning of the year. “You have dreams and you have goals, and at that time of the year we just wanted to continue her career rather than retire her. So, back then, the Classic was a dream. Now it’s a goal.”
Zenyatta has encompassed Shirreffs’ and Dottie’s life since she began her career in November of her 3-year-old year. When they’re not at the barn they watch her from home on closed circuit monitors and dote over her the way they do their 3-year-old poodle Sophie.
The week leading up to the Breeders’ Cup, Shirreffs stayed at barn until as late as 7:30 at night just staring intently at Zenyatta, watching for any little deviation from her normal routine. He’d come a long way since having aspirations of being a surf bum in Hawaii after returning from Vietnam. He made it as far as Newport Beach, Cal., having run out of money, and somehow wound up at Coon’s Creek Ranch, herding cattle and playing cowboy. After he moved on and helped teach an appaloosa how to jump, it rekindled his childhood interest in horses, having worked at a Long Island livery stable. Hawaii quickly became a distant memory. A brief job breaking horses and living under primitive conditions in a cow camp in the boonies, 50 miles from the nearest paved road, eventually led him to Thoroughbreds.
“You never know what paths you’re going to take,” Shirreffs said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re training racehorses or breaking horses in Nevada, it’s still working with horses.”
And no one works with horses quite like Shirreffs, and no one knows a horse the way Sherriffs knows Zenyatta.
“We’ve been around her since she was purchased as a yearling, monitoring her every move,” Dottie said. “It’s been very special to watch her develop and emerge as the horse she is. It’s truly a gift and in so many ways an honor. She has made so many fans. At Del Mar this year for the Clement Hirsch (gr. I), people were lined up around the paddock a half-hour before the horses arrived to get a good spot. Many were wearing green and pink (the Mosses’ colors) and women had their fingernails painted in green and pink with ‘Zenyatta’ written on them. When she arrived everyone started cheering and screaming. Mike said it was like being at the Derby. Every level for six floors was packed. People stop us is restaurants all the time to offer their opinions or talk about Zenyatta. How fortunate we are to be the guardian for such an incredible horse who people adore.”
Zenyatta has as many as 14 people work with her in a single day. Shirreffs has one person hold her while she’s being shod because he has steady hands. He has another person hold her for the vet, another who walks her, another who gallops her, and full-time security at the barn, just to name a few. As Dottie says, “She’s worth every bit of it.”
And then there is groom Mario Espinoza, who also takes care of Life is Sweet, winner of the Ladies Classic (gr. I) the previous day. Shirreffs enjoys showing off a photo on his laptop of Zenyatta’s first groom, Gus Adair, lying down in Zenyatta’s stall massaging her tendons with oil extracted from an aloe vera plant Shirreffs has outside the barn, with the big mare stretched out on her side next to him.
Shirreffs keeps extensive files of photos and video of his horses and daily routine on his computer. One that has to be seen on YouTube is of Mike Smith working Zenyatta, while wearing a mini-camera atop his helmet. Hop aboard the towering mare and enjoy the thrill ride. See how far you are off the ground. Feel the power beneath you and Zenyatta's mane blowing in your face. Look off to the left and see her shadow running alongside you. Watch her workmate in front of you getting larger and larger as Zenyatta's massive strides convince you you're gliding over the track without touching it. The ocean breezes at first caress you, but then take your breath away as Zenyatta builds up speed. And finally, feel the numbness in your arms trying to pull her up after the work.
Zenyatta in her own way also does a great deal of charity work for cancer through sales of souvenir items. “She’s worn many things and they all go to charity,” Dottie said. “She’s gone through a lot of shoes, because of all the dancing and strutting she does. She’s tough on her shoes, so we’re changing them all the time. We’ve also donated a number of her halters.”
As the Breeders’ Cup approached, Smith’s confidence grew. Baffert recalled being at a recent dinner party with Smith and kidding him about the Classic. “He told me if she goes in the Classic, she’s not only going to win, she’s going to win with her ears pricked,” Baffert said. “He had been drinking some of his own wine and I said to him, ‘I need some of that wine to give my jockey.’”
Zenyatta was vanned to Santa Anita from Hollywood Park the Wednesday before the Classic. As she stepped off the van, Willard announced, “Here comes the chosen one.” The second Zenyatta ambled into the barn a chorus of whinnies erupted, as if acknowledging the Queen’s arrival.
Aidan O’Brien, trainer of Rip Van Winkle, made an appearance that morning and was asked about the decision to run Zenyatta in the Classic. “I think it was a bad decision,” he said with a smile on his face. “I think she should be running against the mares and I wish she was. But it is great for the race.”
Shirreffs got Breeders’ Cup weekend off to a rousing start on Friday when he won the Ladies Classic with Pam and Marty Wygod’s Life is Sweet, who has been futilely chasing Zenyatta all year.
As much as ESPN tried they could not get Shirreffs to join in the winner’s circle photo. Despite all the coaxing and pleading, he remained on the track. In his mind, there was unfinished business and it was too early to celebrate. “We still have work to do,” he said to a disheartened ESPN producer.
That work came the following day. By the time the Classic had arrived, Europe was on the verge of completing another successful assault on the Breeders’ Cup, winning (on Saturday alone) the Juvenile Turf with England’s Pounced, the Grey Goose Juvenile (gr. I) with Godolphin’s 30-1 shot Vale of York, followed by repeat victories by France’s Goldikova in the TVG Mile (gr. IT) and England’s Conduit in the Emirates Airline Turf (gr. IT). Now, Rip Van Winkle and Twice Over were ready to apply the coup de grace.
Zenyatta was sent off as the 5-2 favorite by her adoring fans. Rip Van Winkle was second choice at 3-1, followed by Summer Bird at 6-1. The start was delayed when Quality Road, who has a notorious history at the starting gate, acted up badly, lashing out violently with his hind legs and refusing to go in. After getting partially in with the aid of a blindfold, Quality Road completely lost his composure and banged the gate with such force he suffered cuts on his hock that forced the attending vet to scratch him.
After reloading, the start was clean, with Zenyatta breaking a step slowly, winding up last, right behind Mine That Bird. Regal Ransom, as expected went to the lead, setting a moderate pace of :24.16, :47.88, and 1:11.88. After a half mile, Zenyatta was a dozen lengths off the lead. Rip Van Winkle was right in behind Regal Ransom, with Colonel John alongside him. Einstein and Girolamo were heads apart in fourth and fifth, respectively. Summer Bird and Twice Over were running strongly and began to close in around the far turn, with Zenyatta still far back and beginning to make her run, as Smith decided to look for an inside route this time.
“At the half-mile pole, I thought ‘Oh God, they’re stacked up. There’s no way I’m going to get around all these horses,” he said. “I was looking for a way to split them.”
Nearing the top of the stretch, Regal Ransom still held a clear lead, but Colonel John and Twice Over had him measured once they turned for home. Einstein dropped out of it after having to steady briefly behind a tiring Rip Van Winkle. Summer Bird was moving strongly into contention, with Gio Ponti , who had been saving ground throughout, rallying fastest of all after splitting horses. Zenyatta was following Gio Ponti and briefly looked to be in danger of getting bottled up behind him.
Passing the eighth pole, Gio Ponti struck the front. Colonel John and Summer Bird were trying to close in, but it was Twice Over who was the main danger on the outside. At that point, Smith saw a seam and steered Zenyatta to the outside. In a flash, the big mare was out in her favorite path and beginning her patented charge, which brought a deafening roar from the crowd. Gio Ponti was running a winning race down on the inside, drawing off from the others, but Zenyatta, with those long, effortless strides cruised by him inside the final sixteenth, hitting the wire a length in front in 2:00.62 for the 1 1/4 miles. It took an extraordinary effort to run down Gio Ponti, and Zenyatta had to put in a sensational closing quarter in :23 flat in order to do it.
The sight of her gobbling up ground with seemingly little effort will forever be etched in time. And it mattered little that the victory was accomplished on a synthetic surface, for Zenyatta’s victories have transcended synthetic surfaces.
Twice Over ran on well to finish third, three-quarters of a length ahead of Summer Bird. In the final furlong, Zenyatta might just as well have been running against Lethal Heat, Anabaa’s Creation, Briecat or any of the other fillies and mares she has dominated over the past two years. Male or female, it doesn’t matter. We learned in the Classic she treats both with the same disdain. Behind her likely were at least three future champions – Summer Bird (3-year-old male), Gio Ponti (male turf horse), and Rip Van Winkle (top miler in England), and it is conceivable Gio Ponti could also be voted champion older male, as could Einstein with a rebound victory in the Clark Handicap (gr. II).
Smith said of the finish: “Believe it or not, she was well within herself, still pricking her ears, and didn’t even take a deep breath after the race was over. It’s just incredible.”
Zenyatta had become the richest North American-based female in history with earnings of $5,474,580 and the first horse to win two different Breeders' Cup races.
People began running out onto the track. There were hugs and kisses and tears and plenty of high-fives and fist pumping. Everyone just felt privileged to be part of it and they all stood to greet Zenyatta with a rousing ovation. A moment like this, along with the scene at Saratoga after Rachel Alexandra’s victory in the Woodward Stakes (gr. I) , stamped 2009 as one the most memorable years in Thoroughbred racing history.
Willard watched the race with David Ingordo and said, “When it was over I yelled to David, ‘We won!’ His legs buckled and he had to lean against the railing.”
Shirreffs by now was overcome with emotion. Immediately following the race, he removed his familiar "Mill Ridge" hat and flung it into the crowd. “She is just something,” he said, wearing a perpetual grin while waiting for Zenyatta to return. “There are tears coming down my eyes. I can’t believe it. Down that lane she just lengthened and lengthened. It’s great that people from all over the country finally were able to see her in person. They love her. It was an unbelievably emotional experience to have her do this.”
The Mosses had made the right decision after all. “We’re over the moon,” Jerry Moss said. “What can I say? I had all kinds of opinions on whether we did the right thing or not. We knew we wanted to do this for her to prove she deserved this chance. She just performed so beautifully. The fact that she’s back home and safe, and she’s got an unbeaten record to go into the history books, we couldn’t be happier. We’re just so proud of her. It was an emotional and wonderful experience.”
Ann added, “Every moment with her is just a pleasure. And she’s so feminine. She’s just dancing and strutting and enjoying her beautiful, majestic self. And that’s a gift.”
Christophe Clement, trainer of Gio Ponti, said his horse ran a great race and was happy with his decision to run in the Classic instead of the Turf. “I’m thrilled with his race,” he said. “But what can I say? She’s a freak.”
Saeed bin Suroor, trainer of Regal Ransom and Girolamo, said, “She’s a different class. By far. By millions.”
Following the post race interviews, Shirreffs was mobbed by autograph seekers, spending a good 15 minutes signing posters and programs and talking to the people. At one point, Dottie received a text message from their friend, motion picture producer, director, and screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, who said, “Tell John watching him train horses is like watching Picasso and Rembrandt paint.”
It wasn’t until Ann Moss hugged and kissed Shirreffs while waiting for the elevator to the Director’s Room that she let out her emotions, bursting into tears while still tightly clutching Shirreffs in her arms. In the quiet of the elevator, Jerry Moss finally was able to take a deep breath. All he could say was, “Wow…just wow.”
After arriving in the Director’s Room, Jerry did some heavy reflecting. “It’s all about experiencing life,” he said. “That’s why I picked the music business; it got to me. A performance like we just saw under any circumstances at any level is the greatest experience in life, because you feel more alive than you can possibly ever feel. It’s so emotional to be around an animal that gives you that feeling.”
By the time Smith showed up, he had reached his limit of 127 text messages. All the parties involved then held up their glass of champagne and a toast was made: “To the courage to run her against the best in the world.”
John and Dottie then headed back to barn in front of the dimly lit grandstand. It was dark by now, and all that remained was the litter scattered about the apron and grandstand, and of course the memories that will linger here for a long time. “It’s so hard to put it into words,” Dottie said. “We’ve been around amazing horses, but this is in another stratosphere.”
After a brief stop home, John and Dottie headed to a local steak house to meet up with the Mosses, Mike Smith, and David Ingordo for dinner. With them came Zenyatta’s saddle towel, which Jerry Moss and then others draped over their head and shoulders. Then, of course, came the toasts to the Queen. It was the perfect ending to a magical day.
So, Zenyatta has run her last race. It was a finale any diva would be jealous of. Dottie and John don’t even want to think about life without Zenyatta. When asked about it, all Dottie could muster up was an “Ugh. I don't even want to think about it."
What else can be said about this remarkable mare and her history-making performance in the Classic?
Perhaps she can best be described by a simple exchange. Following her final work at Hollywood Park, an elderly racetrack veteran, Rich Burleson, who sells stall mats, came over to Dottie and said, “She sends chills down your spine.” Dottie replied: “Like John always says, ‘You have to experience Zenyatta.’ ”
As anyone in attendance at Santa Anita on Nov. 7 will attest, it’s an experience to remember.
In her final work at Hollywood Park, Zenyatta takes off after her workmate.
Zenyatta arrives at Santa Anita
Zenyatta is dead last passing the wire the first time.
Zenyatta in all her magnificence.
John Shirreffs signs autographs after the race.
Jerry and Ann Moss celebrate with Zenyatta's saddlecloth.
Mike Smith and Shirreffs toast Zenyatta.