Zenyatta: Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic
Watching the mighty Zenyatta set a new modern day thoroughbred racing record for consecutive wins (17) in the Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park last Sunday has rendered me wordless. Perhaps the Great Dead Authors can provide some inspiration.
Mr. Dickens? “April 1, 2004: She is born.”
Maybe for the unabridged history of Zenyatta ... that Mr. Dickens did go on.
Mr. Nabakov? “Zenyatta, light of my fire, fire of my loins ...”
Ms. Woolf? “Yes, she thought, laying down her binoculars in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.”
Leave it to a girl to get it right.
She may have been born on April Fools Day, but the joke was on all would-be buyers who let Zenyatta get away for $60,000 at the 2005 Keeneland September Yearling sale. The 6-year-old undefeated mare has earned more than 100 times her purchase price (which might be of less significance to her owner, A&M Records co-founder Jerry Moss, than it would be to the rest of us) and ignited thoroughbred racing at a time when the sport could truly use some firing up.
I have to admit, I was one who hoped Zenyatta would be retired after her history-making victory over males in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic. She was, after all, retiring with an unblemished 14-0 record. She had achieved the ultimate in racing — perfection.
But Jerry Moss had other plans for Zenyatta — immortality.
“If you were writing a movie, you’d end it with the Breeders’ Cup,” Moss said after the Vanity. “But we felt she had more to give.”
My own misgivings about Zenyatta continuing on, I soon realized, had more to do with being accustomed to watching good horses retire at 3 or 4, when perhaps they did have more to give, than it had to do with concern over her well-being.
Racehorses are supposed to be reaching their peak at 6. And I’m convinced that Zenyatta would not have become ZENYATTA had Moss sent her to any trainer other than John Shirreffs.
“She was such a big filly, we knew it would take a couple of years for her to develop and get to the races,” Moss said.
Shirreffs knew big fillies. Before Zenyatta, his best had been Manistique, an almost freakishly large bay daughter of 1990 Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled. Manistique didn’t race until midway through her 3-year-old season and wound up retiring at age 5 with 11 wins from 15 starts and earnings of $1.3 million.
Zenyatta, named for the album “Zenyatta Mondatta” by Moss’ clients, The Police (Moss’ 2005 Kentucky Derby winner, Giacomo, is named for Sting’s son), arrived at Shirreff’s Hollywood Park barn in March of 2006. And there she stayed, growing, grazing and enjoying mostly long, slow gallops, until her racing debut on Nov. 22, 2007.
Dismissed by bettors because of her turf-laden pedigree (by Street Cry, a first-crop sire, out of Vertigineux, a daughter of supreme grass sire Kris S.), Zenyatta was set off at odds of 6-1 for the six-and-a-half furlong sprint, and there she unveiled the running style that would become her signature — unhurried from the gate, dead last into the far turn, strong rally midstretch.
Her jockey for all but her first three starts has been Hall of Famer Mike Smith. Before Zenyatta, Smith’s best horse might have been Holy Bull, the 1994 Horse of the Year. Smith has ridden two other Horses of the Year, Skip Away (1998) and the brilliant mare Azeri (2002).
Some have suggested that Smith rides Zenyatta too confidently, that he allows her to lag so far behind the field that one day she will not be able to overcome the gap. I was one of those screeching last weekend when Smith swung Zenyatta six-wide into the stretch — she was carrying 129 pounds, nine more than her next rival — and asked her to switch gears. St. Trinians, a game and very good mare, had the lead and wasn’t going down without a fight.
The head-on shot of the stretch run captured the essence of Zenyatta. She ranged up next to St. Trinians and tilted her head ever so slightly to look her rival in the eye. Almost instantly, St. Trinians’ fierce expression gave way to surrender. It was, like so many things about Zenyatta, something I’d heard about horses doing before but had never seen.
For those who have not seen it for themselves, allow me to share.
Zenyatta is an exhibitionist of the highest order. Her moves in the paddock alternate from dancing in place to pawing the ground to bowing. And then there’s “The Walk,” which can only be described as part military march, part preening Great Dane. It is a sight to behold, as is the crowd reaction to it.
Zenyatta has 17,000 Facebook friends (I have 123), and a video of her drinking a post-race Guinness has been viewed on YouTube 5,100 times.
Moss and Shirreffs are plotting Zenyatta’s next move, but at some point she’ll likely face 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra (who ducked a planned faceoff with Zenyatta in the April 9 Apple Blossom Handicap) and possibly the leading older male horse, Quality Road. Best remembered for his meltdown in the starting gate for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Quality Road has returned to win all three of his races this year.
I was briefly dismayed to see the final on-track attendance at Hollywood Park for Zenyatta’s epic win was 12,232, compared with the 44,181 who showed up at Del Mar to watch Cigar bid for his 17th straight win in the 1996 Pacific Classic. But then, I started talking to those Hollywood Park fans. And I couldn’t find one who didn’t have some little factoid or anecdote about Zenyatta they were certain nobody else had.
One fan in particular stood out for obvious reasons. Bo Derek, sex symbol personified and racing fan extraordinaire, was among those standing near the finish line and cheering for Zenyatta. In the winner’s circle, the Perfect Ten took her place next to Zenyatta for the official photo.
But this time, all eyes were on the Perfect 17.
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