12/27/2009 12:16PM

John, John


John Shirreffs even made himself laugh with this one. As he waited for the signal to bring Zenyatta to the track Saturday afternoon for her public appearance at Santa Anita, exercise rider Steve Willard had strayed from the main stable road with the big mare. "Come on!" beckoned Shirreffs with a wave of his arm. "You'll miss the parade!"

Of course, Zenyatta was the parade, and she put on a rousing good show, with a gallop the length of the stretch and halfway back, and long, riveting pauses in front of the packed grandstand apron and clubhouse loges. She was performing on a low dose of the common tranquilizer ace-promazine, just to soften her racing edge, and she had begun to sprout the hint of a fuzzy winter coat, but no one in the grateful opening day crowd knew the difference. Zenyatta was and ever will be the Thoroughbred who gave Santa Anita its greatest competitive moment since the operatic final ride of Johnny Longden in the 1966 San Juan Capistrano. By the time she was being led back to the barn, she was doing her Zenyatta goosestep, and more than a few in the crowd were left wondering, "When is she going to run?"

DSC_0075 She's not, though. She is retired. And only the greediest among us would ask for more from a racehorse who never let anyone down for two solid championship seasons. Still, another "farewell" appearance like the one on Saturday was as much a tease as it was a treat. And the fact remains that Zenyatta still gallops every day and breezes the occasional half-mile at her Hollywood Park home base (most recently on Dec. 21, in :49.40), that there are no plans to send her to Kentucky for breeding until the end of January, and that a stallion has yet to be selected to father her first foal. Besides, in the John Shirreffs scheme of things, were Zenyatta to race again she would be getting right now the same six months off she got between her 2008 and 2009 seasons. If she were to race again. What cracks me up, though, is the fact that Zenyatta is farther along in her training toward motherhood than Rachel Alexandra is toward her return as a 4-year-old in 2010. I know, that's comparing apples and peaches. But it just cracks me up.

I think the whole Zenyatta crew is having such a grand time in the afterglow of her Breeders' Cup Classic performance and 14-0 career that they really don't care if comeback rumors spread. "That's what rumors are for," winked Shirreffs, lapsing into his most enigmatic mode. Let's give them their long goodbye.

Following the parade, and before the more serious business of the La Brea Stakes and Malibu Stakes took place, Shirreffs made a point to stop for a moment at the freshly unveiled statue of John Henry now commanding the north side of Santa Anita's grandstand fountain. Any critical reviews of Nina Kaiser's remarkable bronze were rendered inconsequential after Ron McAnally stood beneath the revealed statue and softly said, "It looks just like him." Fans were still lingering at the site as the sun set on opening day, taking pictures, just staring, remembering.

"I only saw him once," said Shirreffs, who was happy to sign a few more Zenyatta souvenirs as he admired John Henry. "Most of that time, while he was running, I was at the farm, in Loma Rica. But I was working here for Brian Mayberry for awhile and one morning I saw John Henry stop by our barn on his way to the track. He went--" and here Shirreffs made one of those horse noises he likes to make--"and then moved on."

Only the most fortunate trainers get a life-changing horse, a horse by which all others are measured and always fall short. Lucien Laurin got Secretariat. Bud Delp got Spectacular Bid. Ron McAnally got John Henry, Bill Mott got Cigar. Shirreffs got his, and there will never be another.

With the John Henry statue and Zenyatta live action short, Santa Anita's ringmasters pretty much emptied the nostalgia bag opening day, and there were more than 35,000 fans there to enjoy the show. Now the hard part begins, slogging through what is predicted to be a wet January with a downsized horse population and five cards a week to fill. The huge gap between the majesty of the Santa Anita setting and the sight of four-digit crowds rattling around inside on weekdays over the coming months begs for strategies that have yet to be applied. Fewer dates, fewer races, smaller arenas, alternative gambling and forms of entertainment--they are all significant moves in the reinvigoration of the game.

The sorry part of the story is that Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta came along at a time when economic forces had already taken the starch out of the sport. We will never know if a head-to-head showdown would have made any difference beyond the memorable moment. The fact that they were two years apart in age and 2,500 miles apart in training grounds made their intersection difficult in the most friendly environment. In fact, Rachel Alexandra ran in exactly one race for which Zenyatta was eligible, while Rachel was eligible to all five of Zenyatta's races, but was otherwise engaged.

I would steer anyone to Steve Crist's recent column on this site (http://www.drf.com/drfNewsArticle.do?NID=109724&subs=0&arc=0) decrying the state of a sport that was not somehow able to get its two greatest attractions together on the same stage, with full television resources unfurled, sponsors scrambling on board and horseplayers hanging from the rafters. Yes, they were both on the grounds and entered to run at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Oaks day last May, but that was as close as it got, and too early to make a difference. A bad track kept Zenyatta in the barn, while Rachel won by a pole. So there you go. When in doubt, we can always blame the rain.