09/05/2009 12:30PM

Zen and Now


On Saturday morning, Rachel Alexandra was at Saratoga, preparing to run for the first time against something other than 3-year-olds.

On Saturday morning, Mine That Bird was at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico, getting ready to parade for his hometown fans Monday afternoon.

And what about the other one? The Greta Garbo of American racing? The best horse nobody ever gets to see?

 On Friday morning, after a light exercise and a bath, Zenyatta quietly left Del Mar, then a couple hours later settled into her Hollywood Park stall. IMG_1975 She had a routine Saturday morning, with just a little tour of the training track out back behind her barn, while John Shirreffs continued to plot a course that will take her through the rest of the year, and to the end of her extraordinary career. As Zenyatta said farewell to her Del Mar digs, I asked Shirreffs if anything Rachel Alexandra did in the Woodward Stakes Saturday afternoon would have any impact on what Zenyatta would do next.

"No," he replied. Shirreffs went on to confirm that Zenyatta's next target would be the Lady's Secret Stakes at Santa Anita Park on Oct. 10. "The alternative would be the Beldame," Shirreffs offered. Based on what? he was asked."On the racetrack."

And so we're back to that. The synthetic surface at Santa Anita is the ProRide variation, which uses polymers to coat the sand and fibers instead of Polytrack wax. But the sins of the Del Mar surface this summer--especially during training hours--are visited upon the entire circuit, even though each surface is different in composition and care. To prepare for the Oak Tree/Breeders' Cup meet, Santa Anita's surface has undergone a renovation/restoration/rejuvenation--whatever the current term--and usually a synth performs beautifully in the immediate aftermath, so there should be no excuse on that score.

Anyway, holding the Beldame for Zenyatta as an alternative will be a neat trick, since the Belmont Park race will be run one week before the Lady's Secret. Also, the Oak Tree meet opens Sept. 30, which means Shirreffs will be able to watch only one day of racing there before entries are taken for the Beldame. There will be plenty of training, though, so perhaps that will be enough for him to evaluate the surface, which should approximate the ground over which Zenyatta won the Lady's Secret and Ladies Classic last year.

Not that it matters to Shirreffs, or owners Ann and Jerry Moss, but running in the Beldame would silence any lingering criticism of Zenyatta's West Coast heavy career (11 of her 12 wins) once and for all. It would also be a gesture of great historical significance, since a 13th win would equal the mark of Personal Ensign in a race won by Personal Ensign herself. There is also the dangle of an extra $400,000 in the $600,000 pot if a certain 3-year-old filly shows up, but money doesn't buy these folks. Asked if running in the Beldame would depend on the participation of Rachel Alexandra, Shirreffs issued another eloquent "No," and the message was clear: the Queen waits on no one.


What good's a blog unless I can slip in a personal note from time to time? Here's to Saturday, Sept. 5, 2009, which marks the 70th birthday of the great American songwriter and performer, John Stewart, long ago of the Kingston Trio and for most of his life a solo maverick who led a worldwide assembly of loyal fans. He called them Darwin's Army.

Johnny Del Mar

John died in January of 2008, which means those of us lucky enough to call him friend have had a bad year and a half. But his songs linger alongside the memories, many of them spun at racetracks here and there. Stewart was the son of a Kentucky-born standardbred trainer. John himself hit the ground in San Diego, and as a kid he shoveled more than his share of muck when the jugheads took over the stables of the Pomona fairgrounds.

He never got that out of his skin, which is why he ended up writing songs about Secretariat and Seabiscuit and Golden Gate Fields, and a champion driving horse named Sweetheart on Parade. He wrote a song for my wife he called Slider with a line about "ridin' with wise guys," and a lullaby for my little girl, which stacks right up there alongside Stewart's July, You're a Woman, Daydream Believer, Never Goin' Back and Runaway Train. But then, I'm prejudiced.

He'd be sitting around today and grab his guitar--maybe the banjo--right around post time for the Woodward and whip out a song about a drop-dead gorgeous girl named Rachel Angelina, who broke the hearts of sailors and carried the world on her wings. I'll miss that song. Happy birthday, Johnny Del Mar.