12/03/2010 3:04PM

Even after loss, admirers continue to flock to Zenyatta

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Barbara D. Livingston
Zenyatta's fans have continued to show their support since her defeat in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. – His voice bellowed to a crowd that was largely looking past him and toward a 1,200-pound horse standing to his side.

“Okay, who’s next?” Steve Willard called out as a middle-aged couple stepped forward.

“Great,” Willard said. “Just stand right here.”

Willard took a stride away and let the couple share the spotlight with the horse, who pricked her ears as if realizing a photo opportunity was imminent. The scene repeated itself last Sunday for about 45 minutes as approximately 50 people lined up for photos. Everyone wanted their moment with Zenyatta, and Willard, 67, was there to facilitate that wish.

For the last few months, and particularly since the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 6, crowds have flocked to trainer John Shirreffs’s barn at Hollywood Park to see Zenyatta before she is sent to Kentucky and Lane’s End Farm on Monday for her next career as a broodmare. Willard, Zenyatta’s exercise rider, is part guide and fully the expert on all things Zenyatta.

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“John calls me the ambassador,” Willard said.

On most days, the crowd gathered by 10 a.m., after training hours, as Zenyatta was grazing in the tennis court-sized yard at the back of the stable. The scene was similar earlier this year when Zenyatta went to Oaklawn Park in Arkansas in April, to Del Mar in San Diego in August, and to Churchill Downs last month, where her 19-race winning streak ended with a head loss to Blame in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

To her fans, the loss did not diminish her popularity. They have still arrived in strength. Many will be at Hollywood Park on Sunday when Zenyatta is paraded in the paddock and on the racetrack.

Last Sunday, Jeri Postma and her daughter, Sara, and granddaughter, Rebeka took three buses and a rail line from their home in Lakewood, Calif., in Los Angeles County to see Zenyatta. It was their first time to see the mare close up and provided an opportunity for Sara, who is wheelchair bound, to have her photo taken with the mare. They brought photos to share with Shirreffs from their trip to the races in early October.

“This is our first time to see her back here,” Postma said. “She’s amazing.”

John Heaton, an artist from San Diego, admits to being late to the party. He began following Zenyatta at the beginning of 2010 when owners Jerry and Ann Moss extended her career. He was at Del Mar for her August win in the Clement Hirsch and went to Shirreffs’s barn with friend Nina Kaiser, who is famous as the sculptor of the John Henry statute that stands in the garden at Santa Anita. Kaiser refers to Zenyatta as "Saint Zenyatta."

“Zenyatta has done so much for so many people,”’ said Heaton, 58. “She’s a lot more of a horse to me. She has a great soul in a horse’s body.”

Through all those morning photo sessions, Willard has been a mainstay, helping groom Mario Espinoza manage the mare while giving fans a moment to remember.

“That’s what’s so fun about it,” Willard said. “People are so excited to meet her. She’s the people’s horse.”