03/16/2010 11:00PM

Highs and lows on Zenyatta's day


ARCADIA, Calif. - Ricardo Zamora was not supposed to be a major player in the big day last Saturday at Santa Anita. The day was supposed to belong to Zenyatta, and only Zenyatta, who was making her 2010 debut in search of her 15th victory without a defeat in the Santa Margarita Handicap.

Zamora had a horse in the first race, a longshot maiden claimer named Google Me making his fifth start, and they figured to be long gone and forgotten hours before Zenyatta was called for her event. But when Google Me snapped a foreleg a few yards past the finish line, suffering a fatal injury in the process, the day turned the same dull gray as the lingering storm clouds.

Zenyatta won again - boy did she ever - and for those moments she commanded the stage the game was alight, literally star-spangled. Surrounding Ann and Jerry Moss in the winner's circle was his business partner and fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Herb Alpert with his wife, former Brasil 66 lead singer Lani Hall, and California racing commissioner Bo Derek, not to mention a heady assortment of key players from the HBO racetrack series "Luck" in the works, including creator David Milch, director Michael Mann, producer Henry Bronchtein, and actors Dennis Farina, Jon Ortiz, and Dustin Hoffman. Yes, that Dustin Hoffman.

The fact that the star of "The Graduate," "Marathon Man," "Tootsie," and now "Luck" can be overshadowed by a creature that eats out of a bucket tells you something about Zenyatta's appeal. Big Mama trotted out all her best stuff, prancing stiff-legged on the way to the saddling paddock, stopping here and there to stare above the heads of wildly cheering fans, then strolling the length of the stretch in her usual pre-race routine.

At one point, trainer John Shirreffs gestured to quiet the walking ring crowd as Zenyatta's blood began to warm, but it was no use. Also, this was the same guy who threw his cap into the delirious Breeders' Cup throng after Zenyatta's victory in last November's Classic, so he's going to have to make up his mind.

Zenyatta's victory by 1 1/4 lengths over another bunch of befuddled foes was typical in terms of result, but nowhere as simple as it sounds. Mike Smith, mindful that it was her first race in four months, said he was concerned about going wide, and the way the race unfolded he would have been very wide indeed. Still, the question "So what?" comes to mind, since this was, after all, Zenyatta, and nothing has stopped her so far.

Smith did a terrific job in one significant sense. With her tremendous momentum, unleashed as it was in tight quarters, Zenyatta did not knock any other horses down during the course of her serpentine stretch run, which took her off the heels of Pretty Unusual, to the rail in front of Pretty Katherine, past Pretty Unusual in a flash, and then back outside and around Dance to My Tune, who had three lengths and 12 pounds on Zenyatta with a furlong to run. It was like watching a T-Rex do the tango.

"I've got the best seat in the house," Smith said later, still grinning his Zenyatta grin. "While she's doing things like that, I'm thinking, 'Wow. Wow! Did you see that?' "

We did, and there is more to come. But for now it must be noted that the chances Zenyatta and Google Me ever would have been mentioned in the same space were remote. To his credit, the 3-year-old gelding had just run the best race of his life, beaten about five lengths going 6 1/2 furlongs. It took a tragedy to bring their names together as news items, once again underlining the contradictory nature of how the sport is presented. Even a day featuring one of the greatest stars of the game needs filler and foot soldiers, and bad things can happen when the undercard is cheap. Early arriving fans were subjected to the works last Saturday - the dazed and battered bug boy Tyler Kaplan, the unfurled green canvas screen, the ritual arrival of the horse ambulance, lowering its back end to collect its grim cargo - all played out within yards of the clubhouse seats.

"I was with three women, all very excited about the day," said trainer Howard Zucker. "When it happened they all got up and left. They said they'd rather watch Zenyatta on TV. Who knows if they'll come back."

Zucker was standing alongside track superintendent Richard Tedesco as he spoke. To that point in the Santa Anita meet, after 49 programs, there had been no racing fatalities over a synthetic surface that had suffered five cancellations because of heavy rain. Zucker offered the superintendent praise for such a safety record.

"It's not that," said an inconsolable Tedesco, who could hardly speak. "One horse is one horse too many."

Zamora, who owned and trained Google Me, left the scene carrying only the black foam rubber pads that had moments before been strapped beneath Kaplan's girths. As he emerged from the grandstand tunnel into the paddock gardens, he was joined by his daughters, Gabriela, 8, and Georgina, 10. Gabriela wore a pink T-shirt that read "Daddy's Girl." Both girls were crying.

"Stop now, mija. Don't cry," Zamora said to his youngest. "We have more horses."

Under such circumstances, a father will say anything to dry his daughter's tears. Trust me on this.

"Usually, I don't bring them to the races," said Zamora, who began the day with a four-horse stable at Hollywood Park. "Unless it's a race on Saturday or Sunday, they would be in school. And this happened today . . . the first time it happened to me."

"We know any time they run this can happen," Zamora added. "But it's hard for young kids to understand about in this business."

When they do, if ever, they can explain it to the rest of us.