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Hovdey: Close to perfection, always magnificent
Zenyatta was born on April 1 – no kidding – and she made her racing debut on Thanksgiving. You’re welcome.
After such delightful coincidences of the calendar, anything was possible. So, why not 19 straight wins and nearly a 20th, three championship seasons and Horse of the Year, international fame and adoration, and a place on the Hall of Fame wall in Saratoga Springs in her first year of eligibility?
Those of us lucky enough to witness the emergence of Zenyatta as a filly of consequence attach our memories to special moments. For this reporter, Zenyatta was always a necessary stop, if only to stand at her stall and wonder aloud how it was possible for anything so big to be so fast and so sweet.
Though counterintuitive in America’s culture of speed, Zenyatta was a racehorse who led from behind. She turned races upside down, requiring race-callers to account for her every stride at the back of the pack as if that is where the action was truly unfolding, because it was.
Her athleticism in full flight was a sight to behold. Here is Zenyatta skipping lightly over the heels of stablemate Life Is Sweet when Garrett Gomez tried to sucker Mike Smith to the rail on the backstretch of the 2009 Milady Handicap. Here is Zenyatta looking right and then diving left to hit a narrow hole in the 2010 Santa Margarita Handicap. Here is Zenyatta knifing between horses on the turn of the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic before picking her seam and running down Gio Ponti.
“It was inside the sixteenth pole,” said Ramon Dominguez, who rode Gio Ponti that day and will be inducted on Friday as well. “That’s when I heard the commotion from the public. I looked over and saw her and thought, ‘Okay.’ There was nothing I could do.”
Zenyatta was 5 for 5 when she had her first tough day in the 2008 Vanity Handicap, her first race at nine furlongs. She washed out, fussed going to the post, and pulled herself up once she hit the lead to beat Tough Tiz’s Sis by only half a length.
“You want them to be challenged,” said her trainer, John Shirreffs, in the wake of that race. “You don’t want them to have it easy all the time, especially not when they’ll be facing much tougher opposition as you go along.”
Zenyatta’s opposition often was maligned as moderate, a function, no doubt, of the ease with which she devoured most of her fields in hand. Let the record show, however, that her beaten opponents included champion Gio Ponti, champion Summer Bird, champion Ginger Punch, Breeders’ Cup winner Life Is Sweet, Santa Anita Handicap winner Einstein, and the major stakes winners Switch, Hystericalady, Music Note, Cocoa Beach, St Trinians, and stablemate Zardana, who upset Rachel Alexandra in New Orleans, the same Rachel Alexandra being inducted alongside Zenyatta.
The Hall of Fame spotlight will be on Zenyatta’s owners, Ann and Jerry Moss, as well as Shirreffs and his wife, Dottie. And, of course, Mike Smith, who rode Zenyatta with the confidence of a man running for a train he knew he’d always catch.
“She’s the best thing that ever happened to me, that’s for sure,” Smith said.
The sentiment is echoed, especially by Jerry Moss, who bought the daughter of Street Cry as a yearling for $60,000.
“She was big and beautiful,” Moss said. “She just had this skin rash. We were prepared to go much higher for her, and when the hammer stopped, I just wanted to make sure it was us. Kiss a frog, see what happens.”
Call it kismet. Call it a fairy tale. Give it whatever name you like.
“I take no credit other than to admit I am a very lucky man,” Moss said. “If some of my luck seems to have gotten into the equine part of my life, so be it. I’ll accept the credit for being lucky.”
Moss would be the first to spread the credit around. The list of people who deserve praise for Zenyatta’s care and well-being also includes Mario Espinoza, Frank Leal, Felipe Rivera, Michelle Jensen, Freddy Miller, and Steve Willard. If their names are not on her Hall of Fame plaque, they should be.
“I also have to attribute a lot of her success to David Flores,” Shirreffs once said, referring to Zenyatta’s jockey through her first three starts, before Smith took over. “He was so patient with her in those earlier races. She would break slow, and he did nothing to rush her or ask her to do anything she wasn’t ready to do. She won anyway, but the experiences were positive and helped her a lot.”
Zenyatta’s narrow loss in her final start to Blame in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic proved that she was, at last, human after all. The race still stings, perfection being so very close, but nothing is held against her.
“To have a horse of this nature, this stature, is a dream come true,” Moss said upon her retirement. “I just love her. I just hope she’s happy and healthy and goes on to be all she’s suppose to be.”
As her plaque is presented on Friday and the crowd at Saratoga stands in ovation, Zenyatta will be lolling about in her 15-acre pasture at Lane’s End Farm in Kentucky, probably finding some shade. She is in foal to Medaglia d’Oro, a Travers and Whitney winner, after having lost her fourth and most recent foal last April to postpartum complications.
“They certainly mourn the loss of a foal,” said Todd Claunch, Lane’s End assistant manager. “But you could tell, when we brought her back and put her in her paddock, she put her head up, looked around, and said, ‘I’m home now.’ You could see the release in her eye.
“When she was a maiden mare, I’d never seen such a muscular horse,” Claunch added. “She was like a gladiator. She doesn’t exercise herself as much now, but she’s still in great shape.
“It’s really nice having her here at the farm. But watching her train and race, that must have been really spectacular.”
Yes, it really was.
Fired 20 out of 20 starts and at the highest levels. LEGEND.
I'm not going to get into any debate about which was the best based on comparing the grading of the races, the quality of the horses beaten and the speed of the race.
With racing desperately seeking more fans, it's about time they realized the simple solution: keep star horses in training and run them against each other. When American Pharoah shipped to Saratoga for the Travers, 15,000 fans turned out just to watch him work out.
With the mares having healthy 19 and 20 race careers, there is no excuse for the two of them never meeting on the track. Without remembering who pushed for the race and who obstructed it, Rachel would have had an advantage because she had a big speed edge on Zenyatta, and I believe that history has shown that horses that get out in front and slow down the pace win these races. So a match race would probably have not been fair to Zenyatta, but there were many other races in which they could have been entered.
The best I've ever seen - and ever will see.
She's magnificent when she's sleeping...
I love the title on this (ahem...not to mention the story itself!) and for the same article I saw on ESPN, the title was "A skin rash, a narrow loss, and perfect in between", which I also love. Sometimes, just a few words can sum up one's greatness. Just thinking back on Zenyatta's career gets me choked up. I will always have gratitude for her connections (The Mosses, Dottie and John Shirreffs, Mike Smith and all of the folks at the barn who were part of her daily routine). What a hell of a team. I'm pretty sure there will never be another racehorse that will touch me the way Zenyatta does...even to this day. Congratulations to all getting into the Hall of Fame.
The california synthetic era. It took more than a year to understand this new type of racing. We are still learning from the experience. It was a closers paradise. Never heard of that before ? A track surface that was always rated fast. Why build a weather related surface where it doesnt rain much ? After two breeders cups, santa anita, keeneland and del mar trashed the synthetic surfaces so the zero for 43 dirt horses could have a legit championship. How come the synthetic california horses couldnt perform in the triple crown during this era ? Two three year old european sprinters ran first and second in the first synthetic breeders cup classic. Doesnt this prove that triple crown winners need to grow up on firmer dirt surfaces ? The europeans dont perform well in the triple crown. So how under rated was toast of new york ? So how under rated was the front running california synthetic horse that won the dubai derby by 13 lengths ? Zenyatta was a very successful california synthetic horse. How many grade 1 stakes races are there in america ?
She gave us the gift of lasting, lifetime memories. So fun to watch, so exciting, so beautiful. The loss to Blame still hurts......not because of who she lost to ( he was TOUGH ), but she should've won, and it cost her 20 for 20. No complaints though. Except for Secretariat ( I was a child ), she ranks in my top 5 of "wow" horses, fun horses to watch........ Zenyatta, Cigar, Skip Away, Best Pal, and Kotashaan ( turf ). I'm sure I'm leaving several out.
Zenyatta is definitely one of a kind. How many horses in recent memory have stayed at the top of their game for 35 months? She never "needed the race" even after a seven month layoff (2008 Distaff to 2009 Milady) and until her very last race managed to overcome the peril of a deep closer - being caught behind tiring horses (Quality Road being eased in front of her at the 2010 Classic coming out of the far turn cost her at least three lengths and she lost by about 4 inches). Who can forget her nodding as she was introduced in the 2010 Apple Blossom? Or the way she would stop and give an intimidating stare at the other horses in the paddock. And of course the "dance." Great horses make good horses look ordinary - and Zenyatta is one of the all-time greats.
Great article about an all-time great. Still get goosebumps watching the replays. Always will.
Great article about an all-time great.