06/10/2010 11:00PM

It's all routine for Zenyatta


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - With the exception of that flamboyant victory in the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park, Zenyatta has made her history in small, relatively conventional pieces. Another one of those pieces comes along Sunday at Hollywood Park, when Zenyatta faces five in the $250,000 Vanity Handicap, a race she has won the past two seasons.

For kicks, just to keep the troops on edge, she makes some of those pieces look tougher than others, like the 2009 Clement Hirsch, when she ran her final quarter in 22 and change to win by a head, or the 2008 version of the Vanity, when she washed out and won by just a half-length, while running 1 1/8 miles for the first time. (For the record, and fond memory, runner-up Tough Tiz's Sis went on to win Belmont's Ruffian Handicap later that year by 12 1/4 lengths.)

Still, for the most part Zenyatta's impact has been that of a steadily rising tide, with no ebb in sight. Her fans have come to terms with the fact that there is no splashy Triple Crown appearance decorating her record, no daring trip to Dubai, no significant shifts in surface, distance, or, for that matter, weather. In some ways, Zenyatta's career has been a controlled experiment . . . or at least as controlled an experiment as possible when dealing with the chaos inherent in the handling of a Thoroughbred race horse.

John Shirreffs, Zenyatta's trainer, is the control freak at the center of the storm. He was asked one morning this week if maybe things weren't getting a little boring, after running the mare 16 times and having the same old thing happen each and every time. Obviously, training Zenyatta has become no more challenging than turning on the barn lights.

"Are you kidding?" Shirreffs shot back. "A big mare like her, there have been things to deal with. The mental challenges alone have been considerable."

Citing trainer-trainee privilege, Shirreffs declined to expand on any physical hurdles Zenyatta may have faced during her 31 months in competition, although it is broadly known that her summers at Del Mar have not been exactly a day at the beach. There is a reason Zenyatta will remain at Hollywood Park this year after the meet closes, even though the Hirsch at Del Mar is tentatively on her schedule.

As for Zenyatta's psychological baggage, she has reached the midpoint of her 6-year-old season still preferring to run sideways in the mornings rather than straight ahead. She will protest, in various ways, even the slightest departures from established procedures. In the afternoons, her goose-stepping post parades are a physical transference of bottled anxieties, which are eventually soothed by her unhurried but carefully orchestrated stroll to the post, while the others gallop and jog. For the crowd, it's just good theater.

"We learned that absolutely everything with her has to be part of a strict routine," Shirreffs said. "We found that she'd get too worked up if you warmed her up, so we decided to pick a spot where she could walk and then stand and be calm and relaxed. We chose the quarter pole."

And there Zenyatta will stand Sunday, in isolated splendor, before wandering back to the gate and entering stall No. 5. After 16 races and 16 wins, the conclusion would seem to be foregone, even though she has faced none of her Vanity opponents before.

Owners and trainers anxious not to end up Zenyatta road kill have gone to some lengths to avoid a confrontation. Earlier this year, Santa Maria winner St Trinians sought refuge by running against males in the Santa Anita Handicap. Zardana, the Bayakoa Handicap winner also trained by Shirreffs, found sanctuary running instead against Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra in New Orleans and beating her in the bargain. On Sunday, both Zardana and St Trinians finally face music.

Arnold Zetcher, Zardana's owner, still recalls the sound of stunned silence greeting the shocker at the Fair Grounds. His mare tried to beat Rachel Alexandra again in the La Troienne at Churchill Downs but threw in a stinker. Then, as recently as a week ago, Zardana was headed to New York for the Ogden Phipps, but an excessively fast workout scrapped those shipping plans and kept her home.

"We're not deluding ourselves," Zetcher said when the possibility of another upset was suggested. "It would be nothing short of amazing if it happened. But when people say, 'How can you run against Zenyatta?' I say, 'It's horse racing!' I don't think anyone would want to see her out there by herself just running an exhibition. I'm a racing fan, and fans want competitive races. At the weights, and with St Trinians in there, I think it could be a pretty good race."

With her style, no matter what the competition or the challenge, Zenyatta is always entertaining. Each appearance is a tale for the grandkids. It is a shame, though, that once again her appearance has not inspired some kind of national network coverage. TVG, which gets a Hollywood Park exclusive, is the only live televised source for the Vanity. There also is something now called NTRA Live!, which is streaming video, and makes its debut with the Vanity, featuring Randy Moss in a studio in Oklahoma and remote coverage from the scene. Good luck to them . . . and their exclamation point.

I'm guessing, though, that more people will see Zenyatta just driving by that L.A. Dodgers billboard towering over the corner of 106th Street and Hawthorne Boulevard, a couple miles from the track. "This Is My Town" is the message, and the image of Zenyatta is larger than life. If that's possible.