11/07/2010 11:02AM

Loss doesn't diminish Zenyatta's popularity

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Barbara D. Livingston
Fans gather outside the fence separating the street from the barn area at Churchill Downs on Sunday morning to watch Zenyatta graze.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Zenyatta may have finished second in her final career start on Saturday in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but she remained first in the hearts of her fans here Sunday morning at Churchill Downs, literally stopping traffic on a public road adjacent to the barn area when motorists realized she was out grazing.

Zenyatta was taken out to graze at 7:45 a.m. by Frank Leal, the foreman for trainer John Shirreffs. The grassy area behind Barn 41, where Zenyatta was stabled here, abuts Longfield Avenue, with only a chain-link fence, topped by barbed wire, as a barrier. One car stopped, then another, and pretty soon, nearly two dozen were parallel parking on Longfield, as fans hurried out of their cars, camera in hands, to snap pictures on a clear, cold morning where temperatures hovered around freezing.

On the other side of the fence, more than 100 people, media and fans alike, stood in a semi-circle observing the scene. A small girl asked Leal if she could feed Zenyatta an apple, and Leal brought her over. Other fans walked up next to Zenyatta and had pictures taken. Zenyatta obliged, as always, mirroring the becalmed nature seen on a daily basis at her home base at Hollywood Park.

Shirreffs arrived just a few minutes after Zenyatta had been taken out of her stall, and confirmed that the Classic was likely the final start for Zenyatta. Though he said owners Jerry and Ann Moss had not made a final decision, Shirreffs spoke in past tense about Zenyatta’s career, and repeatedly made reference to her heading to the breeding shed next spring.

Shirreffs said Zenyatta’s camp was “very disappointed” with the narrow loss to Blame in the Classic, her first defeat after 19 victories.

“How could you not be?” Shirreffs said. “We were hoping she’d win her 20th, and go out undefeated. A fairy-tale ending. We felt bad. We were hoping for a fairy-tale ending. It didn’t end the way everyone wanted.

“She had a great career,” Shirreffs said. “Let’s celebrate that. I’m pretty sure she’s not going to race anymore. She had a fabulous run. She’s been great for the business, a thrill to train. Look where she’s taken us. It’s disappointing, but we’ll get over it. She’s been the highlight of my career. I’ve had wonderful three years with Zenyatta. As a trainer, you have to let go.”

Shirreffs offered no excuses for Zenyatta’s loss, other than to say she didn’t get any breaks. She dropped far back early, then had to wait in traffic at the top of the stretch.

“The fact is she put in an incredible run. She proved what a champion she is,” Shirreffs said. “It was unfortunate she was so far back. It left her a lot to do.”

Shirreffs said jockey Mike Smith “was devastated.” At a post-race press conference Saturday night, Smith broke down, blaming himself for the loss.

“He loves the mare so much,” Shirreffs said.

Shirreffs said Zenyatta recovered quickly from the race.

“She has a tremendous power of recovery,” he said. “Every race, in 10 minutes she’s recovered.”

Zenyatta was scheduled to fly back to Hollywood Park on Sunday night. She will remain there for about a month, Shirreffs said. That will enable those at Shirreffs’s barn to have a long, slow good-bye. Zenyatta then will return to Kentucky to begin a new career as a broodmare.

Shirreffs said he still believed Zenyatta should be Horse of the Year.

“Oh yes,” he said. “She’s done so much for the business. That would be an appropriate reward.”

“She’s still my champion,” said her groom, Mario Espinoza. “To me, she never lost.”