11/01/2011 3:07PM

Much quieter Breeders' Cup for Shirreffs without Zenyatta


Mid-morning Monday, a tall man in a dark coat and baseball cap leaned against the wall next to one of the offices in Barn 41 on the Churchill Downs backstretch. He chatted occasionally with two companions, who turned out to be a groom and an exercise rider. The man wore glasses and a couple days grizzle on his face, and he looked a lot like the trainer John Shirreffs. Thing is, this was Breeders’ Cup week, and if that was John Shirreffs, where were the 48 photographers, 87 reporters, and the throngs of other hangers-on who should be surrounding him?

Ah – a bygone era. John Shirreffs circa 2011 is a Breeders’ Cup trainer sans the most popular horse of recent racing history, Zenyatta. In 2008, Zenyatta created a decent-sized wave of interest leading up to her win in the BC Ladies’ Classic. The next two years, that wave crashed over Shirreffs and all people in the Zenyatta circle when Breeders’ Cup came round. The mare’s mere arrival last fall at Churchill shook the stables.

This fall finds Zenyatta and Shirreffs both in Kentucky again, but the horse lives at Lanes End farm outside Versailles, carrying a Bernardini foal. Shirreffs? Breeders’ Cup time has gotten decidedly quieter for him.

“Someone called and asked me if there were a lot of media here yet,” he said. “I told them I wouldn’t know.”

Shirreffs has brought two solid, if unspectacular, racehorses to Churchill. Harmonious starts in the Filly and Mare Turf on Friday, while Mr. Commons races Saturday in the Mile. Both will be longshots. Harmonious has yet to come back to her strong win about 13 months ago in the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup, and after slipping around a slick turf course on the way to an eighth-place finish in the 2010 Filly and Mare Turf, she has gone winless in five 2011 starts. Shirreffs has at least prepared for course conditions this year, shoeing Harmonious in toe grabs to help her gain turf traction.

Mr. Commons has finished first or second in his four grass starts, but his résumé lacks a graded turf-stakes win, and the 3-year-old’s strongest assets are his athleticism and potential for further development.

“Physically, he’s growing every day,” Shirreffs said. “He’s just such an exceptional athlete.”

Exceptional, however, takes a backseat to Zenyatta, and though her low-key trainer seems more naturally suited to his Breeders’ Cup existence outside the spotlight’s arc, he learned to live as one of the human translators for a celebrity.

“Zenyatta was perfect for all that,” he said. “As long as she was handling all the attention, it was okay with me, too.”

◗ Teruya Yoshida, the Japanese owner who purchased a controlling share in the 3-year-old German filly Danedream days before she won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, has done the same with Elusive Kate, the morning-line favorite for Friday’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf.

Elusive Kate was scheduled to be sold at auction Sunday at Fasig-Tipton in Lexington, but has been withdrawn from the sale and will stay in training next year with John Gosden, whose wife Rachel Hood was listed as co-owner of the filly through her most recent start. For Friday’s race, Elusive Kate starts as the property of Yoshida and the Magnolia Racing stable of Robert and Janice McNair. She is scheduled to run in Magnolia’s colors.