11/09/2009 12:00AM

Music to a racing fan's ears


ARCADIA, Calif. - A week before the Breeders' Cup Classic, while on the way to the track at Hollywood Park for their final work, Mike Smith could be heard softly singing to Zenyatta in Spanish as they walked along the backstretch road.

"It's a song called 'Antes de Que Te Vayas,' " Smith said, "by Marco Antonio Solis. It means 'Before You Go,' and it's sort of about saying goodbye to someone you love and hoping they come back to you safe. I sing it to her every time I get on her. She keeps time to it when she walks."

Not that anyone in the house of more than 58,000 could hear it, but Smith was serenading his mare one last time last Saturday afternoon at Santa Anita Park as he walked Zenyatta slowly up the stretch toward the starting gate for the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic.

The others in the field of 12 were strewn around the turn and down the backside, going through their conventional warm-ups, while Zenyatta lagged behind, not because of some dramatic disposition to single herself out, but because Smith, in consultation with trainer John Shirreffs over the years, figured it was better not to light the physical fires under the big mare before you needed them. After all, she was the younger half-sister of Balance, a Santa Anita Oaks winner of notorious temper, and as a young filly Zenyatta suffered from hives and bouts of bleeding, both related to stress.

"She can get a little stirred up," Smith said. "It's always right there, beneath the surface. It's best not to give her a reason."

Still, one would think a $2.7 million first prize and an indelible place in racing history would be justification enough to at least break into a little prerace trot. But no. Zenyatta walked. Smith crooned. And the fans went wild at the sight of their majestic serenity in the face of such a moment in time.

"Antes de que te vayas

Dejame mirar

Una vez mas ese rostro

Que nunca he de olvidar."

It can be frustrating at first blush to hear Smith say that Zenyatta won in hand, with plenty in the tank, and for Shirreffs to report that she bounced out of the race looking for more. Such an image runs contrary to the way horse racing usually treats its greatest stars, who are asked to run until it is either physically impossible or economically impractical to continue.

Fans and media tend to admire above all those professional athletes who play hurt, get bloody, and leave it all out there on the field. Sports, after all, are elaborate metaphors for war, and for the metaphor to work there must be casualties. Thoroughbreds, though, can go terribly wrong when they are exhausted, a cold fact every trainer lives with every day.

As impressive as she was in splendid isolation in the Mother Goose or the Kentucky Oaks, or in her graceful dismissal of young males in the Haskell, it will always be Rachel Alexandra's narrow escape from the Preakness against Mine That Bird, or her desperate struggle at the end of the Woodward against flummoxed older horses that are held in highest esteem.

Zenyatta always played against that theme. Except for a couple of close calls in timing her exuberant move, Smith always tended to have his hands in his lap as her races came to an end. In that sense, as Shirreffs once said of the mare in so many words, we were watching an artist at work, who just happened to be painting with an athlete's brush.

Which is why it really never mattered where Zenyatta ran, or against whom, or in what kind of race. As a racehorse, she has been unconventional in every sense of the word, very much in a world of her own. Her career has been 14 visits to the Louvre, 14 performances by the New York Philharmonic, 14 trips to the edge of the Grand Canyon. How did you like the view?

"The greatest mare I ever rode was Bayakoa," said Laffit Pincay at the end of last Saturday, surrounded by fans in the Santa Anita paddock. "And before Zenyatta, the greatest mare I probably ever saw was Ruffian. But you know what, I never got the chills watching a race. This race today gave me the chills."

"All the things I've seen," said Kent Desormeaux, who rode Summer Bird to a noble fourth, "I'm glad I witnessed this. And my colt was running."

"It was inside the sixteenth pole," said Ramon Dominguez, who beat them all but Zenyatta with Gio Ponti. "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."

It was also Dominguez aboard reigning champion Ginger Punch in April of 2008 when they met the emerging Zenyatta in the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park. The experience left its mark.

"She was wide the whole race and blew by us with her ears like this," Dominguez said, giving his fingers the now famous Zenyatta waggle. "I knew that day, she was something very special."

To quibble at this point about something so mundane as the voting for 2009 Horse of the Year seems far beneath the significance of what Zenyatta represents. For those closest to her embrace, she will always be the horse of a lifetime. For the media, a story without peer. For horseplayers and fans, just imagine - a free spot and a happy ending every time she ran. To the end, she did it without fuss and without physical strife, dodging the evident dangers of the game to give life to the words of the song her jockey sang:

"Once again before you go

Allow me to look

Once more into the face

That I will never forget."