05/04/2011 4:02PM

No bad feelings as Zenyatta's owners return to Churchill Downs

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Barbara D. Livingston
Zazu, owned by Jerry and Ann Moss, will try to give her owners their second Kentucky Oaks victory Friday at Churchill Downs. The Mosses won the Oaks in 1994 with Sardula.

Forgive Jerry Moss if he enters upon Churchill Downs this week with mixed emotions.

On the face of it, the sight of the place should trip nothing but blissful memories. Moss and his wife, Ann, took their first turn on the national stage in 1994 when their filly Sardula won the 120th running of the Kentucky Oaks. In 2005, they were back with Giacomo, who upset the 131st Kentucky Derby at 50-1.

It was their most recent visit, however, that didn’t go so well. For most owners, running second in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic would be the definition of a pretty good day at the races. For the Mosses, the 2010 Classic at Churchill Downs forever will mark the setting of the one and only loss in the remarkable 20-race career of their towering mare Zenyatta.

For better or worse, those images were revived last weekend as the Mosses watched a rerun of the “60 Minutes” Zenyatta feature first aired last October. The piece was updated with a replay of the Classic, in which Zenyatta came up a head shy of catching Blame, despite the 1,234 1/2 feet of the Churchill Downs stretch.

“It was a great tribute to Zenyatta, airing that again,” said Jerry Moss, who was on the scene with Zazu.

Moss insists that any lingering taste of defeat from her Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs has been washed clean by the vivid recollections of the mare herself.

“Any race of Zenyatta’s was a tremendous experience,” Moss said. “So I don’t have any bad feelings about anything that had to do with her.”

It helped that on the morning after the Classic the Mosses got to witness one of the most unusual sights in racing lore, when scores of fans gathered at the barn and dozens more lined the Churchill Downs stable area fence to catch a glimpse of Zenyatta. The Mosses and trainer John Shirreffs obliged them by bringing their mare out for a long and entertaining graze.

The Mosses play the game hard, which is why they are back in Louisville this week for a run at their second Kentucky Oaks with the gray filly Zazu, who must deal with Fantasy Stakes winner Joyful Victory, Golden Rod winner Kathmanblu, Ashland winner Lilacs and Lace, and Sunland Park Oaks winner Pretty Plum.

A daughter of Tapit, trained by John Sadler, Zazu has seven starts to her credit with two wins and four seconds, the most recent of those coming in the Santa Anita Oaks when she just missed catching Turbulent Descent. Prior to that, Zazu beat Turbulent Descent on the square in the one-mile Las Virgenes Stakes.

The Mosses have a lot of fun naming their horses. Giacomo honored the son of Sting, who recorded the album “Zenyatta Mondatta” when he was with The Police. Tiago, Giacomo’s younger brother and winner of the Santa Anita Derby, was named for a son of A&M recording star Sergio Mendes, while Sardula, a daughter of Storm Cat, was named for the mythical creature best decribed as half lion and half man.

It worked for Zenyatta – naming a filly for a well-known album from the catalog of Moss’s A&M Records – so why not go back to the well. “Zazu” is a 1986 release by the model-turned-singer/songwriter Rosie Vela, whose face adorned the cover of Vogue no less than 14 times. Vela, a friend of Ann Moss’s from their modeling days, never released another album after “Zazu.”

“We wanted to honor the album,” Moss said. “But to tell you the truth, we were kind of looking for another good name that started with ‘Z.’ ”

The Mosses live for what their horses do off the track as well as on. Even though Giacomo won only one more race in his career after the Derby, they are in great anticipation of his offspring, which are 3-year-olds this year. And there should be news soon about Zenyatta, who went back to the stallion Bernardini after her initial pregnancy proved not to be viable.

Sadly, Sardula did not live to reproduce. During the latter part of 1994, she was stricken by what eventually was diagnosed as the bone disease osteomyelitis. Despite the efforts of the leading veterinary clinics in Kentucky and California, she could not be saved. Sardula is buried beneath an oak tree near the Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center in Los Olivos, Calif.

In the 17 years since Sardula’s victory, the Kentucky Oaks has expanded in terms of both attention and prestige. The purse is now a million dollars, nearly four times what Sardula ran for, while Oaks Day is linked to Derby Day not only through ticketing and promotions, but also in the minds of racing fans. Seven of the last nine 3-year-old filly champions have included the Kentucky Oaks among their accomplishments, including 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and last year’s winner, Blind Luck, who won a thriller over Evening Jewel.

For that $283,600 Oaks purse back in 1994, the sport got a running every bit as exciting as the 2010 renewal. Lakeway, trained by Gary Jones, was heavily favored under a vigorous, 24-year-old Kent Desormeaux, but it was the cool hand-ride of Eddie Delahoussaye, 42, from the eighth pole home that got Sardula’s head to the wire first.

“What I remember most is that stretch battle with Lakeway,” Moss said. “We got lucky that day. But it sure helped to have Delahoussaye. He was a great jock.”

With 13 entrants in this year’s Oaks, luck will be seriously in play. Don’t be surprised, though, to look up in the last 50 yards of the race to see two gray streaks named Joyful Victory and Zazu bearing down on the finish pole together.