05/25/2009 12:00AM

The pressure of perfection

Benoit & Associates
Zenyatta, under regular rider Mike Smith, easily kept her perfect record intact in Saturday's Grade 2 Milady at Hollywood Park.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Those seven months between starts for Zenyatta passed quickly, didn't they? Perhaps it was all the distractions that helped dull the pain. To kill time, Americans elected their first African-American president. Not long after that the economy was destroyed, Guantanamo was ordered closed, and the Steelers won another Super Bowl. When Tiger Woods came back from his long absence, we knew Zenyatta would soon follow. Then suddenly, it was last Saturday, and her light shone across the land once more.

They were nervous, the Zenyatta crew, and rightfully so. Perfection is an awful burden. Of all the things that can go wrong in horse racing, at least one of them usually does. As they waited to take Zenyatta to Hollywood Park's backstretch receiving barn, trainer John Shirreffs paced like a caged tiger, while exercise rider Steve Willard pawed the ground in anticipation.

"I just love her," Willard said, in a voice familiar to any father who has ever stared down at his sleeping child. "She's been training better than she ever has in her life. But I just want her to come back okay."

By that Willard did not mean come back to the races in a blaze of glory, which she certainly did with her domination of the Milady Handicap. He meant that she should go do her thing, and then come back to him and the others in the Shirreffs world as healthy and strong as she was right now, an hour before post time, as assistant trainer Felipe Rivera knelt in her stall and applied back wraps and rundowns.

Awful things will happen - as they did that same afternoon at Arlington Park when Rene Douglas and his mount suffered such tragic damage - but Zenyatta's chances are always better than most, for a holistic combination of reasons that mark the character of the Shirreffs operation.

For instance, Zenyatta was all dressed up and ready to roll on the morning of May 1, when she found herself at Churchill Downs and entered to make her return that afternoon in the Louisville Distaff. What a stage it would have been - Kentucky Oaks Day, featuring Rachel Alexandra, with Zenyatta as the warm-up act. But steady rains had played havoc with the Churchill Downs racing surface, and Shirreffs was in no mood to roll the dice.

"There were reasons to run or not to run," Shirreffs said, looking back at the brief Kentucky trip. "I decided to let it come down to one thing. I would make my decision based on what they did with the track after training that morning, whether they would harrow it or float it. When they floated it, I knew they were more concerned about the track for Derby Day, so I scratched."

In many ways, the checked swing in Kentucky was just what Zenyatta needed to clear any remaining cobwebs. She shipped like an old pro from her California safe house and bounded around the tight, tacky Churchill Downs surface with consummate ease. A horse race is different, though, and so she came home.

Now, an hour before going over for the Milady, both Zenyatta and stablemate Life Is Sweet were standing calmly in ice boots and ice buckets, a couple of snow queens getting ready for the dance. Shirreffs was asked about this stuff called "ice." An exotic new treatment?

"No, we can make it right here," Shirreffs said.

So, it is a synthetic substance. Legal, though?

"Yes," Shirreffs replied, playing along. "But they'll probably develop a test for it and then ban it."

The ice was pulled, and both Zenyatta and Life Is Sweet put on their matching shadow rolls, D-bits, snaffles and tongue ties. Life Is Sweet, on a roll of three major wins at Santa Anita, is a handsome athlete in her own right, but even Rachel Alexandra would look a little drab next to Zenyatta's 17-plus hands' worth of dark mahogany carving. After an uneventful walk through the breezeways of several barns, the Shirreffs mares arrived at the receiving facility, where supervisor Larry Damore - a respected exercise rider in the mornings - flipped their lips and checked their shoes.

"That's her," Damore deadpanned, as he waved Zenyatta in.

The race itself was memorable mostly because of how hard Garrett Gomez and Life Is Sweet tried to beat Zenyatta, and how easy it was for Zenyatta to swat them away. The crowd in attendance was small - barely 6,000 - but they were tightly bunched. When Mike Smith asked Zenyatta to make that warp speed burst around the turn (I swear little trails of light flicker out of her tail when she does it) there could be heard from the stands gasps and giggles of delight and gratitude.

Zenyatta was back. It had been a long seven months after all.