01/15/2009 12:00AM

For Shirreffs it's no pain, no gain


ARCADIA, Calif. - Let no one ever say that John Shirreffs does not suffer for his art.

Better known at his local Whole Foods store as the man who buys wheat grass and essential oils in bulk, Shirreffs took the honorable description of hands-on horseman to painful extremes last year. He began 2008 in a sling, nursing an arm fractured by a swift kick, and ended the year with a significant hitch in his get-along - picture Walter Brennan as Amos McCoy - thanks to a freakish accident in November.

It is to Shirreffs's everlasting credit that to this day he refuses to identify the horse who broke his arm. In this sense he is a graduate of a school so old that all records have been lost. Only the lessons remain, among them the constant reminder that if a horse hurts a man, the man is to blame.

As for his damaged hip, the details are still sketchy, but both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Ringling Brothers are interested in finding out more. Apparently, there was a tangle involving a starting gate, a loose horse, and John's startled pony. Shirreffs might have ridden bulls and surfed rough water in his youth, but at 63 he discovered that stunt work is definitely part of his past.

The universe, ever striving toward balance, attempted to alleviate all his discomfort by giving Shirreffs a perfect season in 2008 from the unbeaten Zenyatta, the clear-cut champion of her division and a likely finalist for Horse of the Year. Eclipse Award voters rarely go for the feel-good candidate - neither Smarty Jones nor Afleet Alex could get any traction for Horse of the Year despite wildly popular campaigns - which makes Zenyatta a longshot to outpoll reigning champ Curlin. To her credit, though, the fans lined up squarely in her corner by selecting her victory in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic as the NTRA Moment of the Year, with a 24 percent plurality of the approximately 1,100 votes cast.

"You just can't imagine how excited I am about that," Shirreffs said Thursday morning from Hollywood, after Zenyatta was safely bedded down following a light waltz around the training track. "I'm very thrilled that the fans gave her such an honor."

Zenyatta has been back on the track for a little more than a week, which means Shirreffs will not be announcing her return to the races right away. She looks great, though, and if you don't believe it go to and take a look at the video shot and posted by her tech-savvy trainer.

"We're just jogging a mile right now, so it will be awhile before she gets out to the main track," Shirreffs said. "She did very well during her time off, but we walked her two or three hours a day."

Shirreffs has plenty to do in the meantime. On Saturday, during Santa Anita's stakes triple-header, he will have Del Mar Derby winner Madeo in the San Fernando Stakes for 4-year-olds and the Irish import Ryehill Dreamer in the San Rafael Stakes for 3-year-olds. The other feature is the seven-furlong Santa Ynez for 3-year-old fillies.

Ryehill Dreamer is a mystery colt owned by Marsha Naify who was trained in Ireland by Tommy Stack. Shirreffs figures the best thing going for Ryehill Dreamer is his experience, which includes five starts, two wins and a Group 2 placing. Whether he can handle the proven Square Eddie and the touted maiden winners Brother Keith, Papa Clem, and The Pamplemousse remains to be seen.

Madeo, on the other hand, is a proven commodity who will be facing the likes of Muny, Booted, Tres Borrachos, and El Gato Malo in the 1 1/16-mile San Fernando. Shirreffs describes him as a "very consistent" colt with a solid record that was briefly marred last time out in a roughhouse version of the Hollywood Derby. Madeo was eighth, beaten less than four lengths by Court Vision while boxed in for most of the 1 1/4 miles. Shirreffs was asked if such a frustrating experience could have a negative impact.

"Not with Madeo," Shirreffs insisted. "He's very strong-willed, and not affected by a lot of stuff. He's the kind of colt you really don't have to think about much, because there's no reward in worrying about Madeo."

Shirreffs talks this way about all his horses, from the inside out, like a man who puts in the time. After winning a Kentucky Derby with Giacomo and now guiding Zenyatta unbeaten through nine lifetime starts and a Breeders' Cup for Ann and Jerry Moss, there is no corner of the racing world where he can go without being recognized, as long as he wears his trademark ballcap. It has been strange, though, seeing Shirreffs grounded these last couple of months, unable to do his customary training by horseback.

"I tried getting on last week and it didn't work," Shirreffs said. "One of the joys of riding the pony is getting on the other side of the fence.

"I think I made a real good turn for the better yesterday, though," he added. "You know how healing is - one day you wake up and it feels better. What really happened was that my wife Dottie told me I was starting to walk like Gus, my day watchman at the barn. He sort of waddles sideways. I think that motivated me to really get going."