11/08/2010 2:33PM

An unheard-of day for Zenyatta

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Chris McCarron, who won the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic with Alysheba under considerably less illumination than was provided last Saturday at Churchill Downs, saw what was happening from ground level, standing as he was about a hundred yards past the finish.

“Everyone’s asking me why he let her drop back so far,” said McCarron, figuring the listener would know the “he” was Mike Smith and the “her” was Zenyatta, who had just lost by the length of Blame’s head for the first time in her 20-race career.

“I don’t think it was his idea,” McCarron went on. “When he went by me he was niggling on her, trying to get her to pick it up a little. She must not have been all that comfortable with the surface, and that can happen. Then look what she did.”

In order to do what she did – to close from so far back that fish stories seem tame by comparative exaggeration and still finish alongside the tenacious Blame – Zenyatta had to do what John Henry did in the 1981 Arlington Million, when the turf was so deep his flawless, ground-clipping stride was sinking with every step until, with Bill Shoemaker’s patience, he found enough rhythm to gain purchase on the ground and move steadily toward The Bart to catch him with a head-bob at the wire.

She had to do what Forego did in the 1976 Marlboro Cup, when the big gelding loathed every step of the mile and a quarter on a slop-ridden Belmont main track and still, again with Shoemaker aboard, managed some how to get his 137-pound burden up just in time to catch Honest Pleasure and beat him a head.

Zenyatta had to take inspiration from the way Dr. Fager dealt with his only race on grass, in the 1968 United Nations at Atlantic City, when he went slipping and sliding, never really able to extend, through a ferocious pace duel with Advocator, who carried 22 fewer pounds. Somehow, Dr. Fager prevailed to win by a neck.

“It had rained, and the grass was wet on top,” said John Nerud, the man in Dr. Fager’s corner. “I could have put stickers on him, but didn’t, and he was sliding all over the place around the turns. But then when he got to the eighth pole, he found his stride and was able to come back on and beat that horse. The great ones find a way to get it done.”

The fact that Zenyatta – like Dr. Fager, Forego and John Henry – was able to compensate for the unfamiliar terrain and still run her race was of little comfort to the friends and family who gathered at the barn after her return from the backstretch testing facility. There were tears and quiet mumblings, sheriff’s deputies barking “get back” and “no flash” to pressing fans, and feeble words of consolation passed around like leftovers from a stale buffet.

“We really wanted it for her,” Jerry Moss said. “We know she’s perfect, but we really wanted it for her.”

After a few turns with traveling assistant Frank Leal, Zenyatta started to stride out, hardly the picture of defeat. John Shirreffs took the shank and led her out back, and there, silhouetted against the headlights of cars and busses heading down Longfield Avenue, Zenyatta nibbled at the sparse grass behind Barn 41, the headlights illuminating “Zenyatta” on the creamy white blanket she wore.

“Would you know it was her anyway?” one of the dozen or so fans gathered on the street side of a the chain link fence was asked.

“Of course I would,” she replied. “I’d know her anywhere.”

The others were staring, talking softly, while another group of at least 50 stood behind a line of sawhorses adjacent to the barn itself. The honk of a horn was followed by a cry from the dark, “You’re the queen!” and fans, on the street side of the chain-link fence and standing behind the sawhorses, began to applaud, tentatively at first, then louder. As Zenyatta picked up her head in acknowledgement, John Shirreffs led her to the fence to sniff at her fans through the links, and then guided her along the line of sawhorses before finally taking her back inside.

Inside, Jerry Moss sat with his 6-4 frame folded onto the cot where groom Mario Espinoza had slept the nights leading up to the Classic, in a tack room overheated against the cold. Taking out a pen and a folded scrap of paper, Moss went about composing a statement for the media. He had done this sort of thing before, running companies, boosting charity drives, so the language of colorless, odorless public statement was hardly foreign. This was different, though, since the subject matter was so unusual.

The statement began with “We’re very proud . . . ” and ended with “. . . he beat a superstar,” and that was more than enough for the moment. Ann Moss, clutching a sheet of Zenyatta photos, thought the less said the better, worrying more about how Zenyatta was taking it.

“I hope she doesn’t know she lost,” Ann said, and then, as Zenyatta walked past, “There’s my girl – you’re the best, the greatest.”

There appeared then, without warning, Freddie Johnson, dressed in denim and fleece, standing in the crowd at the mouth of the barn, quietly insistent that he wanted to congratulate John Shirreffs and everybody in the Zenyatta barn for the fantastic job they had done with the mare.

“I told Al I wanted to come over here and do this,” said Johnson, referring to his boss, Al Stall Jr. “He said, ‘Freddie, I think that’s a real good idea.’ I know how hard these people worked to keep this mare so good for so long. She ran her heart out. She deserved that win. But I got hoarse hollering for Blame, ‘cause I knew once he took the lead it’s hard to pass him, and she was coming like a freight train.”

Shirreffs was busy bedding Zenyatta down, so Johnson approached Moss and extended his hand, and for the moment their hands clasped the disparate worlds embraced by the power and glory of the Thoroughbred racehorse came vividly alive in the chill of the Louisville night.

Johnson, 37, first went to work for trainer Frankie Brothers at the Fair Grounds as a 10-year-old kid before joining Al Stall. Johnson’s father, who maintained vending machines, was murdered on the job. His family home where his mother still lived, near the University of New Orleans, was wiped off the map when the nearby levee was breeched in the storm surge of that terrible August of 2005.

That same year, Jerry Moss, the kid from Brooklyn who made his fortune in the music business, married a model and considers himself as lucky as a man could be, won the Kentucky Derby with Giacomo. But now it was Johnson, who’d been around Blame from the moment he arrived in the Stall barn, offering words of consolation and praise to the man who owned Zenyatta.

“The day I knew he was good was the day he beat Gone Astray at Saratoga in the Curlin,” Johnson said of Blame. “After that Al said, ‘What do you think I should do?’ and I said, ‘Try the Super Derby.’ That’s what we did, and Regal Ransom got out there, nobody pressing him, and he just walked around there. So we gave him time off, let him come back as a 4-year-old, and look what he’s done.”

What Blame has done is as much as any older horse in recent history, winning the William D. Schaefer at Pimlico, the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs, and the Whitney at Saratoga in addition to the Classic. The only mark against him this year was the Jockey Club Gold Cup, when Haynesfield freaked on the lead and Blame could not catch him.

“The only reason Haynesfield got us,” Johnson said, “was we got up there the day before the race and he just stood at the back of the stall, just lookin’ lookin’ lookin’. I told Al something ain’t right. He’s not the horse I know.”

The horse Johnson knew put the Gold Cup loss behind him and showed up like a champion for the Classic.

“That’s just shows you,” Johnson said. “They can all have a day like that.

“Except her,” he added. “She never had a day like that.”

Ever.