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What makes the great ones great?
She was described as a kind-hearted creature – exceptionally fond of her stable cat – whose public flourishes included a tendency to drop far off the pace of her races and then come with a crowd-pleasing rush.
Before the start of a race, as legend has it, she would drop her head to graze, searching for tasty daisies. She fancied only a certain brand of water, and she was described in a journal of her day as being of “fine length everywhere, is good through the heart, has great wide hips, and good muscular quarters, fine shape, and enormous power.”
Her name was Kincsem, the Hungarian champion, who from 1876 to 1879 won 54 races in 54 starts while competing in England, France, Germany, Austria, and what is now the Czech Republic, in addition to her native land. Kincsem was buried in the state Agricultural Museum in Budapest and memorialized by the city’s Kincsem Park, a horse racing and entertainment complex roughly half the size of Central Park in Manhattan. Madonna performed at Kincsem Park last summer, as part of her Sticky & Sweet Tour.
Which is all a long-winded way of saying that as far as celebrated, undefeated, larger-than-life Thoroughbred racemares are concerned, Zenyatta – she of the 17-0 record and counting – still has a ways to go, at least in terms of the game’s most daunting record of perfection.
Fortunately, American racehorses of the late 20th century and early 21st are not judged by standards remotely comparable to whatever went on 130 years ago in Central and Western Europe. Kincsem crossed the English Channel in a boat, just for starters.
But even the great mares of the early 20th century seem fuzzy and remote despite records of impressive breadth: Pan Zareta and her 76 wins. Imp and her 62. Regret’s nearly flawless 9 for 11, which included sound beatings of the boys in the first five starts of her career.
As Zenyatta’s career has unfolded, fans and media have become hard-pressed to keep pace with fresh superlatives. Now comes due her 18th start, scheduled for Saturday at Del Mar in the Clement L. Hirsch, in which she once again will have a chance to engage her own great wide hips, her good muscular quarters, and her enormous power in pursuit of the perfect career.
If nothing else, Zenyatta − along with the younger Rachel Alexandra − has made it respectable, even fashionable, to be an American main-track mare in the modern era. Let’s face it, but for a few iconic exceptions, the female of the Thoroughbred species is regularly given short shrift. “Did she beat the boys?” has been the standard measure, and only a handful of fillies and mares have been able to respond with a “yes” of sufficient volume.
“The 100 Greatest Racehorses of the 20th Century,” from Blood-Horse Publications, goes 35 deep before encountering the first female, Ruffian, and another five before Busher pops up in 40th place. The third group of 20 names includes five mares, and then, playing catch-up, there are 19 mares among the final 40 spots on the list.
The prejudice is well earned. Males dominate the glitzy Triple Crown as 3-year-olds. Then, as they age, they compete in “open” events, which tend to marginalize the corresponding filly-and-mare races as inferior products.
The men and women who have brushed close against some of the greatest mares of the last half-century would testify otherwise. Their mares, whether or not they faced down males, were extraordinary equine athletes, without qualification. And it is to them Daily Racing Form has turned in search of clues as to the secrets behind that greatness, and how those threads lead to the 6-year-old mare named Zenyatta.
“I galloped Ruffian when she was a yearling and an early 2-year-old,” said Charlsie Cantey, who went on to a respected career as a racing commentator on network television. “When we brought them home there at Belmont, we always took our time, grazed and took the long way around. I’ll never forget one morning I was just sitting on her and she’d dropped her head and was eating grass. Robyn Smith came wheeling by in her red XKE, overshot me and backed up, whipped the window down and yelled out at me:
“ ‘He’s gorgeous! What’s his name?’ ”
Size matters with mares, but there can be too much of a good thing. Ruffian’s people, including trainer Frank Whiteley, were ever mindful of her enormous dimensions.
“That kind of epitomized Ruffian to me,” Cantey said. “Paintings of her tend to make her look a little delicate, as if they couldn’t quite capture her true scope, her huge neck and powerful build. At the same time, she was very elegant.
“I remember working another horse with her as she got close to her first race,” Cantey said. “Frank sent me out to be the target and said, ‘You two just finish up together.’ So I got about a five- or six-length lead, and here she comes, blowing by me. I mean, there was no chance of me staying with her. I came back covered in dirt, head to toe, and Frank was just laughing his head off, saying, ‘You didn’t really think you were gonna run with her, did you?’ ”
Not long after that, Ruffian won her first race by 15 lengths, then her next nine by daylight, wire to wire, before she suffered a fatal injury in her match race against Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure on July 6, 1975.
“I worry about any horse being too big for its own good,” said Ron McAnally, who trained Hall of Famers Bayakoa and Paseana. “That’s why I admire John Shirreffs so much for the way he’s handled Zenyatta. Big mare like that, for sure it’s been a challenge.”
McAnally had his own cross to bear with Bayakoa, a fast and flighty Argentine mare who won back-to-back Breeders’ Cup Distaffs in 1989 and 1990. The fuse was short.
“Just walking over for the Apple Blossom her first time at Oaklawn Park, she got one look at those dogwoods in bloom and almost lost it,” McAnally said. “She’d never seen anything like it. But that was her. The smallest thing could set her off.”
At one point in her American career, Bayakoa reeled off 10 wins in a run of 11 starts. Paseana answered with a streak of eight out of 10. Similarly, while she was trained by Laura de Seroux, 2002 Horse of the Year Azeri won 14 of 16 starts at the beginning of her career. Wayne Lukas trained Azeri through her final eight starts, and she won three along with a third straight Eclipse Award as champion older filly or mare. Her record earned her a place in the Hall of Fame class of 2010, which will be honored in Saratoga Springs this week.
“What I really appreciated with Azeri, and maybe got a little obsessed with, was the memory of all the wonderful, top-class horses I was around when I worked for Charlie Whittingham,” de Seroux said. “All those good horses got beat − or as Charlie would say, we lived to fight another day − so I realized how rare it is when you’re on a streak like hers. I’m sure John Shirreffs knows what I’m talking about.”
Like Zenyatta, Azeri came to the game late in her 3-year-old season and ascended in racing’s consciousness as she aged. Azeri proved mortal early, however, losing her fourth start in the La Canada Stakes at Santa Anita when she missed the break and came up a length short to Summer Colony. Like Zenyatta, Mike Smith was her regular rider.
“Mike heard a noise, a crack, and for a few strides he was very careful with her thinking she might have hurt herself,” de Seroux said. “That put her pretty far back going into the first turn, especially since she was a speed mare, and still she laid it down and almost won it.”
Azeri also had a bit of Bayakoa in her.
“We did everything we could to keep her calm,” de Seroux said. “She spent a lot of time outside in her sun pen. She trained at San Luis Rey Downs, way off the beaten path, and I would take her after the break every day. We taught her to stand and pose at the wire, and she’d stay as long as 10 or 12 minutes. By the time she was ready to trot off and do her gallop, there was practically nobody left on the track to pass her, or get her switched on.”
Because she trained at San Luis Rey, some hundred miles from the major Los Angeles tracks, Azeri spent more than her share of time on a horse van. For a highly strung mare, this could have been a problem.
“I honestly feel that getting on the van was an adventure she grew to enjoy,” de Seroux said. “She loved attention, and she loved going to the races.”
No question, in terms of personality type, the great ones appear to be happy in their work. John Veitch is to this day amazed by the aplomb with which Davona Dale, bred and owned by Calumet Farm, dealt with the first six months of the 1979 season, during which she ran 10 times at seven tracks. Her eight straight wins in that span included the Fantasy, the Kentucky Oaks, the Black-Eyed Susan, Acorn, Mother Goose, and Coaching Club American Oaks.
“Because of what I demanded of her over that short period of time, from the standpoint of sheer physical ability, I think she was probably the best horse I ever trained,” said Veitch, now a Kentucky state steward.
“Until right before the Coaching Club American Oaks she never missed a day, never missed an oat,” Veitch said. “I did miss two days with her about two weeks before that race, when she was turned too sharply walking and got a little stiff in her left shoulder. But she shook that off. From the standpoint of versatility and toughness, she was phenomenal. I think that’s what denotes the truly great fillies and mares.”
Davona Dale’s roll came to an end in the Alabama that summer of ’79, when she finished second, beaten 1 1/2 lengths by the unquestionably talented It’s in the Air.
“In hindsight I should have backed off after the Coaching Club Oaks,” Veitch said. “But I was young and stupid, and her owners, Mr. and Mrs. Markey, were getting on in age and were anxious to see the stable performing again in the best races.”
Allen Jerkens second-guessed himself all the way to the 1993 Alabama with Georgia Hoffman’s Sky Beauty, whose only defeat on the track to that point in nine starts – she was disqualified from victory in the Spinaway – was a close second earlier that season in the Bonnie Miss. Like Davona Dale, Sky Beauty had swept through the Acorn, the Mother Goose, and the CCA Oaks.
“Every once in a while she did things horses don’t do when she’s as good as she was, like she’d stop eating for a little bit,” Jerkens said. “I was really tortured before the Alabama, and I even told Mrs. Hoffman that maybe we should skip the race. ‘Oh, no. We can’t do that,’ she said. ‘Can’t we give her a rest afterwards?’ I told her it really didn’t work that way, but I’ll do the best I can.
“In the race we got very lucky. Bob Duncan was an assistant starter before he was starter here, and he had her in the gate that day. She was wrestling around with him, and he just happened to have her head to the front just as they sprung it.
“Mike Smith rode a terrific race on her,” Jerkens said. “The pace was pretty hot, and he had her back further than ever before. Naturally, I was anxious. She moved up gradually, then there was some horse really closing on the fence, but another horse came over and stopped her.”
At the end of the 1 1/4 miles, Sky Beauty’s winning margin was 1 1/2 lengths.
The great ones are lucky. They are consistent. They shake off the minor aches and pains that come from being a professional athlete performing at the top of a game. Sometimes, though, they take things to extremes.
“The first time I rode Flawlessly was in a little stakes race at Del Mar as a 3-year-old,” Chris McCarron said.
Flawlessly was a daughter of Affirmed owned by Patrice and Louis Wolfson and trained as a 2-year-old by Richard Dutrow Sr. and then from age 3 onward by Charlie Whittingham in California.
“Despite the fact she won,” McCarron went on, “I came back and told my agent, Scotty McClellan, ‘Too bad she won’t be around long.’ She had a terrible way of going. She only raced until she was 6.”
Flawlessly, a two-time champion, ran 20 times for Whittingham and McCarron, won eight Grade 1 stakes and finished worse than third only once, when she was nearly knocked down on the first turn of the 1993 Breeders’ Cup Mile.
“She never really felt bad running,” McCarron said, “but she was rough galloping and warming up when she wasn’t striding out. What a tribute she was to Charlie and how he handled her and spaced out her races.”
McCarron also was the regular rider for Paseana and enjoyed shorter, fruitful relationships with such champions as Lady’s Secret, Glorious Song, and Riboletta.
“It’s hard to describe but easy to recognize in equine or human athletes,” McCarron said. “The obvious things come to mind. They show up every time to do one thing and one thing only, and that’s to win. They may not always get to the wire first, but very seldom is it something they do that causes the result to be anything other than a win. They find ways to get out of trouble when trouble arises. And even when they have an off day or are not 100 percent, they still seem to find a way to run as fast as they are capable on that given day.”
Only one trainer can truly appreciate the point at which John Shirreffs has arrived with Zenyatta. Shug McGaughey took Ogden Phipps’s Personal Ensign through three years and 13 starts without a defeat, climaxed by her thriller in the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff over Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors.
McGaughey came close to crafting a similar career with Inside Information, owned by Dinny Phipps. Through three seasons and 17 starts, the daughter of Private Account won 14 times, topped by her 13 1/2-length farewell in the 1995 Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
“The best thing about them was, they were easy to manage,” McGaughey said. “I could train them the way I wanted rather than having to work around filly quirks. They were made like racehorses are supposed to be made, with good size and agility and an athleticism they could take to the racetrack.
“Of the two, Personal Ensign was a little more aggressive around the barn. Inside Information was never the kind of filly who led you to believe she was as good as she was while Personal Ensign definitely had kind of an air about her. Inside Information was more laid back, but you push the button on her, and a lot of times she did things that even fooled me.”
As good as she was, Inside Information proved mortal on those three occasions. Otherwise there would have been another mare sitting at 17-0 besides Zenyatta. But she could not handle a deep Aqueduct track in her second start as a 2-year-old and finished third. She came out of her well-beaten third in the Mother Goose with a minor injury behind, and in the Ballerina, when she was beaten by Jerkens and Classy Mirage, Inside Information was left at the gate.
Leaving us all the more dazzled that Zenyatta has arrived at her 18th start without blemish. This, despite the fact Shirreffs and his crew, including groom Mario Espinoza and rider Steve Willard, have had to deal in one way or another with nearly all the factors faced by those handling great fillies and mares through the years. It is the manner in which Zenyatta has answered those challenges that puts her, to this point, in a class by herself. Here is how she has answered some of those questions, according to the man who does the training.
On reshaping Zenyatta’s early, Azeri-like tendencies as a nervous, headstrong filly:
“We learned very early what her tolerance level was,” Shirreffs said. “The window a horse is trainable is sometimes a very short time. We learned her cues, when she was telling us, ‘Stop now.’ Sometimes the hard way. There was the time we tried to teach her a little patience. Take a few turns around the shed row, and maybe she’d get over being in such a hurry. She was getting tense, so we thought, ‘Put her in the stall, and she’ll relax.’ But the muck cart was in the way, so we said, ‘Go ’round again.’ She never made it around. She ran backwards, dumped Steve in the shed row, and almost flipped over. When you hit the limit with her, it’s done.”
On Zenyatta’s huge dimensions, having grown into the older mare that Ruffian was on her way to becoming:
“She wasn’t even sound enough to even consider running as a 2-year-old, so we had to wait,” Shirreffs said. “It’s likely, though, if we had been able to race her at 2, she wouldn’t be around at 5 and 6.”
On the continuing challenge to channel Zenyatta’s spirited drive, which Bayakoa’s handlers faced daily:
“After the 2008 Vanity, we knew we had real problems,” Shirreffs said. “She was getting real washy and very upset. So we started to practice, every morning, what we were going to do with her in the afternoon, until she had a real routine. Along with that, we still had to allow her to express herself in some way, to allow her feelings to come out, without compromising her. That’s when she started that walk of hers. I had never seen a horse do that before. That’s how smart she is, to figure that out.”
On the challenge for a mare of great ability to switch on and off, to preserve her competitive resources, as McGaughey found with Inside Information:
“We’re used to it now,” Shirreffs said. “But in that regard, from the morning to the afternoon it’s hard to imagine the change in Zenyatta. When she trains, she’s one way, but when she races, she takes on a different dimension.
“It’s interesting that, unlike independent colts, fillies will bond. Look how Zenyatta is around people. The other day there was a young woman who visited with her parents. As a girl she’d been bitten by a horse and been afraid to touch one since. By the time she left Zenyatta, she was feeding her carrots.”
It is inevitable that Zenyatta will arrive at the end of her career with any number of intangibles left unanswered. Patterns in the great ones are apparent, but the answers never seem to satisfy. Perhaps, like McCarron said, we should be content that you know it when you see it. McAnally had that experience not long ago at the Winter Quarter Farm of Don Robinson, near Lexington, Ky.
“We keep our mares there, and Don took me out to a field of 10 yearling fillies,” McAnally said. “Don asked me, which one of those would you pick out as the best looking one to go on to the sales, or whatever.
“One of them was ours, so I knew her,” McAnally said. “But the one I picked was a beauty. Don wasn’t surprised. It was a sister to Zenyatta.”