02/14/2011 1:25AM

Zenyatta and Bernardini: No romance in breeding season, but plenty of hope

Barbara D. Livingston
Zenyatta will be bred to Bernardini at Darley Stud in Kentucky later this February.

Birds do it. Bees do it. Even educated fleas do it. And that’s about as far into the very old song as this writer is willing to go, especially since there is nothing about the mating of two Thoroughbred horses that has anything remotely to do with falling in love.

Neither are there any guarantees that even the most diligently planned mating will produce the desired results. Breeding the “best to the best and hoping for the best” is the glib catch phrase by which the process has been explained for popular consumption. This puts a happy shrug on failure more than anything else. Alchemy is closer to an exact science than the breeding of Thoroughbreds. Just ask the folks who were hoping to buy the sons and daughters of Cigar, the finest American racehorse of the 1990s and a robust male specimen if there ever was one. None of that mattered when he turned out to be sterile.

Zenyatta is the most celebrated racehorse since Cigar, and rightfully so. As the first star of the pervasive social media age, the big mare enjoyed a depth and breadth of popularity not witnessed since the days of Secretariat. But now the competitive chapter of her life has ended, spectacularly, with one last victory in the balloting for 2010 Horse of the Year, and she has become part of the vast international breeding industry.

It is no surprise that such an industry hums along far beneath the radar attuned more closely to the hyper-speed world of the racetrack. After all, we’re talking about pick six carryovers and Kentucky Derby drama on the one hand, as opposed to estrous cycles and midnight foaling vigils on the other. But while many of the game’s racing centers are still grinding slowly through the snowbound depths of a dreary winter, farms from Virginia to California have had Thoroughbred foals of 2011 hitting the ground for more than a month, up on spindly legs, reaching for mother’s milk. For them, it’s game on.

Mid-February -- not-so-coincidentally around Valentine’s Day -- marks the beginning of the breeding season, when a living, breathing stallion is introduced to an ovulating mare in an atmopshere that exudes all the romance of an oil change. This is big, serious business, though, and Zenyatta is scheduled to be one of those mares, sometime in late February, when she travels from her Kentucky home at Lane’s End Farm near the town of Versailles to Darley Stud in nearby Lexington, where Sheikh Maktoum’s American-based stallion Bernardini holds court.

ZENYATTA: Career highlights and race replays. Watch now »

Darley offers a setting fit for the queen. On the road into the farm she will pass the grave site of Vigors, a remarkable racehorse who was known for his Zenyatta-like stretch runs long before Zenyatta made them fashionable. At some point she might even catch a glimpse of the statue marking the resting place of Affirmed, the two-time Horse of the Year and Triple Crown champion, who stood so nobly on the grounds of Darley when it was known as Jonabell Farm.

After that, after Zenyatta has been carefully packed back to Lane’s End, it will be Mother Nature in charge. Chances always can be enhanced by pedigree and pre-natal care, and there is no reason to believe Zenyatta’s gestating foal will turn out to be anything less than a jewel. Even so, the breeding business is a difficult, time-consuming roll of the dice. No one who knows better is ever surprised by the results. It is no small thing that in 2004 there were 34,797 registered American Thoroughbred foals. Some of them were champions and stakes winners, many, many more of them were entirely something else, and of those 34,797, 34,796 of them were not Zenyatta.

Three-generation pedigrees of Zenyatta and Bernardini: 

Zenyatta pedigree