01/18/2010 12:00AM

Zenyatta came on strong in second half

Benoit & Associates
Mike Smith celebrates aboard Zenyatta after her 1 1/4-length win in the Grade 1 Lady's Secret.

For a campaign that had a tough time getting started, Zenyatta's 2009 season ended in grand style, with the big, dark bay daughter of Street Cry standing atop the racing world as the first female winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic and the older female champion. And finally, pitted against the filly Rachel Alexandra in a voting battle for Horse of the Year, she came up just short in a dramatic decision.

Back in May, though, all Zenyatta's trainer wanted was a nice little 1 1/16-mile race somewhere, anywhere, to kick off the year. John Shirreffs had given Zenyatta an invigorating break after her 7-for-7 championship season of 2008, and now it was time to go back to work. But then Hollywood Park canceled its traditional Hawthorne Handicap, a race that had been run for 35 years, forcing Shirreffs to adjust his sights. He sent Zenyatta to Churchill Downs for the Louisville Handicap, a fitting scene for a champion, then watched with frustration as rain turned the surface to a choppy, slippery goo, and said no thanks.

So Zenyatta returned to California, no worse for wear other than a few Midwestern mosquito bites. She took a deep breath, then went on to walk her familiar beat, winning the Milady, the Vanity, the Clement Hirsch and the Lady's Secret, just as she had the year before, while tossing in a few entertaining variations.

In the Milady, Zenyatta displayed a nimble move entering the far turn to foil a trap laid by Garrett Gomez, who was riding Zenyatta's talented stablemate Life Is Sweet. Watching 1,200 pounds of hurtling mare check lightly and shift seamlessly to her right without missing a beat was like being ringside at a battleship performing ballet.

In the Vanity, Zenyatta carried 129 pounds, unthinkable in this age of timid handicaps, while giving away 15 pounds to the runner-up. It was the most carried to victory in the race since champion Cascapedia, in 1977, and before that champion Gamely, under 131, in 1968.

In the Hirsch, Zenyatta won in the manner of John Henry's 1981 Arlington Million, when he hated the soft ground and still got up to win by a nose. Zenyatta, training reluctantly over Del Mar's quirky synthetic surface, lagged far behind a slow pace and left herself far too much for any mortal horse to do. It took a final quarter-mile outburst that brushed 22 seconds for her to win by a short head.

In the Lady's Secret, Zenyatta faced old rival Cocoa Beach, a game second to the champ in the 2008 Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic. Zenyatta dismissed her and the others with ease, circling the field and winning for fun in what was clearly a rehearsal for bigger things to come.

The Lady's Secret gave Zenyatta her 13th victory without a defeat and matched the mark set down by Personal Ensign, some 21 years before. To owners Ann and Jerry Moss, this was an accomplishment of such magnitude that anything more would be gravy. Then they served the gravy.

Zenyatta's come-from-way-behind victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic came at the expense of such accomplished males as Gio Ponti, Twice Over, Summer Bird, Einstein, Rip Van Winkle, Colonel John, Richard's Kid, and Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird. She didn't need to do it to be hailed as champion older filly or mare for the second straight year. And she didn't need to do it to please the thousands of fans who followed every move of her perfect, 14-race career.

But she did it anyway, and horse racing had a moment to remember forever.