11/08/2010 12:01PM

Zenyatta loses nothing in her fans' eyes

Barbara D. Livingston
Fans gather outside the fence separating the street from the barn area at Churchill Downs on Sunday morning to watch Zenyatta graze.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Zenyatta finished second in her final career start Saturday in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but she remained first in the hearts of her adoring fans here Sunday morning at Churchill Downs, literally stopping traffic on a public road adjacent to the barn area when motorists realized she was out grazing.

The scene brought a smile to the face of Zenyatta’s trainer, John Shirreffs, who has allowed unusual access to the mare, both on the road, when Zenyatta raced both here and at Oaklawn Park, and at Zenyatta’s home base at Hollywood Park.

“How often does a person have a chance to get close to a horse like Zenyatta?” Shirreffs said. “One of the things I think this sport needs to do is to allow the fans to get closer. Horses like Zenyatta allow the fans to get closer. Just watching a Thoroughbred on television, you don’t get the feel for the Thoroughbred. As a trainer, I’d like to see fans get close.”

Zenyatta was taken out to graze Sunday morning by Frank Leal, the foreman for Shirreffs. The grassy area behind Barn 41, where Zenyatta was stabled here, abuts Longfield Avenue, with only a chain-link fence, topped by barbed wire, as a barrier. One car stopped, then another, and pretty soon, nearly two dozen were parallel parking on Longfield as fans hurried out of their cars, camera in hands, to snap pictures.

On the other side of the fence, more than 100 people – media and fans alike – observed the scene. A small girl asked Leal if she could feed Zenyatta an apple and Leal brought her over. Other fans walked up next to Zenyatta and had pictures taken. Zenyatta obliged as always, mirroring the becalmed nature she has off the track, in contrast to the coiled power on display when she walked over for a race.

Shirreffs said the Classic was likely the final start for Zenyatta. She won her first 19 starts before Saturday’s Classic and earned $7,304,580, a record for a female racehorse based in North America.

“We were hoping she’d win her 20th and go out undefeated,” Shirreffs said. “We felt bad. We were hoping for a fairy-tale ending.”

Zenyatta flew back to California on Sunday night. She will remain at Hollywood Park for another month to allow the employees at Shirreffs’s barn to have a long goodbye before she goes to the breeding shed.

“She’s still my champion,” said her groom, Mario Espinoza. “To me, she never lost.”

Zenyatta will go down in history as “one of the all-time greats, if not the greatest,” trainer Nick Zito said.

“I was very excited as everyone else about Rachel Alexandra last year, and I saw Affectionately, Ta Wee, Shuvee, and on and on and on,” Zito said. “But there’s no question that she rates right up there. She could be the best of all time, in my opinion. I think she could be the greatest filly of all time.”