10/04/2010 1:01PM

Zenyatta makes history with her 19th straight victory


INGLEWOOD, CALIF. - Zenyatta made history Saturday, scoring her 19th consecutive victory and equaling the longest winning streak in the modern history of U.S. horse racing. As usual, she didn't make it look easy.

After trailing her four rivals on the backstretch, she unleashed a surge in the final sixteenth of a mile to catch the pacesetter Switch and win the Lady's Secret Stakes at Hollywood Park by a half-length. It was typical of the heart-stopping rallies that have defined her career.

Yet after all of her achievements, the 6-year-old mare still has her greatest challenge ahead of her. Her performance Saturday was her final prep for the objective that trainer John Shirreffs has had in his sights all season: the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on Nov. 6. Having made her reputation by running mostly on California's synthetic surfaces, Zenyatta will be running against males on dirt for the first time. A victory would not only complete her career with a 20-for-20 record, it would cement her place in history as an all-time great-not just a synthetic-track specialist.

Her legion of fans here think the outcome is almost a foregone conclusion. Zenyatta inspires intense passions among racegoers in California and they turned out at Hollywood Park on Saturday with their typical enthusiasm, wearing Zenyatta caps and T-shirts, brandishing "Go Zenyatta!" signs and roaring for her when she stepped on the track.

On paper, this race was a mismatch, and Zenyatta was justifiably the 1-to-10 favorite. But because of her stretch-running style and jockey Mike Smith's nervy willingness to make his move at the last possible moment, Zenyatta always gives her supporters their money's worth of excitement.

On Saturday, the lightly regarded speedster Moon de French went to the front, with Switch stalking her from the rail, while Smith let Zenyatta settle some seven lengths off the lead. The pace was moderate - a half-mile in 48.70 seconds - and the leaders weren't going to fold from the exertion. The favorite was going to have to catch them.

On the turn, Smith launched his typical wide move, and as the field turned into the stretch, Switch shot by Moon de French and took command, getting a significant jump on Zenyatta. Thousands of the favorite's partisans were surely thinking, "She's not going to get there." Even Shirreffs was worried. "Speed is dangerous at Hollywood," the trainer said, "and if they get two lengths ahead of you they can be tough to catch."

Then, suddenly, Zenyatta accelerated and shot ahead of Switch so quickly that Smith was easing up on his mount at the wire.

Zenyatta's victory tied the record of 19 straight wins set by the filly Peppers Pride, who compiled her streak against New Mexico-bred competition between 2005 and 2008. No U.S. horse had won 19 in a row since the 19th century, and no horse anywhere has done it while running against high-level stakes company. Zenyatta now has to prove that she can win at the highest level of the sport.

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