07/30/2008 11:00PM

Zenyatta a one-woman show


DEL MAR, Calif. - John Shirreffs has taken it upon himself to launch a modest YouTube campaign to carry forth the message that horse racing is not a brutal, drug-ridden wasteland populated by cheats, liars, and squabbling factions as he sees it portrayed in the mainstream media and perceived by a worrisome percentage of the general public.

Armed with his digital camera and just enough savvy to add an occasional title page, Shirreffs has uploaded a series of video vignettes for mass consumption that provide a peek behind the curtain to the backstage operation of a first-class racing stable.

"Racing is always going to attract gamblers, because it's a good game to bet," Shirreffs said. "We should be more concerned about making new fans."

The most entertaining of the Shirreffs YouTube clips offers a helmet-cam view of a five-furlong workout by one of his horses at Hollywood Park. Exciting as it is, though, the competition is tough. Among the popular and promoted YouTube videos that web surfers could sample this week were "Blacks in the White House," by Charle$ N. Charge, "Deaf Ninja" by Austin Andrews, and the trailer for "Green Porno," starring Isabella Rossellini. Don't ask.

Someone at the NTRA owes Shirreffs a thank-you note for his one-man campaign. At the same time, it can be argued that he is already doing enough for the game by merely keeping the unbeaten filly Zenyatta healthy, happy, and ready to perform at the highest levels every month or so. Other than Curlin or Big Brown, she has been the Thoroughbred attracting the most attention this year, and rightfully so.

On Saturday at Del Mar, Zenyatta will attempt to win her seventh race without a defeat in the $300,000 Clement L. Hirsch Handicap. At 1 1/16 miles on the synthetic main track, the Hirsch will require Zenyatta to do nothing new, other than transfer her form from Santa Anita, Oaklawn, and Hollywood Park to a new battleground, and replicate the steady, devastating run that has accounted for the El Encino, Apple Blossom, Milady, and Vanity so far this year.

"I was asked about the idea of a horse going through a career undefeated," Shirreffs said earlier this week, after setting the morning feed. "Come on. It would be very presumptuous to consider such a thing. Fortunately, we don't read the paper every day. We're just training another horse for another race."

Ah, but what a horse. Shirreffs settled in behind his computer and called up the video of Zenyatta's most recent workout, from last Saturday at Del Mar, when she broke off behind a workmate on the backstretch, then caught him and cruised effortlessly past the wire, galloping headlong into the clubhouse turn. Shirreffs - who has trained such fine mares as Tarlow, Borodislew, Starrer, and Manistique - was asked if he'd ever known such a big filly with such a huge, liquid stride.

"Never," Shirreffs said. "And I can't believe she has this kind of stride on these kinds of tracks, because that's impossible. These synthetic tracks are very difficult for horses with big strides."

At that moment, the object of her trainer's admiration was circling the tow ring and taking the occasional nip of grass, pulling handler Joel Baze (of the Washington Bazes) to and fro as she sniffed out a choice piece. Glowing from the touch of groom Mario Espinoza, Zenyatta is about as big as a racemare can be - there's not a delicate thing about her - with balance and great leverage that exposes no obvious flaws. As a half-sister to the talented, tempestuous Balance, winner of the 2006 Santa Anita Oaks, Zenyatta has challenged Shirreffs in training both mind and body.

"I have to attribute a lot of her success to David Flores," Shirreffs said, referring to Zenyatta's jockey through her first three starts. "He was so patient with her in those earlier races. She would break slow, and he did nothing to rush her, or ask her to do anything she wasn't ready to do. She won anyway, but the experiences were positive and helped her a lot."

When Flores stayed home to ride El Gato Malo in the Santa Anita Derby on April 5, Shirreffs and owners Ann and Jerry Moss turned to Mike Smith for Zenyatta in the Apple Blossom on the same day in Arkansas. Smith has been aboard ever since.

It was clearly the July 5 Vanity Handicap, at nine furlongs, that encouraged the connections of eight to challenge Zenyatta in the Clement Hirsch. The consistent Tough Tiz's Sis is back after losing that race by just half a length, but the looming danger could be Vanity third-place finisher Silver Swallow, who gets 11 pounds from Zenyatta this time around over a track that could favor her closing style. Flores rides her for Bruce Headley.

For his part, Shirreffs ignored the Vanity's winning margin and concentrated on Zenyatta's reaction to her first serious challenge.

"You can say a lot of things about her, but probably one of her best attributes is her recovery," Shirreffs said. "She was over that race in about 20 minutes, and that was after she'd washed out a little bit, jumped up and down in the post parade, and then had to make a sustained run of about five-eighths of a mile.

"All I can say is that she's done very well down here, and looks it," Shirreffs added. "I can't ask for more than that."