11/27/2009 12:00AM

Zenyatta: Perfection on parade

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Barbara D. Livingston
Groom Mario Espinoza shares a moment with Zenyatta in the Santa Anita saddling area before her final race, a victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

The idea of perfection in Thoroughbred racing at the top of the game is really kind of ridiculous. Laffit Pincay Jr., the epitome of the professional jockey, lost nearly 39,000 times. The leading trainers in the history of the sport - Lukas, Frankel, Whittingham, Jerkens - would tell you they were lucky to win one out of every five. Citation lost. Secretariat lost. Man o' War lost.

"All horses have bad days," said Bill Mott, while in the midst of Cigar's 16-race winning streak of 1994-96. "Even Cigar. All horses have bad luck in races. They get hurt. They get sick. They catch a track they can't handle. Cigar is not immune to any of these. And yet, in spite of them all, he just keeps winning."

And then Cigar lost.

Once in a great while, though, certain stars align, combining the best possible elements of both human and equine endeavor, and a rare result comes forth.

In 2003, breeder Eric Kronfeld gave the green light to breed his Kris S. mare Vertigineaux to the freshman sire Street Cry. In 2004, at Don Robinson's Winter Quarter Farm, Vertigineux gave birth to a dark bay filly with a blaze. In 2005, that filly was sold at auction to Jerry and Ann Moss, upon the recommendation of adviser David Ingordo. In 2006, she was introduced to trainer John Shirreffs and his crew at Hollywood Park. And in 2007, on Nov. 22, the filly made the first start of her career. By then they called her Zenyatta.

At no point along the earliest part of the journey did her people think Zenyatta was anything less than a very good horse. A little on the large side, maybe, which made soundness a concern. And a little tightly wound, though that was no surprise, since her half-sister Balance was notably nutty, as well as the winner of the Santa Anita Oaks.

In the world of the best trainers, such traits are there to be shaped and accommodated. Jerry Moss, co-founder of A&M records (trust me, you've bought some), was excited about the prospect of Zenyatta's career, but at the same time intrigued by the process of getting her there.

"Yes, it took a lot of time and patience," Moss said along the way. "But in the record business I've always liked to build musical groups from the beginning and help them grow, rather than buying a finished product. This feels no different."

At one point, the 2-year-old version of Zenyatta outworked the colt Tiago, who would go on to win the Santa Anita Derby. When she finally emerged on that November day, with a swoop and a whoosh that reduced hardened racetrackers to gaping wonder, it was left to TVG analyst Frank Lyons to proclaim without hesitation, "You have just seen a very special filly."

Even Lyons had no idea what would follow, but at least he set the bar high. By the time Zenyatta completed her first full season in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic with nine victories and no defeats, she was becoming a household name - at least in the households that paid attention to Thoroughbred racing. When she returned the following spring with No. 10 at Hollywood Park, Jerry Moss was asked how much he was prepared to ask of his undefeated mare.

"To have a horse of this nature, this stature, is a dream come true," Moss said. "So I don't care. I'll take it all. I just love her. I just hope she's happy and healthy and goes on to be all she's supposed to be. And I do love watching her run."

The great ones always seem to respond when the time is right and the chips are down: Kelso in his fifth and final Gold Cup, Secretariat in the Belmont, Cigar in Dubai. Moss and the rest of the racing world got their wish in the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park, where Zenyatta fulfilled what must have been her destiny all along. The moment was imbued with echoes of Personal Ensign winning her 13th race without a defeat in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, 21 years before, in a rare display of perfection only those

closest to Zenyatta could understand.

It will be the vivid, inspiring memory of that unforgettable Classic bathing a more peaceful Hollywood Park this Sunday afternoon - Thanksgiving Sunday - as Zenyatta parades once more for the pleasure of her fans.

She will strut, she will prance, she will do that "Zenyatta goosestep," as exercise rider Steve Willard calls it, with groom Mario Espinoza holding on tight. All 17-1 hands and 1,200-plus pounds of dark, dappled Zenyatta will be on display, flicking those big ears, turning that blaze your way, and there will be widespread sentiment that she looks good enough to run up another 14. After all, her jockey, Mike Smith, still insists he "never got to the bottom of her."

But the curtain falls on Olivier's Hamlet. There was no sequel to "Citizen Kane." Picasso did not paint a "Guernica" series, since one was immortally enough. Sometimes those who wish for more ask too much.

In July of 2008, after Zenyatta had racked up No. 6 in the Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park, shortly before winning No. 7 in the Clement Hirsch at Del Mar, John Shirreffs reacted to a particular media inquiry.

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

And another, and another, and another . . . until the presumptuous, the preposterous, came true.