10/06/2010 4:57PM

Zenyatta puts on quite a show


In terms of decibel levels alone, there is nothing quite like a Zenyatta roar. Deep in the belly of the beast last Saturday at Hollywood Park, standing near trainer John Shirreffs as the Lady’s Secret Stakes played out, there occurred once again what has become familiar as the singular arc of sound that signifies Zenyatta on the march.

It begins conventionally, with Zenyatta’s move on the final turn to sweep past the stragglers at the back of the field. The crowd, responding in part to the call of the announcer, is revved into excited response and continues to cheer, as if celebrating the rounding of the bases after a walk-off home run.

Then something happens, and for a terrifying moment it appears as if the impossible might occur, that Zenyatta won‘t get there. Another horse – this time her name was Switch – will be asserting herself up there on the lead. She might be accommodated by a slow pace and still have energy to burn. Or she might be running the race of a lifetime. Either way, there will be that cold touch of dread, accompanied by a tug at the gut, and the noise from the crowd will shift from their joyous “ooohs” and “aaahs” to a panicky, collective “ohhhh” as the finish line looms.

This, of course, is pure theater, real Broadway quality, being perpetrated by jockey Mike Smith and his ear-twitching, blaze-faced co-conspirator. There is never any real danger of Zenyatta not getting there. As long as Smith does his job, she does hers.

Still, the lengths to which her strides extend in those climactic moments challenge the known limits of the Thoroughbred’s physiological boundaries. And it is during those strides that the anguish expressed by the noise from the crowd reaches its peak, loud now like a Springsteen ovation after “Jungleland,” or the cheers for the Michigan Wolverines as they take the field in the Big House.

Then it happens. Then Zenyatta catches and passes her prey so quickly that there never is raised such mundane issues as a head-bob, or a duel. There is only “that was then, this is now” as she fills the photo-finish frame, dwarfing the hapless victim to her inside. And it is during this final lunge that the noise from the crowd is transformed. It becomes inhuman, a searing screech, pushing the needle up there where jet engines and category 4 hurricanes do business.

It doesn’t last long, thank goodness. At the very instant the result becomes apparent, the screech dials back to a simple, deafening cheer that crests and falls over the next several minutes while Smith and Zenyatta take their post-race curtain calls. On really good days, there even will be cheers for the vanquished, as happened last June when St Trinian’s gave Zenyatta a brave try in the Vanity Handicap. But then, every day Zenyatta runs is a good day.

This season, Zenyatta has honed her performance art while marginalizing her consummate skills as a professional racehorse. There have been those few precious moments, of course, when she had to rise above her towering superiority and get her skirts mussed, like in the Santa Margarita Handicap earlier this year when she found herself trapped in a box that would have cost most good horses the race. That instance brought forth echoes of the 2009 Milady Handicap, in which stablemate Life Is Sweet, an eventual Breeders’ Cup winner herself, did everything but throw a body block on the far turn in an attempt to pin the Big Girl to the rail. A hop and a skip later, Zenyatta was free and gone.

Such flashes of real concern have been few and far between, however, leaving Smith and his mare to manufacture these last few dramas, going back to the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn in April. Most racing fans are content, while some, still searching for the ghosts of Dr. Fager and Spectacular Bid, would never be pleased.

In the end, there will always be the hidebound contrarians who handcuff their definition of greatness to stiffly academic parameters, as if horse racing was nothing more than algebra writ large. They worship at the altar of Formal Gold’s speed figures and Ghostzapper’s splendid, teacup of a career, leaving room in their hearts only for Seattle Slew’s operatic loss in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup.

By comparison, they can find nothing in Zenyatta’s 19-and-0 record that even comes close. Not in the fact that she essentially gives her opposition a head start, running with one hoof tied behind her back. Not in the fact that she has had to pass each and every one of the horses she has ever faced. Not in the fact that the list of horses she has beaten is populated by the winners of some of the game’s best races, nor that her record includes her wins on dirt along with at least three dramatically different kinds of synthetic surfaces.

Skeptics to the end and proud of it, they have been left behind by the honest phenomenon of an all-beef athletic hero, preferring instead the company of such kindred, isolated spirits as the Japanese second lieutenant Hiroo Onoda, who did not concede World War II until 1979, or those 13 percent of Americans who said in a recent poll that President Obama was born in Kenya, Indonesia or “someplace else outside the U.S.”

And yet, even though Zenyatta has secured a place in racing history that can’t be shaken or stirred, there still is room on the bandwagon for prodigal sons. One last piece of evidence will be offered on Nov. 6 at Churchill Downs in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, so maybe that will be enough. Anyway, as Zenyatta has proven time and 19 times again, it’s never too late to get it right.