02/09/2011 4:08PM

Zenyatta side by side with Big Red


If the line snaking through the east end of the paddock gardens at Santa Anita last Saturday was any indication, the name “Secretariat” still carries the whiff of magic. Young and old they gathered, to buy a poster and meet the lady herself, Penny Chenery, who at age 89 still carries the torch for her Triple Crown champion with grace and style.

“I’m a little tired, sure,” Chenery said at the end of the eventful day. “But how can you not enjoy meeting all those people who want to share how they feel about your horse.”

For nearly 38 years, from the moment he hit the wire at the end of the 1973 Belmont Stakes in splendid isolation, Secretariat has been horse racing’s most durable brand name. Any promotion involving a combination of the image of horse, his tireless owner, or his jockey, the now-wheelchair-bound Ron Turcotte, practically guarantees an upward spike in fan reaction.

The Secretariat mix was spiced last weekend by the addition of the Zenyatta element, in the persons of owners Ann and Jerry Moss, jockey Mike Smith, trainer John Shirreffs and his wife, Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs, the Mosses’ racing manager. Zenyatta, rolling in the Kentucky snow, was missed.

The poster, created by Fred Stone and being sold for the benefit of the Secretariat Foundation, bore the images of the two great champions. It’s a keeper, and fans were still lining up deep into the afternoon, angling to spend a few brief moments with the personalities who helped make the Secretariat and Zenyatta stories so compelling.

It got me thinking – never a good thing – but given the new legs of the Zenyatta brand, horse racing stands a decent chance to expand its reach even though she is no longer on the track. Her farewell parades have ended, but there are significant mileposts ahead that could use the marketing touch. Among them:

◗ The next event on Zenyatta’s calendar is her mating with Bernardini. Her caretakers at Lane’s End Farm are treating the occasion with the same care and consummate husbandry they would any commingling of royal blood, which has happened often in their history. But how about a few twists, just to mark the moment?

Instead of the mare being trundled down the road to visit the stallion, why not bring Sheikh Mohammed’s stud to the mountainous mare. What a procession it would be, Bernardini’s pathway strewn with flowers, schoolchildren set free for the day to wish him well, the Lexington Philharmonic deployed on one of the vast Lane’s End lawns playing a medley of Sting’s greatest hits as the lucky boy steps from his Darley van.

As for their actual encounter, someone’s pay-per-view idea was in terrible taste. Best to let the miracle of conception occur in private, if only for hygienic reasons. As for the particulars, the imagination will be sufficient, although farm officials have confirmed that, as in 19 of her 20 starts, Zenyatta would be in front.

◗ On April 1, no fooling, Zenyatta turns 7. There is a possibility that it will have stopped snowing in Kentucky by then, which will afford the good people at Z-Seven Footwear (Motto: “Scuplt as you walk”) to tap into the Zenyatta brand in a big way. There could be an entire fitness festival centered around the freshly impregnated Horse of the Year, with a 7K power walk, a “Zen” horseshoe tournament in which contestants pitch blindfolded, and a concert by the hip new Tears for Fears cover band ZB7. Somebody also should call 7-Up.

◗ The birth of the Zenyatta-Bernardini foal in early 2012 will be as hotly anticipated in the racing community as were those of the princelings hatched by Princess Diana so many years ago (they’re so cute when they’re young). There are already “Name That Foal” contests afloat (Zendini!) along with the conventional pools guessing foal date, gender, color, markings, and how long it takes for the little one to stand, nurse, and blow out a quarter in 22 and change.

But how about tapping into the greater news flow of the moment? The 2012 presidential campaign will be in full swing by the time Zenyatta begins her final lap of gestation, and the madness of politicians on the make will pervade the atmosphere.

The tentative date for the Kentucky primary is May 22, which figures to be way too late for Zenyatta to bring her first foal into this world, especially if he/she is going to win the 2015 Triple Crown. Still, there will be plenty of opportunities for Presidential candidates to make a pilgrimage to Kentucky just to rub her beautifully bulging belly, for good luck.

Enough goofing around. There will be better and more practical ways in which horse racing can continue to benefit from the good will created by Secretariat, and more recently Zenyatta.

Allen Gutterman, Santa Anita’s vice-president of marketing, will be one of the guys coming up with those ideas. As the site of Zenyatta’s two most important wins – in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Ladies' Classic – Santa Anita always will be a natural environment for the summoning of her memory. That does not mean, however, Gutterman and his marketing colleagues will shy away from widespread application of the Zenyatta magic.

“Her name is now ingrained in horse racing as something very positive about the sport, whether you know anything about horse racing or not,” Gutterman said. “Last weekend proved there’s a lot of love out there among fans for what both Secretariat and Zenyatta represent. The key will be to make sure any use of her name is in keeping with what she represents, as the ultimate in class acts.”