06/30/2008 11:00PM

Zenyatta's beauty more than skin deep

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - John Shirreffs had been warned.

Scouting prospects at the massive Keeneland September yearling sale in 2005, Shirreffs was tipped by bloodstock agent David Ingordo on a promising Street Cry filly.

"I found a really nice, very athletic filly, looks like a colt with a real regal look," Ingordo told Shirreffs.

There was a catch. The filly, Hip No. 703, was battling a skin disease, Ingordo told the trainer. When Shirreffs saw the filly himself, her condition took him aback.

"She was covered with it," Shirreffs recalled. "It's like she had the measles."

Shirreffs looked past the disorder - which later was quickly cleared up with antibiotics - and advised owners Jerry and Ann Moss to purchase the filly. They paid $60,000 and later named the filly Zenyatta. She has developed into a star older female, and a potential Eclipse Award winner.

Zenyatta has won all five of her starts, and will try for her second Grade 1 win in Saturday's $300,000 Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park, one of five graded stakes on a card topped by the Grade 1 American Oaks.

Zenyatta has not been tested, winning every race by at least 1 3/4 lengths. Zenyatta has a consistent style: She lags behind the front-runners to the turn, and then delivers a turn of foot that carries her to the front.

That is how she won a maiden race and an allowance race last fall under jockey David Flores, and how she won the Grade 2 El Encino Stakes in January, the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap in April, and the Grade 2 Milady Handicap in May under jockey Mike Smith.

"She does things that seem so easy for her," Smith. "What's amazing is she can be six or seven lengths behind and within a stride or two she'll be right up there with the leaders, loping along."

Smith is the latest person to be smitten with Zenyatta. One of the first was Jeanne Mayberry, who operates a farm in Ocala, Fla., and broke Zenyatta in the winter of 2005-06.

Mayberry is the widow of Brian Mayberry, who trained a stable in California in the 1980s and 90s. The early reports from Mayberry's team were promising, Shirreffs recalls.

"She came up with the reputation of being the best filly she had," Shirreffs said of Mayberry's string in Ocala. "She was such a strong galloper. We knew they were excited about that."

Minor injuries prevented Zenyatta from starting at 2 or early in her 3-year-old season, Shirreffs said.

"She never had to be turned out," Shirreffs said. "It was one of those stop-and-go situations."

Shirreffs saw Zenyatta's potential in early 2007 when she worked alongside Tiago, the stable's star 3-year-old male. Tiago was weeks away from a win in the Santa Anita Derby at the time. Zenyatta outworked Tiago, which surprised Shirreffs and still makes him grin.

"Tiago was a lot fitter and we didn't expect her to do as well as she showed," Shirreffs said. "She kept galloping out. We didn't expect her to be so strong."

Zenyatta's racing career began last November. She won a maiden race at 6 1/2 furlongs by three lengths, and a first-condition allowance race by 3o1/2 lengths in mid-December.

This year, the narrowest margin of victory occurred in the Grade 2 El Encino Stakes, 1 3/4 lengths. In the Apple Blossom, Zenyatta was barely troubled beating a field that included 2007 champion older female Ginger Punch. Zenyatta won the Milady by 2o1/2 lengths.

"I think David Flores did such a good job with her and getting her to settle and gain confidence," Shirreffs said, referring to Zenyatta's first two starts. "Mike has built on that."

The late start to Zenyatta's career mirrors that of two other outstanding California-based females in this decade - Azeri and Nashoba's Key.

Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year, did not make her debut until the fall of her 3-year-old season. Nashoba's Key, a finalist for the 2007 Eclipse Awards as the nation's outstanding older female and turf female, made her first start in January 2007, at 4, and won her first seven starts. Sadly, Nashoba's Key was euthanized in May after suffering a severe leg injury in a stall accident.

For Shirreffs, Zenyatta's career closely parallels that of Manistique, a massive filly he trained nearly a decade ago. Manistique won the Grade 1 Vanity and Santa Margarita handicaps in 1999, and the Grade 1 Santa Maria Handicap in 2000.

"I think Zenyatta's close to 17 hands," Shirreffs said. "Manistique was a little over 17 hands. She might have been a little bigger than Zenyatta. Zenyatta is wider through the hips. Manistique was tall and thin."

Zenyatta's potential is undetermined because she's still developing, Shirreffs said.

"She's remarkable in her ability to lengthen her stride," Shirreffs said. "Her head drops down and her stride gets longer. She's starting to fill out physically."

Around the barn, Shirreffs looks upon Zenyatta in amazement, just like he did when she was a yearling in 2005. This time, though, the filly looks gorgeous.