09/02/2011 2:48PM

Zenyatta's little sister prompts big thoughts

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Withdrawal is a terrible thing, especially when coming off an unbroken series of highs like those provided by Zenyatta. Gone cold turkey, with Zenyatta now in foal in Kentucky, you would think John Shirreffs would be waking up nights in a pool of his own sweat, skin crawling with invisible insects, demons dancing the ceiling above his bed.

No one would blame him even today, some 10 months after Zenyatta’s final race – and only loss – in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. How do you come down from the exhilaration of spending every day as chief steward to the most famous animal on the planet?

Shirreffs has found some amount of diversion in his otherwise quality-laden barn. He has under his wing the classy grass mare Harmonious, the generous 3-year-old fillies Nereid and Star Billing, and a brace of 3-year-old colts – Mr. Commons and Cloud Man – who appear poised for some very big days.

Mr. Commons, a son of Artie Schiller owned by Ian Banwell, parlayed a win in Del Mar’s opening-day Oceanside Stakes into a bang-up second to older star Caracortado in last weekend’s Del Mar Mile. On the horizon for Mr. Commons is the Oak Tree Mile and maybe a swing for the fences in the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Churchill Downs.

Cloud Man, a son Thunder Gulch, was bred and is owned by Zenyatta‘s people, Ann and Jerry Moss.

“Mr. Commons is very athletic and light on his feet,” Shirreffs pointed out. “Cloud Man was a little heavier and slower to mature.”

While Mr. Commons was getting ready to run in the Santa Anita Derby last March, Cloud Man was busy breaking his maiden in his first start, at 6 1/2 furlongs on the grass. He has come on strong in his last three starts, including a sharp score over the Del Mar grass on the first Friday of the meet, and as a result, Cloud Man will have plenty of support on Sunday when he runs in the $250,000 Del Mar Derby against the likes of Santa Anita Derby winner Midnight Interlude, Swaps Stakes winner Dreamy Kid, La Jolla Stakes winner Burns, and American Turf Stakes winner Banned.

Shirreffs refuses to get ahead of himself, however. After all, Cloud Man is making his stakes debut.

“One step at a time,” he warned. “It’s all about the company you keep.”

At that particular moment, the statement rang especially true. Shirreffs was aboard his pony accompanying the 2-year-old filly Eblouissante down Del Mar’s main stable road after sending her a few laps around the little training track tucked beneath the sandstone cliffs of Via de la Valle. Exercise rider Jacqueline Kandalaft was aboard, and if the fates allow the media will need to suck it up and learn how to spell “Eblouissante” and “Kandalaft” or get left behind.

Eblouissante (“brilliant” en francais), owned by Eric Kronfeld, is a half-sister to Zenyatta. She is by Bernardini – the ruffian who impregnated Zenyatta last spring – and she has been nothing less than a four-legged cure for any residual blues lingering at the Shirreffs barn after the retirement of the big mare.

“There are similarities,” Shirreffs confirmed. “Like Zenyatta, this filly is very smart. She takes everything in, and she likes to have things her own way.”

Kandalaft chimed in.

“We let her think she’s getting it,” she said.

Shirreffs was asked to compare the sisters in physical terms at this stage of their development.

“I’d say Zenyatta was a little bit bigger, more massive,” he began, considering Eblouissante. “Zenyatta had bigger eyes, not as refined a face as her. More brutish, like a Street Cry. Plus, nobody wanted to get on Zenyatta at the time.”

They worked that out eventually, although owing to her size Zenyatta did not commence racing until late in her 3-year-old season. Eblouissante already is ahead of her famous relative in terms of time-line, and the coattails are long.

“Would you believe she’s already got a Facebook page,” Shirreffs said, shaking his head. “Not as many friends as Zenyatta’s page, of course. She had 54,000 when she retired and is up to 90,000-something now. But this one’s got a following. Right Bruce?”

They were back at the barn now, where a protective Bruce Armstrong had taken the unsaddled Eblouissante for a turn around the tow-ring.

“How many visitors she have here this summer?” Shirreffs asked.

“Ah, man, I can’t even count,” Armstrong said. “They were following me around with her, and she needs peace and quiet. All this pressure, and she hasn’t even run yet. This one man gave me a bottle of wine just for letting him take her picture. Good wine, too.”

“Yeah,” Shirreffs said. “He told you to save it for when she broke her maiden. How long’d that bottle last, Bruce?”

“ ’Bout two hours,” Armstrong said.

Shirreffs laughed. He’s been doing this long enough to know lightning does strike twice every once in a while, so why not dream? In the meantime, at least he had something grand from which to withdraw.

“It’s not so much the attention you miss,“ Shirreffs said. “What you really miss is the appreciation of the horse. It was so nice to see everybody really love Zenyatta, and because of her get behind Thoroughbreds, and what they give us. After all, this is our work. Our life.”

Whether or not Eblouissante -- “Li’l Sis” for now – can reach for the same heights remains to be seen. She just worked her first three-eighths, in 38 seconds.

“I’ll have to admit, though,” Shirreffs said. “I’ve never been more excited about a three-eighths work in my life.