11/04/2010 12:37PM

Zenyatta's people: Groom Mario Espinoza and hotwalker Carmen Zamona

Above: Barbara D. Livingston. Below: Benoit & Associates.

Obsessive, reverent, laid back, indulgent -- the team behind the unbeaten mare reflects her quirky brilliance.

Groom Mario Espinoza and hotwalker Carmen Zamona | Jockey | Owners | Trainer | Exercise rider | Masseuse

When Carmen Zamona leaves her husband, Mario Espinoza, every morning, Espinoza runs off with another female, feeding her, caressing her.

“I think I spend more time with her than my wife,” Espinoza said.

The object of his affection is Zenyatta, whom Espinoza, 46, has groomed for four years, since Zenyatta was an unraced 2-year-old. Zamona, 48, is Zenyatta’s hotwalker. No one, not even trainer John Shirreffs, has been closer to Zenyatta over the years than Espinoza and Zamona.

The couple, natives of Mexico, live in Inglewood, Calif., not far from Hollywood Park. Espinoza rises between 4 and 4:30 every morning to be at work by 5, remains at the barn until 1:30 p.m., leaves briefly for lunch, then returns to oversee the late-afternoon feeding of the four horses he grooms. At 5:30, he finally heads home, where Zamona, who leaves the barn around 10 a.m. when her chores are complete, has prepared dinner.

They have been together for 15 years, since meeting at the San Luis Rey Downs training center. They have four children, two each from previous marriages. Espinoza has had several top horses in his care. While working for trainer David Hofmans, he was the groom of Cindy’s Hero, who won the 2000 Del Mar Debutante. Espinoza went to work for Shirreffs eight years ago and has hit the jackpot.

Espinoza was also the groom of Life Is Sweet, who last year won the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic in her final career start, the day before Zenyatta’s dramatic victory in the BC Classic.

“That was like a dream come true,” Espinoza said. “Last year was a good year for me.”

Espinoza is also the groom of Harmonious, who was scheduled to run Friday in the BC Filly and Mare Turf.

Grooms are often staked by owners and trainers to approximately 1 percent of the horses in their care, meaning Zenyatta has been worth more than $60,000 in bonus money to Espinoza. He said he has saved just about every nickel.

“I’m not going to be able to do this forever,” he said. “One day I might be sick and not be able to work. People say, ‘Why do you still drive that old car?’ It takes me from home to work. Why do I need a new car?”

Espinoza, a gentle man with a ready smile, grows pensive when thinking that his days with Zenyatta are winding down. After the Breeders’ Cup, they will return to Hollywood Park, where the Shirreffs barn can say goodbye to Zenyatta before she heads to Kentucky to be bred next spring.

“I can’t explain what this filly has meant,” Espinoza said. “I can’t think of the right word to say. Like ‘perfect,’ right? Of course I’m going to miss her. It’s going to be sad. But she’ll be happy at the farm in a big pasture. She deserves all that. She’s done a lot of things for us.”

Next: Masseuse Michelle Jensen