11/04/2010 12:48PM

Zenyatta's people: Masseuse Michelle Jensen

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Benoit & Associates

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

Masseuse Michelle Jensen | Jockey | Owners | Trainer | Exercise rider | Groom and hotwalker

The scene is a lot different by lunchtime at the John Shirreffs stable on the Hollywood Park backstretch than it is in the morning.
The well-wishers, watching Zenyatta go to and from the track and taking loads of photos, are long gone, and the grooms and hotwalkers have finished most of their duties.

It is the time when Michelle Jensen and Zenyatta can be together.

Jensen is primarily trainer John Shirreffs’s assistant, running the office and helping to look after the 32-horse stable. But she is also Zenyatta’s masseuse – and that is what Jensen cherishes the most.

“We have a real system going,” Jensen said. “It didn’t take long to figure each other out.”

The massages last about 45 minutes to an hour, once or twice a week when Zenyatta is weeks away from a race but nearly daily in the week approaching a race. In the last couple of years, Jensen has learned what the mare likes and dislikes while being massaged primarily around her back.

“They have ways of telling you,” Jensen said. “It’s hard to explain. It’s a nonverbal communication of its own. She’ll tell me too much pressure, that’s not the right spot. It’s a language all its own.”

Jensen, 51, has worked for Shirreffs for a decade and was an assistant when Shirreffs won the 2005 Kentucky Derby with Giacomo. Before Shirreffs, Jensen worked for David Hofmans and was the regular exercise rider of Awesome Again in 1997, the year he won the Queen’s Plate and Jim Dandy stakes and was third in the Travers.

She exercised horses until 2006, when Hollywood Story, the multiple stakes winner and one of her personal favorites, was retired from the Shirreffs stable. “For me, there is a good amount of dedication that goes into galloping,” she said. “I want to be the only one galloping the horse. I don’t take a day off. It got to where there were too many other things going on. I wasn’t getting any younger.”

Jensen took classes about massage and has applied those principles to horses. She has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and is studying for a master’s degree in family therapy at Cal State-Dominguez Hills, expecting to complete her degree next year.

She sought the master’s degree as a career backup plan after Hollywood Park officials announced several years ago that they eventually plan to close the track and develop the property.

If Hollywood Park remains open for the foreseeable future, Jensen has another plan. “I can work for John in the mornings and have a private practice in the afternoon,” she said.

Jensen is married to Ken McDonald, a software engineer whom she met via eharmony.com, Jensen said.

This week, it’s all about racing. Jensen planned to stay in California until Friday, travel to Kentucky later that day, and be back at Hollywood Park for training on Monday morning. She knows how she will feel on Saturday.

“I’ll be nervous,” Jensen said. “Can you imagine if she wins? There are so many people, with so much good energy being put out. So, she can’t possibly lose.”

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