11/04/2010 12:07PM

Zenyatta's people: Trainer John Shirreffs and racing manager Dottie Ingordo

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Barbara D. Livingston

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

Trainer John Shirreffs and racing manager Dottie Ingordo | Jockey | Owners | Exercise rider | Groom and hotwalker | Masseuse

The requests come in every day, in the form of letters addressed to the barn or the pilgrimage of visitors to Hollywood Park, where Zenyatta is stabled. John Shirreffs, who trains Zenyatta, and his wife, Dottie, try to accommodate every one.

Sometimes, it’s just someone who wants a picture sent to him, or an opportunity to take a picture in person. Some of the letters are more poignant, the ones that outline how Zenyatta has kept the author sustained during cancer treatments or emboldened a timid teenager to fight through obstacles at school. Those are the ones that they will long remember.

“This is what she’s done,” said Dottie. “She’s changing people’s lives. To see people touched by her is very rewarding.”

There’s something in the DNA of these two people, who have been married for nearly seven years, that causes them to reach out and help. Dottie, a lifelong racetracker whose first marriage was to the late agent Jerry Ingordo, was for years the trusted personal assistant for trainer Bobby Frankel, handling, as she puts it, “his life.” For the past 25 years, she also has been the racing manager of Jerry and Ann Moss, the owners of Zenyatta.

John, 65, is a Vietnam veteran whose outlook on life seems shaped by what he experienced four decades ago. A quiet, gentle soul, he listens to NPR on his car radio, stands off to the side when winner’s circle pictures are being taken – “He gets enjoyment watching other people be happy,” Dottie said – and unhesitatingly cites “A Walk in the Clouds,” a movie about a soldier returning to civilian life, as his all-time favorite.

“A glorious romantic fantasy aflame with passion and bittersweet longing,” Roger Ebert said of the movie, released in 1995, in a review in the Chicago Sun-Times. “One needs perhaps to have a little of those qualities in one’s soul to respond fully to the film.”

“It’s about a guy coming home, a little bit lost,” Shirreffs said. “He doesn’t know what to do, but he finds a support system.”

Shirreffs has a vast collection of racing memorabilia, born of his passionate interest in the history of the sport. His favorite is a program from a banquet in the 1930s, honoring War Admiral, that has a portrait of Man o’ War, War Admiral’s sire, on the cover. The cover is signed by Samuel Riddle, who owned both great runners.

“John, he’s a huge racing history buff, so for him to be involved in something where history is involved is huge,” Dottie said. “This has so much meaning to him. He’s having fun sharing the enjoyment with other people.”

Two weeks ago, a gentleman who had been a soldier in Afghanistan visited the barn and presented Shirreffs with a medallion from Operation Enduring Freedom.

“For all the troops watching over there,” he told Shirreffs.

Earlier this year, a man who has two autistic sons twice visited the barn, where Shirreffs let the boys, ages 5 and 3, pet Zenyatta and ride the stable pony, Winston. The experience so changed Grant Hays and his family that they adopted a former racehorse as a therapeutic riding horse for their sons.

A few weeks ago, a letter was received at the barn from a friend of Marjorie Dawn Cooper Gawley, saying that Gawley, who had visited Zenyatta twice, most recently this summer at Del Mar, had died from cancer. Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs gets choked up recounting how the letter asked if there was some way Gawley’s name could be on Zenyatta’s equipment when she runs in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday.

It will, front and center on the bridle, on a piece of paper taped to the browband.

Next: Exercise rider Steve Willard