03/11/2010 1:00AM

Zenyatta's very own horse whisperer

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Barbara D. Livingston
Ann Moss (left) seems to enjoy a special connection with Zenyatta.

ARCADIA, Calif. - At long last, the secret's out. The secret of Zenyatta's success. All those wiseguys and diehards who wax poetic over her scope, her stride, her devastating drive were all around the mark. Mike Smith did drop a hint not long ago when he talked about Big Mama "getting so much more air" these days, but it sounded like something a fitness freak would say, all inside baseball and aerobic. As it turns out, the jock wasn't kidding.

Ann Moss blows in Zenyatta's nose.

Now, before the racing board rifles the lab for a test, let it be known that Moss, who owns Zenyatta with husband, Jerry, usually reserves her affectionate puffs for down time around the John Shirreffs barn. There are carrots involved as well. Jerry Moss, a city boy, marvels at what he calls a "deeper connection" between the mare and her mistress. And who is to say, after Zenyatta's 14 starts and 14 victories, that those moments of close contact with a human who asks for nothing in return don't add up to at least a piece of her magnificent puzzle.

"When she's walking around the shed row, and we're standing just outside, each time she walks by I'll go, 'You're the best in the whole world,' and she dips her head and walks on," Ann Moss said. "But if for some reason I'm chatting with someone, she stops and stands there, waiting until I say it. Then she dips her head and moves on."

The return of a champion is always a cause for celebration. Three of the best in the whole world go back to work on Saturday, including 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra in the New Orleans Ladies at Fair Grounds and 2009 male 2-year-old champion Lookin At Lucky in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

Zenyatta, for two years running the champion older filly or mare, begins her 6-year-old season in the $250,000 Santa Margarita Handicap at Santa Anita. If the stars align, and both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta do well, their races could lead to a meeting on April 9 in a $5 million version of the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park.

Such an event was made even remotely possible when the Mosses decided not to retire Zenyatta in the wake of her victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic last November. Their motives were entirely selfish, in all the best ways.

"We're still in awe of her," Ann Moss said this week. "I think it's great these days that fans can have a champion to root for, one who shows up for you every time. I don't think there are any accidents of nature. God and Goddess put her together perfectly, and John has taken the patience to allow her to develop and keep it fun for her. That's why we're running on Saturday."

Moss grew up in Utah, where she rode the horses at her grandfather's working ranch.

"He had Quarter Horses mainly, and he had a little success racing," she said. "With him it was, 'Don't say whoa to my horses, or cluck at them either.' "

The Mosses met and married 33 years ago, when Ann was still a top model on the Manhattan fashion magazine scene. The noteworthy fact that Rachel Alexandra got a feature spread in Vogue last year after winning the Preakness was not lost on Zenyatta's owner, who had been there before.

"Zenyatta was named the second best female athlete last year, to Serena Williams," Moss countered, referring to a year-end Associated Press poll. "I thought that deserved a cover, but what can you say?"

Accomplished racehorses such as Zenyatta, Giacomo, Sardula, and the recent Santa Anita Handicap runner-up Neko Bay have been fun. But the music business has put the bread on the Moss table, and Jerry Moss - of A&M Records and Almo Music - has a place in the executives wing of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to prove it. In her own right, Ann Moss has made a name for herself beyond her Thoroughbreds as one of the founders of the Dolphin Connection, an international organization that has fought to save the species from the wholesale killings when caught up in dense tuna trawling nets.

Moss has traded on her access to help the cause in creative ways. It was her idea, through her friendship with director Richard Donner, to inject a scene in 1989's "Lethal Weapon 2" with Danny Glover's kids wearing "Save the Dolphins" T-shirts and beseeching their father not to eat his tuna sandwich.

The fight goes on. Moss was encouraged last Sunday when the Oscar for the best documentary went to "The Cove," a film detailing the ritual slaughter of thousands of dolphins each year by fishermen in a small Japanese village.

"A lot of people hopefully will become aware of it, and maybe the situation can change," Moss said.

In the meantime, with the Mosses' help, Zenyatta has done her part to help her own kind, raising thousands of dollars for Thoroughbred welfare and retirement organizations through the auction of halters, shoes, and smears of paint on canvas, rendered with nose or hoof. Ann Moss, an accomplished artist, uses the more conventional brush method, and will someday turn her talents to an interpretation of Zenyatta.

"I plan to, although I have other kinds of canvases I'm doing right now, landscaping and architecture," Moss said. "When those projects are done, I would be honored to be able to paint her. But meanwhile, she's picture perfect."