Unbeaten Zenyatta will run to avenge her only ‘defeat’


For Zenyatta, racing’s Queen Mother, the campaign to avenge her only defeat continues Saturday at Del Mar.

Barring any last-minute changes of heart by owners Jerry and Ann Moss and trainer John Shirreffs, she will take on a field of five other mares in the 1 1/16-mile Clement Hirsch Stakes, a Grade I race worth $300,000. The Mosses and Shirreffs don’t like the ever-changing synthetic surface at the track, but it isn’t markedly different from what Zenyatta won on last year, her second straight Clement Hirsch victory.

If she wins three in a row, it will be a first in this race. But then, her career has been about creating firsts. The best case in point: becoming the first female to win a Breeders’ Cup Classic, when she ran past the boys at the end of the $5-million race last year at Santa Anita, just like she always runs past everybody when the finish line comes into view.

A victory will make Zenyatta’s record 18-0.

With an asterisk.

People forget that she was beaten once, that that lone defeat may have strengthened the resolve of her handlers for this year’s campaign.

No, she has never lost to another racehorse. Her defeat was at the hands of a bunch of sportswriters, many of whom may have had fogged brains from summer humidity in the East.

It was on a night in January, at a hotel in Beverly Hills, that the Eclipse Award for horse of the year was handed out. In racing, horse of the year is a huge deal. The choice between Preakness winner Rachel Alexandra, a wonderful filly who spent all her time in the East, and Zenyatta, an older horse whose gold was mostly acquired in the Golden State, gave the awards night a buzz.

Rachel was expected to win. Success in a Triple Crown race seems to get you double points. She had been spectacular all year. Plus, her owner, Jess Jackson, owner of Kendall-Jackson Winery, had played a big role in the campaign. Guided by his veteran public relations person, Caroline Shaw — once the top image-shaper for Salt Lake City Olympic chief Mitt Romney — Jackson was accessible and articulate.

Zenyatta’s camp spoke more softly, as is the tendency of the very bright and somewhat shy Shirreffs. But in the end, it carried the big stick of a Breeders’ Cup Classic victory and a first for Zenyatta’s gender. How could anybody (translate: voters) not be moved by Zenyatta’s stretch run in the Classic, with the voice of Trevor Denman matching her final strides with his rhythmic “This . . . is . . . un . . . be . . . lieve . . . a . . . ble”?

When the evening’s grand finale came, and the announcement was made that Rachel Alexandra had won the Eclipse for horse of the year, there was not a lot of shock, even at the Moss table. But when reporters gathered there for interviews, and Jerry Moss was told that the final tally from the voting National Turf Writers Assn. had been 130-99, he appeared to be taken aback.

After the Breeders’ Cup, the plan had been for Zenyatta to retire and have babies. She would turn 6 on Jan. 1. She had done everything asked of her. She was unbeaten. Why mess up perfection?

But the whispers began in early January. Zenyatta was still around Hollywood Park, still training, still looking sharp. A few days before the Eclipse dinner, the announcement was made. She would run one more year.

The Mosses and Shirreffs said she had made it clear she wasn’t done, that she still wanted to compete. After the 130-99 vote was made public, you got the sense that the humans wanted to compete just as badly.

The immediate buzz was over a possible matchup between Rachel Alexandra, also running again, as a 4-year-old, and Zenyatta. Not a lot was said about horse of the year, nor is it now, even as the likelihood of the super matchup has faded with a couple of subpar races from Rachel.

But it is August, Zenyatta has continued to do all that is asked of her, including breaking the magic 16-0 mark of Cigar, Citation and several other stars. Even if she stumbles, even if there are no more dramatic moments in what probably will be her last race at the Breeders’ Cup in November; even if the voters aren’t focusing on what could well be a 20-0 career, who else is horse of the year for 2010?

Nobody, of course.

If form holds, she will dance in the paddock at Del Mar on Saturday, prance onto the track and give the crowd her bows in the winner’s circle. A crowd that normally would have been around 20,000 for a Del Mar Saturday could very well surpass 30,000.

The two-glass set of Zenyatta giveaways will add to that crowd, but it will be mostly all about her, the lady named after a record album, who has become music to horse racing’s ears.

And, of course, if good fortune continues, the Mosses will be sitting in another ballroom in January, big smiles forming as it is announced that they have erased that one asterisk, that they have been pushed across the finish line first this time by the same group that left them 10 lengths back last year.

Never argue with people who buy ink by the barrel. Just race another year and show ‘em.