Zenyatta is still the first lady

In her advancing age, she has become poetry in motion. Johnny Tillotson could sing about her.

Zenyatta is now so much more than a racehorse that it defies description. All the superlatives have long ago been used up.

When she won her third consecutive Clement Hirsch Stakes on Saturday at Del Mar, something no other horse has done or probably will do, she simply continued to grow the legend. Her races, all 18 victories now without a defeat, remain thrilling while also being cookie-cutter.

She hung back again. She got interested near the final turn. She saw several horses in front of her and that was her signal to pass them. Once she got past them, including the hard-digging Rinterval, she turned off the afterburner and stayed just far enough in front to win. The margin of victory was a neck, and you had the feeling it could have been 20 necks.

This is not a new story, just the best one in racing in a long time.

The common perception these days about horse racing being near death does not apply when Zen-yatta runs. A crowd of 32,536 gathered in the place where the turf meets the surf, hung around all day, had a few drinks and got more and more excited as the time for the ninth race approached.

Afterward, Joe Harper, who has been in charge of this track all the way back to the days when jockeys had cardboard helmets, called Saturday “the best day Del Mar ever had.”

Zenyatta doesn’t so much win races as she does reduce everybody around her into a gathering of mush and gush. One sign said that Zenyatta was “The Queen of (our) Hearts.” A TV interviewer got owners Jerry and Ann Moss aside and, instead of asking a question, slobbered an emotion: “Thank you so much for running her another year,” he said, badly damaging his chances for investigative reporter of the year.

But somehow, with Zenyatta, the excessive idolatry seems OK. Maybe it is because what she has achieved, and the class with which she has achieved it, deserves this.

Moss calls her a miracle. Her jockey, Hall of Famer Mike Smith, says that riding her is like sleeping in a king-size bed. Trevor Denman, the track announcer, told the crowd at least twice that the job trainer John Shirreffs has done preparing Zenyatta has been “superb.”

Paddy Gallagher trained Princess Taylor, the mare that finished third in this $300,000 Grade I race. Afterward, he said, “We’re thrilled to be third.”

She now has songs written about her. They gave away sets of glasses with her picture on them. One man stood in a long betting line and ordered 20 win tickets on her, $2 each. When he left the window, he said he bought them not to cash, but to send to family and friends. Few horses graduate from a bet to a keepsake.

The plan, after Saturday’s win, is to have one more preparation race before a second straight run at the Breeders’ Cup Classic. That will be Nov. 6 in Louisville, Ky., and were she to win, she would be the second repeat champion, finish her career at 20-0 and take her place high among thoroughbred legends.

“If she can pull off two more,” Smith said, “to me, she’d go down as the greatest horse of all time.”

He didn’t say greatest female horse, or greatest older mare, or greatest conqueror of California synthetic tracks. Just greatest horse.

Even Shirreffs, who manages his words as carefully as he manages the career of his superstar, bristled a bit when reminded that the Eastern press had taken its shots at his mare this week, including one newspaper story that said: “The best horse in the country will run today, and so will Zenyatta.” That was a reference to Quality Road, who ended up losing in the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga.

“Certainly, she’s the best horse in the country,” Shirreffs said.

Perhaps the bigger drama than the race itself took place Saturday morning, when Shirreffs, who likes synthetic tracks like he likes worms for breakfast, took his concerns about the way Del Mar’s surface was feeling and looking to Harper and other track officials. He was assured they could make it better with some treatment, including water. Shirreffs said OK, Zenyatta did her thing and appeared to come out of the race just fine, and Harper walked around after the race mumbling phrases to himself, most of them containing the words, “Thank God.”

For Zenyatta, it was just another day at the office. She did her little dance in the paddock, then returned after winning to face the grandstand and take her bows from yet another adoring crowd. Smith, her passenger for all but the first three races in the 18-0 run, took her where she could be seen by the fans, got her turned around, smiled and looked to the heavens and directed her bows and prances.

Smith has had a long and great career as a jockey. Now, after Zenyatta’s races, he is also becoming an orchestra director. Who needs a whip? Give Mike Smith a baton.

“I’m a fan too, right along with all of those people,” Smith said. “I just happen to be the one sitting on her.”