Zenyatta can race her way into immortality Saturday
The adjectives and adverbs are used up. It is time for Zenyatta to run.
She has danced her way into our hearts. Now she can race her way into immortality.
It will be cold and dark by 6:45 p.m. Saturday, Eastern time, when they load the legendary lady into the starting gate at the legendary racetrack with the twin spires. This is not the first Saturday in May, not the Kentucky Derby, which is Churchill Downs’ brand. It will be November, under the lights, with a lot fewer mint juleps and females in fancy hats.
But it may be the only time that something else here can feel like a Derby.
Zenyatta’s story has now been well-told. Sports Illustrated has weighed in. So has “60 Minutes.” People who wouldn’t walk across the street to watch horses race are now intrigued enough to flip to ESPN on Saturday for a look.
Can this modern-day Seabiscuit do it again? Can she finish a career with a 20-0 record? Can the oldest horse in the field become the first 6-year-old to win a Breeders’ Cup Classic? Can she give yet another field of horses a huge lead and storm home again like something launched from a slingshot at the head of the homestretch?
The Classic offers $5 million in prize money, $4 million more than the Kentucky Derby. But more money does not necessarily generate more interest. Still hasn’t. Zenyatta has.
Now, a nation of race fans, as well as non-fans who have been lured into looking by the Queen Z, will tune in, cross their fingers and hold their breath. This depth of caring has seldom been seen before in horse racing.
The elements of emotion, the psychology of the moment, are fascinating.
The pursuit of perfection is always an attraction, but the nice, round 20-0 has an even nicer ring.
That the object of everybody’s affection is female, in a sport dominated by testosterone in horses, as well as trainers and owners, adds to the intrigue.
That she is also bigger, stronger and, to this day, faster than all the boys and girls she races turns up the volume of interest some more. The sport of kings may not be totally comfortable being dominated by a queen. Currently, it has no choice.
Then there is the unconventional nature of her path to greatness. Racing, it must be understood, does not easily embrace the unconventional.
Zenyatta skipped the entire Triple Crown season. As a 3-year-old, she wasn’t ready. She was gangly, awkward, an equine St. Bernard not yet grown into her paws. That is frequently the case with thoroughbreds, but their cost is so high and the need to recoup so acute that most 2-year-olds are loaded into gates while still growing into their tendons.
John Shirreffs is Zenyatta’s trainer. He doesn’t click his heels to the conventional. Owners Jerry and Ann Moss delivered their huge baby to Shirreffs, who took a look and decided to let Zenyatta’s bones catch up to her skin.
Did the Mosses, with an obvious investment and desire for eventual return on that, ever press Shirreffs as to when the giant filly would race?
“Never,” Shirreffs says.
And so, Zenyatta has come to stardom on an untraditional path, not from the daily grazing of Kentucky bluegrass, but from life at an ordinary barn at Hollywood Park. She has come to stardom without the bright lights of a Triple Crown campaign, with mostly victories against her own gender, mostly on the “plastic” tracks that were unfortunately mandated in California and gave the Eastern racing establishment something more to sniff at on the subject of racing in the West.
She is a superstar in her sport, and, in some ways, still an outsider to the bluebloods, as well as the racing press.
Last year, USA Today had 14 people pick the winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita, where Zenyatta, winner of the previous year’s Ladies Classic, was taking on the boys this time. All 14 picked another horse, and we know how that turned out.
Saturday’s Racing Form had 25 make picks. Nine picked Zenyatta to win. Columnist Andy Beyer of the Form was one of two who didn’t pick her in his top four, and wrote, “If you are a hard-headed gambler and not a sentimentalist, you’ll bet against Zenyatta…"
Like Beyer, a credible expert, race fans are used to — even braced for — disappointment at times such as this.
The racing world wants another Triple Crown winner, something it hasn’t had since Affirmed in 1978. Since then, 11 have gone to the Belmont with a chance and 11 have failed. Real Quiet lost by the width of a pencil in 1998. The year before, Chris McCarron masterfully rode Touch Gold wide and out of sight of the difficult-to-pass Silver Charm. Big Brown inexplicably didn’t fire in 2008 and finished ninth.
Disappointment is common in horse racing. Zenyatta is an uncommon horse.
The world awaits.