Zenyatta holds the horse racing world in her hoofs
Like the sport itself, Friday morning at the John Shirreffs stable at Hollywood Park is a carnival ride of emotions.
Barn 55 South is the home of Zenyatta, current superstar and the key adhesive holding much of horse racing together. To get there, you walk a quarter mile along Zenyatta Way. Fitting.
The marvelous mare won her 19th race without a defeat last Saturday, and 25,837 people showed up to worship and yell their lungs out. Most days at Hollywood Park, even during a meeting carrying the prestige banner of the Oak Tree Racing Assn., attendance is about 4,000.
The sun is shining brightly. Her Majesty has finished her gallop and is now on her morning walk. It is her time to mingle with the common folk and stretch her legs.
“She actually acknowledges you,” says Michelle Jensen, Shirreffs’ assistant trainer. “You walk by and she raises her head and kind of nods. It’s like, ‘Good morning.’”
A man comes by with a video camera while Queen Z is grazing under a shady tree. He lifts the camera to shoot and she lifts her head to pose. The man says later that he is a former track competitor, that he used to visualize a great thoroughbred as he ran. He said that when he saw Zenyatta run, he had to come see her.
He is part of her public, so she poses.
A stable hand engages the man in conversation and tells him, “If you believe in God, she is a gift from heaven.”
Shirreffs is far from a one-horse wonder. His stable is full. He is internationally known, has already won a Kentucky Derby with Giacomo in 2005 and won both big races of the Breeders’ Cup last year — with Life Is Sweet in the Ladies Classic and Zenyatta in the Big Classic. But even he is lost when asked to put into words the greatness of this horse.
He does it anecdotally, which is the best way. He talks about Zenyatta’s gentle nature. He shows pictures of her sleeping in her stable, with her former groom, Gus Adair, resting in the hay next to her and rubbing her ankles.
Shirreffs shows a picture taken just last week, after she won race No. 19. She is bent way down and gently eating out of the hands of 5-year-old Lorelei, the daughter of Daily Racing Form columnist Jay Hovdey and famed female jockey Julie Krone. Lorelei’s head has more curls than Little Orphan Annie and Zenyatta’s head is larger than all of Lorelei. Lorelei has no fear, and needs none.
He talks about the young girl who was part of a group that bought breakfast with Zenyatta at an auction. The girl was terrified because she had been badly bitten by a horse. By the end of the morning, Zenyatta was eating out of her hand. And, figuratively speaking, vice versa.
Shirreffs says that one of the best times of the day is when he takes Zenyatta her Guinness.
“I do it about noon,” he says. “That’s when everything has quieted down. She’s had her walk; she’s been out in the sun. Then I bring her her Guinness.”
This slice of horse heaven should have no interruption. Zenyatta is cranking up for her final time in the spotlight, her defense of her title in the Nov. 6 Breeders’ Cup Classic in Louisville. That could be a nice round victory No. 20 and out. Beat the boys one more time and then go make babies with some of them.
But the interruption of reality comes on this quiet Friday morning. An ambulance van pulls alongside Barn 55 with a horse in distress. Shirreffs and his helpers ease the frightened animal out and survey the damage.
JTSafeathome, a 2-year-old filly — owned in part by Joe Torre and obviously named with him in mind — stands as best she can without putting weight on her left front leg. Shirreffs quickly inspects it, then takes the reins and stands face to face, calming her. The young horse keeps shaking.
She has stepped in an unlucky spot near the mile pole in her morning workout. The stable hands say it is in a spot where one of trainer John Sadler’s horses was injured the day before. Isabel, the exercise rider, tells Shirreffs what happened. Workers scurry for leg wraps, a vet arrives quickly and things are handled with a calm that indicates, sadly, that this is not a new drill.
Shirreffs stays with her, face to face, for at least 20 minutes, until the vet gives her a shot to ease the pain and she is slowly guided to a stable for X-rays. The X-rays show that JT, who has never raced, has a fractured cannon bone. That is probably good news. Shirreffs says she is young, heals well because of that, will have screws inserted and possibly be able to resume training in about four months.
All this time, Zenyatta is nearby, munching on grass and glancing at the activity. Even her presence can’t lighten the mood.
But nobody would have been surprised if she had wandered over, kissed it and made it all better.