Zenyatta: The story behind this horse racing Hall of Famer

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Zenyatta, slow to gain recognition early in her career even as she built on a perfect record, will receive the ultimate tribute when she is inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame on Friday.

“To get into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot as a racehorse, I don’t think you can be appreciated more than that,” said trainer John Shirreffs, who was often criticized for largely limiting Zenyatta to synthetic surfaces in her home state of California.

Previous accolades were slow to come to Zenyatta even as she launched one breathtaking rally after another from her customary position in the back of the pack to gain the lead barely in time. She swept her first 19 starts before missing by a diminishing head against Blame in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in 2010 to end her career.


The massive daughter of Street Cry could not catch Dubai World Cup winner Curlin for horse of the year in 2008 despite winning every start in a season that ended with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic while Curlin faltered in fourth in the all-male Classic.

Zenyatta, ridden by Mike Smith for the last 17 starts of her career, emerged as the first female to defeat males in the Classic in that race’s 26-year history in 2009. Still, she was runner-up to 3-year-old filly Rachel Alexandra for horse of the year.

Voters faced a difficult decision. Although Rachel Alexandra did not advance to the Breeders’ Cup, she defeated males in the Preakness, Haskell and Woodward. She bested older males in the Woodward.

Alicia Wincze-Hughes of the Lexington Herald-Leader gave Rachel Alexandra the nod in what became a hot debate.

“She was flawless that year. She could not have done anything more,” Wincze-Hughes said of Zenyatta. “My thing was we may see another filly win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. We will not see another 3-year-old filly beat males three times and beat older males.”


Rachel Alexandra slumped as a 4-year-old and was retired. She and Zenyatta never met. Rachel Alexandra joins Zenyatta as a first-ballot honoree. Jockey Ramon Dominguez and trainer Steve Asmussen are also being inducted.

Beyond the weighty presence of Curlin and then Rachel Alexandra, some voters held it against Zenyatta that she was not campaigned nationally on traditional dirt surfaces. Zenyatta ultimately won over New York-based Michael Watchmaker of the Daily Racing Form. It was not easy.

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“I’m not a fan of synthetic racing and I view synthetic results with some degree of skepticism,” Watchmaker said. “But someone who goes 17 for 17 on synthetics is legitimately a very good horse.”

Zenyatta was named by her owner, record magnate Jerry Moss, for Zenyatta Mondatta, an album by the Police. She ran only three times on dirt outside of California. She twice dominated the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., each time pulling away by more than four lengths. And there was that narrowest of defeats to Blame.

According to Shirreffs, his desire to keep Zenyatta a homebody had nothing to do with surfaces. “I trained her on dirt at Hollywood Park,” he noted. “She didn’t particularly care for synthetics. Synthetic wasn’t the best surface for her.”


Moss said Zenyatta’s size — she stood more than 17 hands and weighed more than 1,200 pounds — worked against shipping. “John didn’t want to travel too much with her because she was a huge horse and that was a lot of weight on her legs,” he said.

Shirreffs expressed his loyalty to California, a racing market good to him. “I needed to support California with Zenyatta as much as I could. She was a big attraction,” he said. “If there was the same race in California, why should I take her out of the place where she lived and trained?”

Zenyatta placed second as the Associated Press female athlete of the year in 2009 and 2010, behind tennis player Serena Williams and then skier Lindsey Vonn. When she was finally named horse of theyYear despite losing to Blame in 2010, that seemed bittersweet.

“Was she deserving to have horse of the year on her mantel? Absolutely,” Wincze-Hughes said. “But to say that one in particular was a makeup call? I don’t think that’s off base.”

In the end, though, there is no debate about Zenyatta. First-ballot Hall of Famer says it all.