Santa Anita, in need of a feel-good story, found one Sunday when Paradise Woods, trained by John Shirreffs, won the Grade 2 $200,000 Zenyatta Stakes.
Shirreffs is best known as the trainer of Zenyatta, the superstar mare that won 19 of her 20 races. So, winning the race named after her was filled with emotion.
“It was very special,” Shirreffs said. “As we were walking down, my wife, Dottie, was almost in tears because we won on the 10th anniversary of Zenyatta [winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic].
“This race is so special you can’t even begin to fathom or believe that you will win the Zenyatta, it is so hard to do. … And to win the Zenyatta is very special.”
Zenyatta, a mare running against male horses, won the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita in a last-to-first performance that is considered one of the greatest in modern horse racing history.
The mood at Santa Anita on Sunday was somewhat uplifted compared to Saturday when a gruesome breakdown on the front stretch silenced the crowd and put a pall over the day.
In the seventh graded stakes of the three-day weekend, Paradise Woods broke alertly and found herself in second for most of the 1 1/16-mile race. She pulled even with Secret Spice at the top of the stretch and the two went side by side until the last few strides when Paradise Woods pulled ahead to win by 1 ¾ lengths.
“We wanted her to break well and not get shuffled back and be in the clear,” Shirreffs said. “[Heading into the stretch] it seemed like she was maintaining her stride and she had good action all the way.”
Paradise Woods paid $9.60, $4.20 and $2.80. She was followed by Secret Spice, Ollie’s Candy, La Force, Mongolian Humor and Kaydetre.
Sunday’s race was a win-and-you’re-in for the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, which was won by Zenyatta in 2008 when it was called the Ladies’ Classic.
Mike Smith was Zenyatta’s jockey for most of her career and had been riding Paradise Woods the last three races. But Smith was taken off the 5-year-old mare in favor of Abel Cedillo.
“It was that Mike will not be available [to us] for the Breeders’ Cup [Distaff],” Shirreffs said. “He’ll be on Midnight Bisou. If you’re going to make a change, this would be the time.”
It was the third stakes win of the weekend for Cedillo, who until recently was primarily riding in Northern California. On Saturday he won the Grade 2 John Henry Turf Championship aboard Cleopatra’s Strike and the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes with Mongolian Groom.
Smith even helped Cedillo get ready for Sunday’s race.
“Mike [Smith] told me you’ve got to keep her calm and she’ll try hard,” Cedillo said. “I kept her outside of Secret Spice and everything worked perfect.”
Asked whether Cedillo will keep the mount for the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, Shirreffs was playfully circumspect.
“That’s up to the [jockey] agent,” he said.