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Zenyatta’s ‘un-be-lievable’ Breeders’ Cup win still elicits excitement 10 years later

Jockey Mike Smith celebrates as Zenyatta gallops to victory in the $5-million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Nov. 7, 2009.
Jockey Mike Smith celebrates as Zenyatta gallops to victory in the $5-million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Nov. 7, 2009.
(AFP via Getty Images)

The race track is nothing if not a big pot of competing interests, people rooting both for and against each other trying to prove they know the secret to winning a race.

But 10 years ago, on Nov. 7, 2009, Santa Anita became a voice of one as Zenyatta, a mare, attempted to become the first female winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. It wasn’t looking good as she ran most of the race at the back.

Track announcer Trevor Denman described it this way coming out of the far turn and into the stretch.

“Zenyatta has a lot of ground to make up. Zenyatta, if she wins this, she’ll be a super horse.

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“She’s starting to pick them off, though. Zenyatta going to hook to the outside. Meanwhile Colonel John, Summer Bird in the red cap.

“Zenyatta comes to the outside. Zenyatta coming flying on the grandstand side. Gio Ponti on the inside. Summer Bird is right there.

“This is un-be-lievable! Zenyatta, what a performance! One we’ll never forget. Looked impossible.”

Denman called it “categorically” his best call ever.

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“I never meant to say [‘un-be-lievable’] or say it in the cadence that matched the horse,” Denman said. “It just came off my tongue. You could hear the wonderment of [the moment].”

Zenyatta’s memorable victory at the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita.

Jon White, one of the country’s most respected racing historians, was in the crowd of near 60,000, near the 16th pole.

“I could see she was full of run,” White said. “I was not surprised to see the rally she generated. This is one of the only races I ever turned around and looked at the crowd [while the race was on.] I wanted to get a snapshot of the crowd. And that is now indelibly etched in my mind. People going crazy. Just that moment.”

White calls it the greatest Breeders’ Cup moment in the nine times it’s been at Santa Anita. He also puts it in the top three moments in the 85-year history of the track, along with Seabiscuit winning the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap and jockey John Longden winning the 1966 San Juan Capistrano in his last race.

Zenyatta was owned by Jerry and Ann Moss and trained by John Shirreffs. The decision to run her against the boys was left to Shirreffs.

“We had a lot of confidence in her,” Shirreffs said. “It was my decision to run her as long as she was training well. That would determine the decision. She was undefeated so I thought we’d try it.”

Shirreffs, known for his patience, had guided her through 13 wins over her two-year career.

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“We referred to it as Camelot,” Shirreffs said. “It was a perfect world during those years.”

There were several key spots that led to her historic win.

The first was in the paddock, where Shirreffs was a little concerned about mixing the genders.

Experts are concerned the use of bisphosphonates in thoroughbreds will lead to more breakdowns and serious injuries — and the drugs can’t be traced.

“It was business as usual except we were running against colts,” Shirreffs said. “We didn’t want to get her upset and we didn’t want to stir up the colts by bringing a mare into the paddock.”

Jockey Mike Smith had the best view of the race, and he was feeling good even before she was saddled.

“I was really confident because she was training extremely well,” Smith said. “Everything was going great and she was in top form. All I needed was a good trip.”

Zenyatta’s popularity was based as much on her personality as her ability. While in the paddock she would often stop and pose for pictures, and then there was a little dance she would do before a race. At least that’s what everyone believed she was doing.

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Jockey Mike Smith sits atop Zenyatta in the winner’s circle during the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita in 2009.
Jockey Mike Smith sits atop Zenyatta in the winner’s circle during the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita in 2009.
(Getty Images)

“She knew it was a big show,” Smith said about the Classic. “Everything about her was a show. She would get entertainer of the year every year. She was also an intimidator. She would even intimidate the boys. … she had that kind of confidence. She just loved to go out there and put on a show.”

Once the horses got on the track and went to the gate, came the next key moment.

Zenyatta balked going into the gate but eventually went in. Quality Road would not go in and was scratched after he was injured, resulting in a five-minute delay as all the horses were backed out and reloaded.

“She was not a very good gate horse,” Shirreffs said. “She was a very large horse and I think she got claustrophobic.”

Once the gates opened, Zenyatta went to the back and trailed by as many as 15 lengths.

“In all honesty, I thought she was too far back,” Denman said. “These are the best horses in the world and you can’t give up that much at the start.”

One of Smith’s first tasks was to get Zenyatta to switch to a right lead after starting the race on her left.

“I finally got her in a nice comfortable rhythm,” Smith said. “I needed to give her a place to go when it was time. I was focusing on the horses in front of me. Heading for home, I cut the corner really good. Now it was a case of finding a place to cut her loose.”

Smith found that spot by going to the outside.

It remains to be seen how much time NBC will dedicate to recent horse deaths at Santa Anita as part of its 10-plus hours of Breeders’ Cup coverage.

“About mid-stretch I thought we got this,” Smith said. “But I wasn’t going to believe it until I hit the wire. Then I became a fan like everybody else.”

The winning margin was a length.

“I could hardly stand myself I was so excited,” Shirreffs said. "… I would have liked to have run down the track. You can hardly contain your excitement.”

There will be a lot of references to Zenyatta’s win this weekend. The replays and Denman’s call will be front and center.

As for Shirreffs, he doesn’t go out of his way to watch the replay.

“I see it occasionally when I watch TVG,” Shirreffs said. “I’m not into watching the replay. My feelings are so good about it, I can just enjoy it in my mind.”


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