John Shirreffs may be only 10th in the nation in earnings among North American trainers, but sometimes the numbers tell only part of the story. The 64-year-old Arcadia resident deserves to win the Eclipse Award for top trainer this year, particularly when you consider the magnificent job he did with Zenyatta.
Shirreffs has saddled less than 100 starters, 96 to be exact, while the majority of conditioners ahead of him have all started well over 400. The No. 1 earner for instance, Steven Assmussen, went into Saturday having saddled 2,756 starters.
On Saturday at Hollywood Park, Shirreffs won a record fifth Bayakoa Handicap when 11-1 shot Zardana found the winner’s circle with Victor Espinoza aboard. Shirreffs also won the Bayakoa twice with Manistique (1998-99) and once with Starrer (2002) and Hollywood Story (2004).
All year, when fans were clamoring for Shirreffs to run Zenyatta against the males, the veteran conditioner remained patient, knowing full well her best shot against the boys would most likely come in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 7, despite the fact it would be a tougher race than the Hollywood Gold Cup or Pacific Classic at Del Mar.
Shirreffs didn’t want to run Zenyatta in the Gold Cup because he didn’t want her making her first start at 1 1/4 miles in only her second race back. He didn’t want to enter her in the Pacific Classic because she hated Del Mar’s Polytrack surface. Zenyatta’s exercise rider, Steve Willard, said one morning she didn’t even want to go out and gallop on the stuff.
That left the Goodwood and the Classic. If you’re going to run against the males once, why not prep for the race of your life in the Lady’s Secret and then go for all the marbles a month later?
That’s the route Shirreffs chose, and turns out it was the correct decision.
Of course, all that doesn’t even factor in his work with Life Is Sweet, who won the Ladies’ Classic 24 hours earlier than Zenyatta took the Classic, giving him a clean sweep of the weekend’s two biggest races.
There is no trainer in the country who turned in a better job in 2009 than John Shirreffs.