Trainer John Sadler came pretty close to being the most unpopular person at Hollywood Park on Saturday. Of course, if Alonso Quinonez had held on aboard Switch and denied Zenyatta her 19th consecutive victory, the 26-year-old native of Sinaloa, Mexico would have been a close second.
Switch led Zenyatta by two lengths at the eighth pole in the Lady’s Secret Stakes and by a little more than a length at the sixteenth pole before the champion mare decided it was time to get to business and keep her unbeaten record intact.
Zenyatta picked it up and ran the final sixteenth of a mile in less than six seconds, posting a half-length victory over the game Switch, just the latest in a long line of race horses that have finished second to the Queen.
“It was pretty exciting,” Sadler said immediately afterward. “I’ve been tip-toeing around the barn all morning, saying, ‘I know we’re going to give them a scare.’ I’m just very, very proud of my horse. To run second to the best horse in the world and one of the greats of all time is huge.”
Quinonez thought he was sitting on the winner at the eighth pole.
“Once she made the lead, I didn’t think anybody could catch me,” he said. “I couldn’t see Zenyatta coming because I was so into riding my horse. When she was next to me, my filly switched leads to the left. We lost, but it was exciting.”
Quinonez should have known what was coming.
Eighteen times previous to Saturday, Zenyatta had been confronted with a similar chore — catch the leaders in the stretch. She’s done it easier at times, but jockey Mike Smith was confident she’d somehow find a way to pull out another victory.
What people don’t understand is that horses the likes of Switch and St Trinians, whom Zenyatta ran down in the stretch to win the Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park on June 13, are very talented race horses that would have won if racing against any other mare except for Zenyatta.
“Until the wire comes … she’s got that ability to dig down,” trainer John Shirreffs said. “Her heart must be huge. She can always dig down and find a little more. She never gives up.
“God made her very special, and we’re just enjoying it.”
Smith marvels at the job Shirreffs has done with the daughter of Street Cry.
“I mean, look at her,” Smith said. “Thirty-three months and she’s still running this way. That’s incredible. No one’s ever done this.”
Zenyatta is still running this way because Shirreffs and her owners, Jerry and Ann Moss, have done right by the horse. They have not overly campaigned her, choosing to take the route that best prepares her for the big prize each year — the Breeders’ Cup.
Time and again the Zenyatta camp has been criticized for not taking more chances with her, for not taking on the boys more often in California and for choosing not to fly her around the country.
Jerry Moss was asked after this year’s Lady’s Secret if the connections had considered running Zenyatta against the males in the Goodwood Stakes on Saturday to prepare her for a return run against males in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 6 at Churchill Downs.
“No, because we want to save her up a little bit,” he said. “She’ll run against the boys in four or five weeks, but we’re trying to save as much energy as we can because she is a 6 year old, she does weigh over 1,200 pounds and we’ve got to be cognizant of all that.”
There’s an old saying in this game — if you’re good to the horse, the horse will be good to you.
Shirreffs and the Mosses have been good to Zenyatta, and in turn she’s been very, very good not only to them, but to the sport as well.