Horse racing owes a great deal of gratitude to Zenyatta, who’s captured a nation’s heart like few race horses before her. There were few dry eyes at Churchill Downs on Saturday when she lost by a head to Blame in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and even fewer when we all watched her jockey, Mike Smith, break down in the interview room less than a half-hour after the race.
But as much as the industry owes Zenyatta, it also should tip its cap to trainer John Shirreffs, who kept this horse fit and healthy enough to run through her 6-year-old season. That’s no easy task, considering the Street Cry mare is so huge and that making it through three-plus seasons of racing without a hiccup is virtually unheard of in this sport.
“John Shirreffs has done a remarkable job with her,” said Hall of Famer Ron McAnally, who trained the great John Henry. “He waited a long time until she really developed and she’s probably, not only filly, but as good a horse as I’ve ever seen.
“I mean, she wants to win, she knows where the wire is and she’s stayed sound, that’s the main thing. A lot of horses that are big like that, they can’t stay sound. But John has spaced her races good and he’s done a marvelous job.”
But perhaps Shirreffs’ greatest gift to horse racing was his willingness to let Zenyatta’s fans get close to her. Visitors to Shirreffs’ barn at Hollywood Park were allowed to visit her, pet her, feed her carrots, have their pictures taken with her. If she could write, she’d have signed countless autographs for her legions of fans. If she could talk, she might have invited a few to share a Guinness with her.
Zenyatta was a gift from heaven, and God further blessed us by giving her to John Shirreffs. He was the perfect man for the job.
Last week, when Zenyatta was grazing behind her barn at Churchill Downs, people in cars passing by on Longfield Avenue would see the gigantic mare who stands 17 hands high, stop their vehicles, park and walk over to a chain link fence to catch a glimpse of the most popular horse to run at the home of the Twin Spires in at least 40 years.
All week long in the days leading up to Friday’s and Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup, fans would brave the morning cold to gather in the barn area and watch the 6-year-old mare walk to the track for her daily gallop while others lined the track’s outer railing to watch her gallop by.
On Sunday morning, after she’d lost the Classic but won more respect because of the way she ran, there were just as many if not more people outside the chain link fence behind Barn 41 while she grazed, wanting to get close to a race horse that has perhaps done even more than capture a nation’s heart. She may have helped save this dying industry by bringing a countless number of new fans into the sport who otherwise never would have cared.
Consider that the television ratings for the final hour of ESPN’s Breeders’ Cup coverage on Saturday, which included the Classic, were more than triple what they were last year. And as great as Goldikova is, they weren’t tuning in to see if she could win the Mile for a record third consecutive year.
Shirreffs is a fantastic horseman. As Zenyatta’s regular exercise rider Steve Willard said Sunday morning, “She couldn’t have gone into that race (Classic) any better. John had her in tip-top shape.”
He had her in tip-top shape before the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic when she beat Cocoa Beach and Ginger Punch. He had her ready to run her best race of the year last year as well, when she became the first female to win the Classic. And she ran her best race of 2010 on Saturday, running way too well to lose.
But isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? Race horses, like Super Bowl teams, should be peaking at the end of the year, and Shirreffs sure knew how to have Zenyatta peaking at the right time.
Just like he knows a thing or two about the fans and how important it was to let them get close to a horse whose personality made it easy to fall in love with her.
“It’s fantastic what Zenyatta means to the average fan,” he said in the days leading up to the Classic. “So many people come by the barn at Hollywood Park just to see her, just to have their picture taken with her. She’s just special to so many people. Even we become fans. I’m her trainer, but I’m a fan.”
Shirreffs said he realizes not every horse is as gentle and loving as Zenyatta, that it wouldn’t be possible to give fans as much access to other more aggressive horses that don’t have her gentle demeanor. John Henry comes to mind as one horse who would never have tolerated the attention Zenyatta has received from her fans.
“I think it’s important for people to come and see Zenyatta, to see a thoroughbred race horse at their best,” Shirreffs said. “To see what people breed hundreds of years for. Zenyatta represents that. Not only is she big, (but) she’s imposing, she’s alert, she’s on her toes, she’s athletic, her eyes are bright. But on the same side, suddenly she’ll flip around and she’ll be the kindest horse in the world. I think people need to see that energy to understand what people have been doing for 300 years.”
Shirreffs was reminded that a lot of trainers would not be as accommodating with even their most ordinary horses, much less the superstars of their barn.
Why does he allow it?
“Because that’s how I feel,” he said. “I want other people to share that feeling.”
Because of Shirreffs’ generosity, because owners Jerry and Ann Moss were sporting enough to let her run another year, Zenyatta is an even bigger star now than when she won the Classic last year at Santa Anita.
Yes, she lost a horse race Saturday at Churchill Downs, but she’s no less great today at 19-1 than she would have been at 20-0.
I feel blessed to have seen her run. She’s the greatest race horse and the greatest ambassador for the sport that I’ve seen in my lifetime.