God sent Zenyatta to the perfect trainer

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.

16 thoughts on “God sent Zenyatta to the perfect trainer

  1. I’ve always felt the stars and planets were in alignment on April 1, 2004!

    The racing gods said, “Let’s show them what this girl can do. She will need someone with compassion and patience, so let’s get John Shirreffs and his staff take the rein.” And it came to fruition!

    Thank you, God, for Zenyatta! XO

  2. Art,

    Your last sentence says it all.

    I have often thought how lucky Zenyatta and the fans are for Mr. Shireffs and Jerry Moss to be the people behind Zenyatta. Can immediately think of a several owner trainer combo’s in California and there would have never been Zenyatta…on the track or off.

  3. Paul Redham would have made Zenyatta’s first start in the Del Mar Debutante, no thats no right, it would have been the Del Mar Futurity. And his trainers would have said OK!! Good Idea Paul!!

  4. Thanks for the article, It captures what so many feel. I am not really a horse racing fan, but I have followed Zenyatta and want to say she is a special horse. I know horses like her don’t come around often, but if there were more people like Zenyatta’s handlers horse racing would be a lot more popular.

  5. Art, I am as touched by your article and the wonderful comments that are below it, as I was when I was invited to meet Zenyatta in ‘person’. Having Hall of Famer Ron McAnally endorse Zenyatta by stating “she’s probably, not only filly, but as good a horse as I’ve ever seen.” tells the whole story. No, he didn’t say ‘almost as good as John Henry.’ Ron McAnally is not only knowledgeable, he is one classy man! As a life long exercise rider/trainer I began telling my daughter quite awhile before her win in last years BCC the very same thing Ron said above. She is indeed the greatest thoroughbred ever foaled. If the eastern bias voters pass on voting her HOTY again this year, the once honored Eclipse Award will be forever tarnished. It might as well be discontinued as it will no longer mean a hill of beans to the true members of the racing industry.

  6. Come on guys, Shirreffs is a 13% winner this year without Zenyatta.

    If Pletcher had this horse, she would have been three-time Horse of the Year instead of no-time Horse of the Year.

  7. Nice article but I agree with Mike. She was obviously great but not challenged enough and her 19-1 record has way too many asterisks. The biggest being she never won a grade 1 race against males on dirt. That distinction within the last 30 years can only go to Rachel, Rags, Genuine Risk, Winning Colors, Serena’s Song, and Personal Ensign. Any horse that wins 19 straight times and is never HOTY (and rightfully so) should speak volumes. I still hate she lost because she ran her heart out and should’ve won. That being said, she also won some she should’ve lost and the racing gods can be cruel sometimes.

  8. God looked at the weirdly cuppy Churchill surface and said to horse racing “you call that dirt? Looks suspiciously different than a week ago. Doesn’t look like what Belmont calls dirt. Doesn’t look a thing like what Saratoga calls dirt. You’re telling me that because her humans chose not to run her back East, you doubt her worth? You’re telling me,that because she is a she,you doubt her worth? You’re telling me when you prayed for help saving your sport and I sent you her, that she did not draw thousands more to your ‘sport’? You’re telling me that because she is the most talented horse to come along in decades but doesn’t fit the criteria you deem necessary for her to receive your award, even though there is no criteria set in stone, you aren’t smart enough to change the criteria like you did last year when winner didn’t even show up for the Classic? I thought you wanted help saving horse racing but you don’t want to change anything in the good ole boys network, you want it to stay the same. To the ‘expert’ fan who thinks the gods live on East Coast with dirt floors and must beat the boys there and to the writers who think greedy breeders really do run the thing called horse racing and to the greedy breeders who wash your hands of the thousands of horses who end up slaughtered, I tell you something. I sent you the answer to your prayers and she charmed the world while proving she was the best of her species and had people who loved her and did not pump her full of drugs. I tell you, your ‘sport’ looked a literal gift horse in the mouth and said “well yeah but does she do windows’. Idiots one and all. Never should have sent her to you because she is smarter than expert fans and HOY voters all put together. She is Zenyatta and more people than you’ve seen in a long time turned out to see her run and bet on her and did not care where or what surface. I built it, they came and you blew it, experts of horse racing. You blew it.”

  9. You said it all, and wonderfully. The Zenyatta connecetions ARE a Dream Team, and Zenyatta answered a lot of our dreams.

    She should have been Horse of the Year last year when she won the Breeders Cup, and certainly she should be this year.

    She will always be horse of my heart and horse of my lifetime.

  10. No, if Todd Pletcher or D Wayne Lukas had her, they wouldn’t have given her the time to develop and she would have been a burned out has been by age 3, relegated long ago to breed. Her trainer and she are a perfect fit and the result is a wonder horse who ran into her 6th year,with her last race proving what a monster she really is.

  11. I LOVE YOUR STORY ON ZENYATTA,,,VERY INSPIRING,,,AND IM IN TOTAL AGREEMENT,,,WE NEED MORE LIKE HER AND MORE STORYS LIKE THIS ART ,,,GOD BLESS,,,,ET

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