Unbeaten in 19 races, Zenyatta has established a winning streak unrivaled in American racing. With a victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic, she will cement her legacy as the greatest female thoroughbred ever
This is an article from the Nov. 1, 2010 issue
Most days the old racetrack stands like a museum piece, its grandstand a 61-year-old battleship-sized, pale-green monument to a bygone era, surrounded by endless acres of empty asphalt, adjacent to a neon casino where the desperate and the dreamers shuffle from sunlight into darkness. Inside Hollywood Park, small crowds rattle around in the grandstand and the only real noise comes from the airplanes taking off at nearby LAX. Seabiscuit and Swaps once ran here. Bill Shoemaker and Laffit Pincay took a leg up. Movie stars watched in splendor. Those days are gone, written into a grand history that fades with each passing year.
But on the first Saturday in October, Hollywood Park has risen from the dead because today Zenyatta runs. Valet parking attendants scurry about with fists full of dollars. Long lines form at the turnstiles, and employees consult one another in a giddy improv, trying to service the outsized crowd of 25,837—the likes of which they seldom see. Little girls hold their mothers' hands and carry pink signs praising a 6-year-old queen who has never lost. It is 2010 but feels like 1948. Many horses run fast, but precious few can travel through time.
Late in the afternoon, under a falling autumn sun, Zenyatta walks onto the track and performs her prerace ritual, her pawing at the ground the equine equivalent of LeBron's flinging talc into the air. Most people can scarcely tell a thoroughbred from a carnival pony, but Zenyatta's greatness fairly bursts from the skin beneath her coat. She towers over her four opponents, who look as if they could be her foals. Her chest is dense with muscles. When fans cry for her to look their way, she turns briefly and then dances for them. Her jockey, Mike Smith, says that at this moment Zenyatta is "almost humanlike." This is her stage.
In the race, the Lady's Secret Stakes, she falls behind early, then stays there for what seems far too long. A game and talented 3-year-old filly named Switch takes a wide lead in the middle of the homestretch, and there's no way Zenyatta can run her down. Yet she does, as she always does. "When she moves," says Smith after the race, shaking his head, "it's just different from any other horse. She's so powerful, but agile, like a gazelle." It is her 19th consecutive victory, the longest streak in modern racing by a horse competing at the highest level. Afterward fans hang over the railings and fences that frame the winner's circle, again beseeching Zenyatta to look in their direction, shouting plaintively. Standing nearby, screenwriter David Israel, a member of the California Horse Racing Board, looks at the crowd and says, "She has saved racing here for the last two years."
Since Zenyatta's first start, on Thanksgiving Day 2007, she has beaten 112 horses, each time unfurling her 17-hands-plus frame in a finishing rush from far off the pace. In 2008 she won the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic and was named champion older female horse; last year she became the first female to win the Breeders' Cup Classic—as well as the first horse to win two different Breeders' Cup races—beating the best male horses in the world. Again she was named champion older female but finished second in the Horse of the Year voting to the brilliant 3-year-old filly Rachel Alexandra, who bested the boys three times, in the Preakness, the Haskell and the Woodward. The argument over who was most deserving of end-of-year honors splintered the racing community.
There is one more race to run. On Nov. 6 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Zenyatta will again enter the Breeders' Cup Classic against the finest male horses on earth. "She already deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as any great horse in history," says Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey. No argument. And with another victory in the Classic—only Tiznow, in 2000 and '01, won it twice—Zenyatta would have an almost airtight case as the greatest female ever. Ruffian won all 10 of her starts against females before she was tragically injured and destroyed in a 1974 match race against Kentucky Derby--winning colt Foolish Pleasure. The sport's other first ladies (Winning Colors, Lady's Secret and Personal Ensign) all beat males, but not at the level of consecutive runnings of the Breeders' Cup Classic. Rachel Alexandra was brilliant only as a 3-year-old. And none of them ever won 20 in a row.
But the story of Zenyatta is about more than her place in history, more than the boost she has given a flagging sport. It is about family and friends; patience, trust and love; and the curious turns of the racing game. It starts with the music man, nearly half a century ago.
In 1962 musician Herb Alpert and music promoter Jerry Moss, both 27 and looking for traction in life and business, scraped together $200 between them and started a recording company in Alpert's Los Angeles garage. That venture would become A&M Records, which launched many of the best-selling music acts of the 1960s, '70s and '80s. In the Zenyatta story Moss is the music man. He lived a fantastic life that now, at age 75 (and we should all look so good at 75), he is loath to re-create. "There were a lot of great days," he says, sitting with his wife, Ann, in the living room of his L.A. house, where saddlecloths from Zenyatta's victories are draped over the second-floor brass banister, a touching, hardbooted contrast to their opulent surroundings. "I won't bore you with the stories."
He consents to describe one of those days: Aug. 17, 1969. Woodstock. A few years earlier Moss had signed a deal with 25-year-old British rocker Joe Cocker. "I thought," Moss recalls, "that Joe sounded like the future." Moss drove to a Catskills resort with lawyer Abe Somer, a friend and associate, and the two of them helicoptered into the festival with British producer Denny Cordell. "The helicopter took us right to the back of the stage. At 4:30 in the afternoon, we're onstage with Joe. There was this enormous cloud approaching, but there was no way I was going to leave. It was so amazing to see half a million people responding to the music of a guy that I just loved so much. It started to pour at the end of Joe's set, and we wound up in a caravan with a bunch of kids from San Francisco, and Denny is falling in love with this girl and reciting poetry. Then the rain stopped; we found Joe and we walked up the hill, and there's the helicopter. By dinnertime we're back at the hotel." And that was just another day.
Moss started in the racing game in 1970 and nine years later he met Ann Holbrook, then a New York City--based fashion and cosmetics model, at the wrap party for the pilot of what became the long-running TV series Hart to Hart. They wed in '83 and have since been partners not just in life but in the ownership of their horses. They were successful at the track, winning the '90 Santa Anita Handicap with Ruhlmann and the '94 Kentucky Oaks with Sardula, among many others.
In 2000 they sought a trainer capable of developing young horses. They put their racing manager, Dottie Ingordo, on the case. Ingordo was the widow of Jerry Ingordo, a California jockeys' agent (one of his clients was the gifted and often troubled Pat Valenzuela) who had died in 1998. Their son, David, had noticed a trainer named John Shirreffs, who worked tirelessly for Marshall Naify's 505 Farms, and when Naify died in 2000, David recommended Shirreffs to his mother. Dottie not only hired Shirreffs (with the Mosses' consent), but in 2003 she also married him. David Ingordo, a bloodstock agent who buys and breeds horses for various owners, tells friends that introducing his mother to Shirreffs was "his best breeding ever."
Shirreffs, 65, was raised on Long Island and in New Hampshire, the son of an airline pilot. He says he was thrown out of two colleges for "mischief," enlisted in the Marines and in 1968 went to Vietnam. "Here I am just taking up space, and I see what other people are doing for their country," recalls Shirreffs. "I decided it was time to do something about that."
Upon returning home after a 13-month tour with Marine Aircraft Group 12 in Chu Lai, Shirreffs plotted a surfing trip to Hawaii, but he made it only to California. Like Moss he has fond memories of a muddy field. "I was riding a horse and got stuck in a mud bog in the middle of this meadow," says Shirreffs. "A guy was watching, and he asked if I was interested in helping break some young horses." That guy was named Henry Freitas, and he gave Shirreffs a job. It was not lucrative; for a long stretch in the late '70s, Shirreffs slept on a cot in the shedrow of a horse barn and kept his clothes in a car. He worked as an assistant to several trainers, climbing and learning, until Naify hired him as his trainer in '94.
Together Team Moss—Jerry and Ann, with John, Dottie and David—won the Kentucky Derby in 2005 with 50--1 long shot closer Giacomo (named for the son of Police front man Sting, an A&M artist and friend of the Mosses). Four months later the five of them went to Lexington, Ky., to buy some new horses at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale. In Barn 28 was a tall filly listed in the sale catalog as Hip No. 703. She was from the very first crop of foals sired by 6-year-old stallion Street Cry and out of Vertigineux, a 10-year-old broodmare. Here, too, there is a story.
In 1979, New York City lawyer Eric Kronfeld (who had negotiated music-industry deals with Jerry Moss) bought a filly at the Saratoga yearling sales and named her For The Flag. She was injured in training and retired at age 3 after just one race. Kronfeld eventually sent her to a stallion named Kris S, and the resulting foal was named Vertigineux. "Beautiful horse," says Kronfeld, "but the most awful ankles you've ever seen." In 2003, Vertigineux's fourth season as a broodmare, Kronfeld bred her to Street Cry, the winner the year before of the Dubai World Cup and the Stephen Foster Handicap, who was then in his rookie season at stud.
"If you are insanely wealthy, you can go to a top, proven stallion," says Kronfeld. "A.P. Indy, at the time, was standing for [several hundred thousand dollars] with no guarantee of a live foal. Vertigineux had experienced trouble carrying a foal to term. I could not risk half a million dollars. I loved Street Cry as a racehorse, and he was standing for $35,000." (One year later Street Cry would sire 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense and now stands for a stud fee of $150,000.)
On April Fool's Day 2004, Vertigineux dropped a dark-bay baby on the ground at Winter Quarter Farm in Lexington. This was the horse that Team Moss saw in Barn 28 at Keeneland, a gangly child with a terrible skin rash. "She was rangy, but very well-balanced," says David Ingordo. Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs already loved Kris S, Vertigineux's papa, as a broodmare sire. And when the Mosses visited, the baby laid her head on Ann's shoulder, sealing the deal. Because of the rash and because of the likelihood that her lanky frame would prevent her from racing as a 2-year-old, Jerry and Ann got the yearling for the bargain-basement price of $60,000. (At the same sale the Mosses bought another filly for $625,000.)
The as-yet-unnamed bay was sent to Mayberry Farm in Ocala, Fla. The farm's owner is Jeanne Mayberry, 67, a racetrack lifer whose husband, trainer Brian Mayberry, died of cancer in 1998 at age 60. Two years later Jeanne packed her life's belongings and her two dogs into an Acura sedan, moved to Florida and purchased a 13-acre farm. "I had to buy a tractor," she says. "I read the manual and then marked all the handles with nail polish." With her daughters, April and Summer, she built a steady business breaking young horses and readying them for the racetrack. The Mosses, who had employed Brian as a trainer, sent her horses every year.
On the farm they called the rangy filly the Big Girl. One day in February 2006, Jeanne brought her 2-year-olds across the street to the dirt training track at Plumley Farm. She instructed the riders to take the babies down the stretch and around the turn. "The Big Girl was behind them, and then, oh, my God, she went right around them," says Mayberry. "I called David and told him, 'You've either got one really good horse or a lot of bad ones. And you need a name for the good one.'"
The Mosses had used names inspired by the Police before; not just Giacomo, but also Set Them Free and Styler (the surname of Sting's wife, Trudie). This time they seized on the title of the band's third album: Zenyatt√† Mondatta, whose meaning has never been fully explained. Why Zenyatta? "Street Cry, rock and roll, Zenyatta," says the Music Man, as if it were perfectly logical. "There's also a Mondatta. She never got to the races."
Zenyatta arrived at John Shirreffs's barn at Hollywood in May 2006, and then he waited. And waited some more. She did not race that year as a 2-year-old and did not race for a long time as a 3-year-old. "What a tribute to John that he gave her time," says Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. "And what a tribute to Jerry Moss that he let John wait."
Zenyatta grew rapidly. "Her legs weren't ready to take care of that body," says Shirreffs. "We stopped and started on her. Puffy ankles, soreness here and there. She was asking me to take my time. If you compromise a horse when she's young, you'll never see her full talents." One day during the wait, Pat Valenzuela visited Shirreffs at the barn and the trainer took him to see Zenyatta. A fan of all sports, Shirreffs said to Valenzuela, "This is my Michael Jordan if I can get her right."
She finally went to the post on that Thanksgiving Day in 2007, in a 6½-furlong maiden sprint that was probably too short for a long-striding filly. Smith, who had been Giacomo's regular rider and was Zenyatta's presumptive mount, left town that day to ride a filly named Tessa Blue in Kentucky. He watched on television at Churchill Downs as Hollywood's track announcer, Vic Stauffer, saw rider David Flores bringing Zenyatta home and intoned, "Carmel Coffee has the lead, but you better take a look at Zenyatta!" She won by three lengths.
At the time Smith was 42. He had been a brilliant young jockey, winning a riding title on the fiercely competitive New York circuit at 26 and his first Eclipse Award as the nation's best jock at 28. But in 1998 he had been unseated in a bad spill at Saratoga, landing on the track in a sitting position and shattering the T12 and L3 vertebrae in his back. Smith made a successful return after eight months of recuperation, but he knew he was entering the final stages of his career. Zenyatta might be his last chance for a great mount, but Flores would keep her as long as she kept winning.
Smith has the body of a gymnast, but also a lump right at T12 in the middle of his back, where there is always pain. Zenyatta won three straight for Flores, but on April 5, 2008, with Zenyatta entered in the Apple Blossom Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., Flores stayed home to ride potential Kentucky Derby contender El Gato Malo in the Santa Anita Derby.
"Ran fourth," says Flores. "It's part of the game."
In Arkansas, Smith rode Zenyatta to a going-away 4½-length trouncing of reigning champion older female Ginger Punch, and he has been on her back for each of her subsequent wins, including both Breeders' Cup victories. "She's not even a once-in-a-lifetime horse," says Smith. "She's a once-in-several-lifetimes horse. You just don't see a horse like this. Maybe Secretariat or something."
When Zenyatta was four, Moss was inundated with offers to sell her. The bidding reached $5 million, and then, as Moss recalls, "people just started saying, 'What will it take?'" There was no number. "We're here on this earth for a certain amount of time," says Moss. "You sell her, and then you've got a bundle of money but no horse."
Now they have not just any horse, but a transcendent one. "She has a deep heart girth," says Shirreffs, "which indicates plenty of room for lung in her rib cage. But her chest isn't broad, which would inhibit her stride by putting her forelegs farther apart. Behind, she's very strong, when often a horse of her [height] would be narrow in back. The combination, her front and her back, it's amazing. And her heart, who knows how big her heart is. Whatever it is physically, it's huge metaphysically." Zenyatta is also uncommonly sweet at rest; Shirreffs allows fans to visit her almost without restriction.
While Zenyatta lags early in every race, she finishes explosively. This is her gift as an athlete, and Shirreffs trains her accordingly. In her workouts Zenyatta starts alone, with a "target" stablemate down the track whom she can pursue and pass before reaching the wire. "One of Mr. Moss's biggest frustrations," says Shirreffs, "is that I've used up a lot of nice horses in the morning working against her. Some of them just don't want to run as much after they've trained with her."
Yet as good as Zenyatta is in the morning, she is better in the afternoons when she races. She was hopelessly beaten in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic, trailing leader Regal Ransom by more than a dozen lengths. Yet she won by daylight. In last month's Lady's Secret she ran the last 16th of a mile in just a little more five seconds, which is sprint speed—astonishing at the end of a race, when most horses are slowing. "We only see that gear in the afternoon," says Shirreffs. As a bonus, her style has also helped preserve her health, since she asks the most of her body for only a small portion of her races.
Seventeen of her 19 victories, including both Breeders' Cup wins, have come on the synthetic surfaces at three California tracks (Hollywood, Santa Anita and Del Mar) a fact used to diminish her place in history—some horsemen loathe synthetic racing surfaces, calling them inconsistent and blaming them for making good horses look bad. This year's Breeders' Cup is on dirt. Zenyatta has won impressively twice on the dirt at Oaklawn Park and trains frequently on Hollywood's dirt training track. "She's looked great at Oaklawn," says Lukas. "People that look at [her success on synthetics] as a chink in the armor had better look elsewhere. I think she'll love Churchill, especially with that long stretch."
From a strategic standpoint, Shirreffs says, "I just don't know how far somebody would have to be in front for her not to catch them. I just don't know."
It is remarkable that Zenyatta has continued to run, long past the age when most great horses are sent to the breeding shed. Moss announced last year after the Breeders' Cup that she was being retired, but he had not consulted with his wife or with Shirreffs. Zenyatta quickly showed them all that she was not ready for a broodmare paddock in Kentucky, bouncing around her barn so energetically that Shirreffs had to train her just to take the edge off. "I don't think any of us were ready to see her go," he says. "And she wasn't ready to go, either." (Even now, Moss won't commit to retiring Zenyatta after the Breeders' Cup.)
Zenyatta ran four races this year in California against modest competition, and also returned to Arkansas to again win the Apple Blossom, where Rachel Alexandra was absent after being scheduled to meet her. (Rachel, who won only two of her five starts this year, was subsequently retired.) The soft schedule has been criticized, but Zenyatta's detractors will fall silent if she wins in Kentucky. Her sport struggles, and she cannot restore it to the age of Citation. But she can help evoke it. On a recent morning she grazed behind her barn at Hollywood, docile as a house cat. Two visitors to the backstretch wandered past and stroked her forehead, touching history.