It was supposed to be our final and lasting memory of Zenyatta on a racetrack, her dramatic last-to-first sweep in the stretch to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita 52 weeks ago.
A retirement ceremony was held at Hollywood Park a few weeks later. Then after a morning workout, all plans changed.
Owner Jerry Moss and trainer John Shirreffs saw there was still plenty left in the tank. They still saw a competitive fire in the mare. So they unretired her, an early Christmas gift to horse racing and its fans.
She was undefeated in 14 starts at the time. She has since added five more to that total. And now she once again comes to the Classic, looking to beat the strongest field she has ever faced in what surely will now be the final race of her career.
This Breeders’ Cup, to be held Friday and Saturday at Churchill Downs, is full of storylines. Midday tries to repeat in the Filly and Mare Turf. Blind Luck tries to cap a sensational three-year-old season in the Ladies Classic. Two-year-old sensation Uncle Mo tries to complete a championship season in the Juvenile. And of course French superstar Goldikova tries for an unprecedented three-peat in the Mile. Adding to that, English Derby and Arc de Triomphe winner Workforce is entered in the $3 million Turf, though his connections are a little concerned about the hardness of the turf and may not run him.
But Zenyatta’s story towers above them all. Not only does the crowd in the grandstand swell when she runs, but the attention even during a morning workout this week has pleased her trainer.
“I love seeing all the people come out to see her,” Shirreffs told Breeders’ Cup Ltd. “I think that’s what makes her so special and how she will be remembered. Everyone that sees her becomes a fan. We’ve all become her fans.”
The $5 million Classic will be about Zenyatta’s place in horse racing history. Retiring 19-for-20 is still a great feat, no doubt. And she will already arguably be regarded as the greatest female horse in racing history. But retiring undefeated, especially after a 20-race career, that’s one of those feats that may well stand for all time.
Now the question is, how does she get there? Even though the majority of her career has been spent on the syntheic tracks of California, Zenyatta has run on conventional dirt twice, in two of the past three renewals of the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park. But she didn’t face even close to the quality she will face in the Classic.
Her competition on Saturday will include Blame, the winner of the Whitney and Stephen Foster Handicaps, Preakness and Haskell winner Lookin at Lucky, Quality Road, a triple Grade 1 winner this year, and Haynesfield, who comes off a smashing Jockey Club Gold Cup win.
One thing that might work in Zenyatta’s advantage at Churchill Downs is that the track boasts one of the longest stretch runs in North America. Zenyatta has done much of her work on the shorter stretches of Hollywood Park and Santa Anita so with more room to work with, we could see another gear in the big, long-striding mare that she has not had to show before.
The novelty of this year’s Cup is that some of the races, including thc Classic, will be run at night, thanks to Churchill’s newly-installed floodlights. It’s how Zenyatta fares under those lights that will determine the legacy of the 27th Breeders’ Cup.