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Zenyatta will get a real test on Friday

Unbeaten filly takes on a strong field in the $2-million Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic.

October 20, 2008|Eric Sondheimer | Times Staff Writer

The first signs of Zenyatta's freakish abilities as a racehorse were detected on a farm in Ocala, Fla., around Thanksgiving 2005.

David Ingordo, the bloodstock agent who helped pick out Zenyatta at the September Keeneland yearling sale, received an urgent phone call from the trainer breaking her in.

"You better come down to Florida," Jeanie Mayberry told him.

"I thought something was wrong," Ingordo recalled. "She said, 'No, you got to see this Street Cry filly. She takes one stride and everyone else is taking three.' "

It took two more years before Zenyatta ran in her first race in November 2007, and she hasn't lost yet.

Zenyatta, a gigantic 4-year-old who stands more than 17 hands tall, has become the top filly in America, winning all eight of her starts.

But Zenyatta will have her biggest test yet in Friday's $2-million Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic at 1 1/8 miles at Santa Anita. She's one of the favorites of the highlight race on the first of a two-day Breeders' Cup extravaganza that features 14 races and $25.5 million in purses.

Trainer John Shirreffs, the man credited with bringing out the best in Zenyatta, has patiently guided her, understanding from the beginning the special kind of horse that owners Jerry and Ann Moss were fortunate enough to purchase for $60,000.

Consider that a half brother to Zenyatta was sold this year for $1.15 million.

"What's amazing is how her stride lengthens during a race and she continually improves," Shirreffs said.

Zenyatta was bought rather cheaply because she was from the first foals of Street Cry, whose stud fee has gone from $30,000 to $100,000. Zenyatta was also suffering from a skin disease.

"Her coat was a little blotchy," Ingordo said. "It's absolutely not a big deal. What probably hurt her is that there were 5,000 horses at the sale, and people are looking for a reason not to buy. It gives them a reason."

But Jerry Moss was prepared to bid higher.

"She was imposing," he said. "This filly passed all the tests. She was somebody we were interested in and liked."

And what a horse she has become, winning six consecutive stakes, including three Grade I events, and showing off a stride so powerful and stunning that her jockey, Mike Smith, says, "She leaves me speechless. She just seems to be sent from heaven."

Ingordo compares her to top athletes.

"How does Tiger Woods do what he does?" he said. "How does Michael Jordan jump through the air like there's no gravity? They have a genetic gift nobody else has. She's in the same league."

Zenyatta started attracting national attention in April when she ran down Ginger Punch, last year's Eclipse Award-winning older mare, in the Grade I Apple Blossom at 1 1/16 miles at Oaklawn Park. Last month at Santa Anita, Zenyatta defeated another top mare, Hystericalady, in the Grade I Lady's Secret Stakes. Both will take another crack at Zenyatta in Friday's Ladies' Classic.

"The writers keep saying she's never been really tested, so we don't know how good she is," Moss said. "I feel she's going to have to do everything she can to win."

It will be the smallest field among the 14 Breeders' Cup races, with only seven challengers to Zenyatta, but they are all quality horses, including the 3-year-old filly Music Note, a winner of three Grade I races this year.

Moss won the 2005 Kentucky Derby with Giacomo, a thrill he says tops everything he has experienced in 30 years in the racing business.

But seeing Zenyatta come down the stretch in full stride is something that gives him an adrenaline rush hard to duplicate.

"I've never seen anything like it," he said.

"She just has the ability to make up a lot of ground with a couple of strides. It's quite amazing."

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eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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BREEDERS' CUP

* Friday: 12:30 p.m., ESPN2

* Saturday: 10 a.m., Ch. 7;

12:30 p.m., ESPN

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