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HORSE RACING

Zenyatta likely still on track

October 30, 2008|BILL DWYRE

On a bright Wednesday morning, well away from the gathering noise of opening day at Hollywood Park's Autumn Meeting, her majesty of horse racing held court for a small audience.

Zenyatta strolled around the barn area, munched on grass and chomped a few tree leaves. Draped across her back was the emblem of her recent success, a white saddle blanket that proclaimed its wearer to be the champion of the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic.

Among those watching were Jerry and Ann Moss, who own the nine-wins-in-nine-races 4-year-old, and Dottie Ingordo, who runs the couple's racing operations. The Mosses will make a decision soon on the future of Zenyatta, whose value as a broodmare is already beyond what value she has left as a racer, even though that remains considerable.

It quickly became clear that there was an easy decision here, that Zenyatta would race on, assuming she has suffered no ill effects of Friday's $2-million Breeders' Cup win.

"Ann and I love to see her race," Moss said. "If she's all right, we'll keep her going. She's only 4 years old."

Well, 5 years old as of Jan. 1, which will make her an unusual exception and an exceptional attraction in a sport that starts angling its stars, male and female, for the breeding shed the minute they hit the wire in their first stakes race, at whatever age.

To many in racing, the Mosses' decision is hard to understand, hard to explain, even though the considerable wealth Moss gathered as a record producer in Hollywood eases any financial pressure. Still, there are many of equal means in racing who would have made sure Zenyatta was pregnant long ago.

Off to the side, in the shadows where he has always been most comfortable, was the man who can explain the Mosses.

"They are sportsmen," he said. "It's as simple as that."

It is also simple because of him, the man in the ever-present baseball cap, a witty guy named John Shirreffs, who shuns the spotlight, but shines when he is in it.

Like he was Friday, after he had trained Zenyatta to her win and was asked in the interview room to tell about fellow trainer and media star Bob Baffert coming to his barn with a measuring stick because he didn't believe the reports of Zenyatta standing 17 hands.

"Bob came in, in his own arrogant way, and measured her," Shirreffs said, laughing, "and then had to admit it when she was taller than his Midnight Lute."

Shirreffs meant it for a laugh. The media, which mostly loves Baffert, took it that way, as most likely, did Baffert.

Only an unassuming type such as Shirreffs could pull that off. He appears to be a person so comfortable in his own skin that you fear he will nod off in mid-sentence. He grew up in the East and learned about horses on his father's farm. His father was an airline pilot.

"He trained lots of horses," Shirreffs said. "He once had a record broad-jumper horse."

Shirreffs tried three colleges, including one in Germany, where his father was transferred to fly for Lufthansa, and the result was always the same.

"I got tossed out," he said. "It was never anything bad. I just had too much fun. The school in Germany, that was right next to a vineyard, so I had no chance at that one."

He served a year in Vietnam, then came to California.

"There didn't seem to be anything in New York for me," he said, "so I headed here to surf. Drove out in a Volkswagen."

Soon, he was back to his roots, working on a farm in Northern California.

"I was out, riding in a field, and I got stuck in the mud," Shirreffs said. "Over the hill comes this guy named Jim Matthews, riding full out, dogs running alongside. It was just one of those moments. I said, wow, forget surfing. I want to be a cowboy."

Horse trainer was as close he got, and once he established himself in 1995 at Hollywood Park, he eventually wrangled an interview with the person who ran the Moss operation. He got the job in 2000, and he and Dottie Ingordo were married three years later.

Nothing much has happened since for Shirreffs, except for that Kentucky Derby thing in 2005. It was Shirreffs' first trip to the hallowed land. His horse Giacomo, owned by the Mosses, went off at 50-1. The rest is history.

When Shirreffs had finished telling the media who he was and charming them along the way, he had a moment to put the winning of a Kentucky Derby into perspective.

"It was like going to the best party ever in your life," he said, "and then having everybody there like you too."

Giacomo is retired, so Zenyatta and 4-year-old Tiago, third in Saturday's Breeders' Cup Classic, get much of Shirreffs' attention in his stable of about 50 horses. Another prospect, maybe even a Derby horse, the Mosses' 2-year-old Galayo, attempted to break his maiden Wednesday at Hollywood Park, but trailed a beaten fourth.

Galayo's name, despite Wednesday's showing, may be worth remembering if he is around that first Saturday in May. Especially when he is led around by a guy in a baseball cap and is going off at 50-1.

--

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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