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A Classic finish for Zenyatta

The undefeated mare comes from the back of the pack to beat the boys for her 14th consecutive victory.

November 08, 2009|BILL DWYRE

These kinds of stories happen only in the movies. Hollywood can create the drama, the unbelievable ending, even the tears.

Zenyatta doesn't need Hollywood. She produces her own show. She is, as her jockey Mike Smith, says, "a racehorse sent from heaven."

On a day that racing will cherish for a long time, a historic moment that may sustain, even boost, a struggling industry for years to come, Zenyatta beat the boys.

Oh my, did she.

She won the $5-million Breeders' Cup Classic, a male domain for all of its previous 25 years. The best female finish in this one had been a third place in 1992. Fillies and mares seldom even enter.

No matter to Zenyatta.

Saturday at Santa Anita, before an impressive crowd of 58,845, she both stunned and thrilled the racing world, maybe even parts of the general sports world that were paying attention. She beat the boys by a length. She overcame a distracting delay at the starting gate, a horrible start and a huge deficit with a half mile to go. In front of her were this year's Kentucky Derby winner, Belmont winner and Santa Anita Handicap winner.

Didn't matter to Zenyatta. See ya.

Smith closed the gap coming around the final turn, searched frantically for a space between horses in front of him, found a crack and let her go. As she gobbled up ground and passed horses as only she can, grown men yelled themselves hoarse and jumped and hugged like 10-year-olds. Those who live and breathe this sport and fear for its future looked heavenward.

The venerable Great Race Place rocked and rolled. The thousands of signs scattered about the crowd -- "Girl Power," "Maneater," "Rachel Who?" -- bounced up and down in a sea of unrestrained joy. Zenyatta not only won one for the underdogs, but did wonders for female pride. This was not Billie Jean King beating a creaky old Bobby Riggs. This was Billie Jean beating Roger Federer.

Zenyatta had won all 13 of her previous starts and was bigger by at least 100 pounds than any of the males she faced Saturday. But the doubters were in abundance. In this kind of racing, at this level, the girls don't beat the boys. USA Today had 14 people handicap the race. None picked Zenyatta.

But when it happened, when the drama was right there for all to see, and feel, it was such a stunning display of athletic excellence that people began searching for comparable moments. Was it Kirk Gibson hitting his homer, or Doug Flutie throwing his Hail Mary, or Secretariat hitting the wire 31 lengths ahead? If it felt that way, might it be?

Zenyatta has the star quality that anoints her one for the ages. Before the race, she walked out of the saddling area and stopped dead at the entrance to the paddock walking ring. Her ears perked up. Her public was there and she knew it. They wanted a close-up. So she posed, patiently, as cameras clicked and mothers hugged daughters in excitement.

She walked the paddock track in an area so packed it resembled the aftermath of a college football game after a big upset. People just wanted to see her, to get close. This was to be her last dance, literally and figuratively, and she didn't disappoint. She did a few little steps before letting Smith climb aboard and heading off to stomp some testosterone.

At the gate, Quality Road wanted no part of this race, refused to go in and broke through when forced in. That brought a nearly 10-minute delay as Quality Road was examined, scratched and the 12 other horses unloaded and reloaded.

When the gate opened, Zenyatta seemed not to notice. She broke lackadaisically, and was on an uncharacteristic left lead. It took Smith several furlongs just to settle her down, get her on the right lead until the first turn and figure out how he was going to unravel from this mess. Few others could have. This combination of Hall of Fame jockey and superstar horse got it done.

"That takes an incredible, incredible horse," Smith said.

When it was over, she did what she has done for all 14 of her races. She waited while the other horses returned and jockeys dismounted, then she jogged past the grandstand as the crowd applauded, screamed, waved and cried. Her trainer, John Shirreffs, a man of few words, great insight and even greater restraint, was so excited he went to greet her without his ever-present baseball cap. John Shirreffs has hair. Who knew?

The public-address announcer welcomed the great lady: "Ladies and gentlemen. The undefeated, and incomparable, Zenyatta." For once in sports, the hyperbole was deserved.

Then, Zenyatta went to where she always has after a race. The winners' circle.

The press post-mortem addressed the obvious issues.

Jerry Moss, the Hollywood record producer who owns Zenyatta, along with his wife, Ann, said this probably would be the end for the 5-year-old mare.

"I think she deserves now to go out with her record intact," Moss said.

Smith was asked about whether Zenyatta would beat the other super filly, Rachel Alexandra, who didn't race here because her handlers dislike synthetic tracks.

"I'm not going to go out and say I'm going to beat her," Smith said. "But I would have given anything to run against her."

The horse-of-the-year issue was kicked around. Rachel Alexandra has been the projected winner, but Saturday's race certainly turned the heads of at least a few media voters. Not known at the time to Zenyatta's team is that Santa Anita is planning an ad campaign, starting soon, to trumpet her candidacy.

Unintentionally, Moss might have given them the slogan for that ad campaign, while tossing a jab toward the people making the decisions on Rachel Alexandra.

Of Zenyatta, Moss said, "She beat whoever showed up."


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