With Rachel Alexandra taking the rest of the year off, Zenyatta is now the unanimous first lady of horse racing. Maybe she would be anyway. Now, we will never know.
When the monster mare from trainer John Shirreffs' barn went to the gate at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting Saturday in the $300,000 Grade I Lady's Secret, there was much at stake. There was also minimal drama as to the outcome.
Just before the gate opened, there was nearly $190,000 bet on track for Zenyatta to win. Next closest was Coco Beach, with $35,000. The people making the bets knew what they were doing, but then Zenyatta has given them plenty of history from which to draw.
When the 1,217-pound Zenyatta turned for home and separated herself from the rest of the field -- "It took about four jumps," jockey Mike Smith said -- the seven other entrants became also-rans. That's nothing new. In Zenyatta's previous 12 races, the others have ended up the same way. Her 13-0 record now matches the milestone of the legendary mare Personal Ensign, achieved 20 years ago.
Zenyatta is the Wonder Woman of racing, a champ who also is a lady.
"She's the sweetest horse you can imagine," Shirreffs said. "She'll lick her groom. You can lie down next to her in her stall and she'd be fine with it. She could be your pillow."
Her victory in the 1 1/16 -mile race, by a length and a quarter over Lethal Heat, thrilled a crowd of 20,329, which was 14% higher than last year's 17,789. Her jog home to the victory circle prompted a grand outpouring of cheers, and owner Jerry Moss, a longtime record-industry executive, had a special appreciation for that.
"I like applause," Moss said. "That's my old business. And now it is here in my new business."
Zenyatta's victory also left a lot of racing executives in suits and ties breathing more easily. Oak Tree and Santa Anita will be the host for the Nov. 6-7 Breeders' Cup, and big names and story lines sell tickets. Zenyatta is certainly a big name. Also a big story line.
She has never competed against male horses and seems as physically and emotionally equipped as any filly or mare in many years to do so. Which means the Mosses (Jerry and his wife, Ann) and the Shirreffses (John and his wife and stable manager, Dottie) have a big decision ahead. It now becomes the buzz leading into the Breeders' Cup.
Will they run Zenyatta in Friday's Ladies Classic, which she won last year? Or will they take on the boys in Saturday's Breeders' Cup Classic? Friday's race is worth $2 million, Saturday's $5 million. Most likely, that money differential will mean little in the decision.
"We'll take our time, get together, see what the fields are in both races," said Shirreffs, who is, if nothing else, always careful and deliberate.
The suspense, of course, will play nicely for Breeders' Cup officials. Expect many "Will She Or Won't She?" headlines in the next few weeks. Expect that anticipation to sell lots of tickets.
Greg Avioli, president and chief executive of the Breeders' Cup, watched from near the finish line and said before the race, "This sport needs as many superstars as it can find."
Minutes later, a superstar cruised by and Avioli's smile was as wide as the gap between Zenyatta and second place.
The other story line, an even more fascinating one, had been eliminated weeks ago. The other fabulous female of this racing season, Preakness winner Rachel Alexandra, was never going to run in the Breeders' Cup because her owner, Jess Jackson, and her trainer, Steve Asmussen, dislike Santa Anita's synthetic surface. Then, earlier this week, Jackson announced that Rachel Alexandra would be rested for the remainder of the year.
In an admirable nod to racing's need, Jackson will race Rachel as a 4-year-old rather than succumb to the normal financial bonanza of breeding a Triple Crown race winner as a 4-year-old.
But by next year, Zenyatta will have turned 6 and, almost certainly, will be retired from racing.
So Rachel Alexandra versus Zenyatta won't happen, in any form or any arena. Sad, but a fact of life in horse racing.
"It's a shame they won't meet," Moss said, "but I admire the campaign Jess Jackson has run with Rachel and I congratulate him on that."
So, instead of Zenyatta versus Rachel, the drama will be on Zenyatta versus the boys. And though the Mosses and the Shirreffses are being understandably noncommittal, there seems little question where Hall of Fame jockey Smith stands.
"Ability-wise," he said, "she can run with anyone, any time, anywhere."