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Zenyatta wants to run, and she will again

After spectacular Breeders' Cup Classic victory, owners will bring back the unbeaten mare to race as a 5-year-old

January 17, 2010|Bill Dwyre

If the marvelous mare Zenyatta were Michael Jordan, she would have sauntered onto the track at Santa Anita wearing a sign that read: "I'M BACK!"

In horse racing, it's that big. On Saturday, a star was reborn.

The announcement that Zenyatta would race again, as a 6-year-old, was much less ostentatious than that. Early Saturday afternoon, word circulated that Zenyatta owners Jerry and Ann Moss were in attendance and had something to say. The parade of reporters began and, one by one, the Mosses revealed what they had decided.

Zenyatta would run again. Their previous announcement of her retirement had been logical, heartfelt.

But they had changed their minds.

"When she won the Breeders' Cup Classic," Jerry Moss said, "the retirement scenario seemed obvious. If you were writing a movie, that is how you'd end it."

The murmurs of this reversal had begun just weeks after Zenyatta had beaten the male horses in the $5-million Classic at Santa Anita on Nov. 7. She ran her usual hang-around-at-the-back-of-the-pack race and exploded down the stretch to win. It was a performance that both stunned and thrilled racing fans.

It had been so Seabiscuit, so Silky Sullivan, that people who didn't know a horse race from a dog sled were still talking about it around the water cooler the next week. Mainstream sports fans saw and were conquered, at least for the moment.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Assn. took a recent poll, in conjunction with the upcoming Eclipse Awards, and the winner of the moment of the year in racing was that Zenyatta stretch run. It was an easy choice. For many who were there, the goose bumps remain.

But Jerry Moss had said at the post-race news conference that there would be no more, that Zenyatta had done everything asked of her, had raced 14 times and won all 14. So that was that, even though Zenyatta continued to work at Hollywood Park -- real works, not just jogs to take off the edge.

Pressed on the subject at Santa Anita's opening day Dec. 26, Moss stuck with the retirement plan. "It's the right thing to do," he said then.

Saturday, he said, "This is 2010. A new year, different year.

"Ann and I were up till maybe 3 in the morning, talking about it. Then we went over to Hollywood Park this morning to see her jog. We do that on occasion. She looked fantastic, radiant. We started to wonder, what are we doing? She looks fine, great. We like to see her run. We are fans. And she loves her job."

So they talked to John Shirreffs, Zenyatta's trainer, and Shirreffs' wife, Dottie Ingordo, who runs Shirreffs' stable.

"We wanted to make sure John thought she was OK," Moss said.

Shirreffs took the scenario under advisement. For 10 seconds.

"I couldn't just jog her anymore," he said. "She wanted to run."

The Eclipse Awards, featuring the much-anticipated announcement of horse of the year, will be Monday night in Beverly Hills. It is a two-horse race: Zenyatta or Preakness winner Rachel Alexandra, who will race as a 4-year-old filly.

Moss rejected the idea that his announcement Saturday was somehow preemptive to an announcement that Rachel Alexandra was the winner. A Breeders' Cup official said Saturday that Moss did not, and could not, know the results of the voting.

"We are not reacting to anything," Moss said. "Zenyatta will run this year as the horse of year, or as not horse of the year."

They made the announcement over the Santa Anita public address system at 2 p.m. Mike Smith, who has made large sums of money by pointing Zenyatta in the direction of the finish line and hanging on, walked into the jockeys' room around that time and heard it on TV.

"Unbelievable," he said. "I'm in total shock. I can't stop smiling."

He said he had been to Hollywood Park earlier Saturday, and visited her. He said he has done that frequently since they both rode into history with the unprecedented victory over male horses in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

"I walked her a couple of times," Smith said. "She dragged me around the ring. She just wanted to run."

And so she will.

The specifics are to be determined. Sherriffs said that the March 6 Santa Anita Handicap was a possibility. The April 3 Apple Blossom in Arkansas is too. Sherriffs said no to the possibility of the Dubai Classic on March 27, even though that is now a $10-million race. Too far to ship her, he said.

And, of course, the possibility of Zenyatta getting into the same starting gate as Rachel Alexandra sometime, somewhere in 2010 will create buzz for horse racing all year.

There was good racing Saturday, but all took a backseat to Zenyatta.

Trainer Bob Baffert, who gets upstaged about every 10 years, showcased a nice 3-year-old in the $100,000 Grade III San Rafael. Conveyance went to 3-0 by regaining the lead in the stretch and holding it. He will be one of Baffert's Kentucky Derby possibilities. He currently has 13.

Papa Clem, the 4-year-old named for racing legend Clement Hirsch and a fourth-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby, held on down the stretch to win the $150,000 Grade II San Fernando.

The most fitting finish, in yet another Ladies Day for horse racing at Santa Anita, was in the $150,000 Grade II Santa Ynez for 3-year-old fillies. It was won by female rider Chantal Sutherland, whose horse's name best captured the feeling of racing fans everywhere, upon hearing that Zenyatta was back.

Amen Hallelujah.

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