By Peter Lee
In 2009, the 4-year-old filly Zenyatta was riding a wave of publicity and popularity unseen since Cigar won 16 straight races in the nineties. She was 13 for 13 in races and had won the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic in 2008. Her trainer, John Shirreffs, decided to enter her in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic to see how she would fare against the colts.
She was attempting to become the first female horse in Breeders’ Cup history to win the Classic. Her competition included Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, Belmont winner Summer Bird, Irish standout Rip Van Winkle, Santa Anita Handicap winner Einstein and turf champion Gio Ponti.
Zenyatta was a huge horse, standing over 17 hands, and dwarfed her male counterparts sometimes by as much as six to eight inches. It took a while to get those big legs firing on all four cylinders.
She usually loped out of the gate, far behind the competitors, and stayed at the back of the pack until jockey Mike Smith gave the signal. Then she would light up and undertake a furious assault on the rest of the field that usually involved a thrilling, nail-biting stretch run. But it had worked 13 times so far. One more win would pass Personal Ensign’s unbeaten record.
A Slow Start
The Classic took forever to get started. Quality Road, who was at one time a 2009 Derby favorite, got agitated in the starting gate and was scratched after cutting himself. The ruckus delayed the start for about 10 minutes.
Finally, the horses were all in, and when the gates opened, Zenyatta came out on her wrong lead, her left leg in the front instead of the right. She also started fighting for more rein. As a result, she lumbered out of the gate, going slower than she’d ever gone before as track announcer Trevor Denman proclaimed, “Zenyatta is dead last! Zenyatta is dead last early!”
She finally found a slower horse — Mine that Bird, who had the same strategy she did — and passed him while Super Derby winner Regal Ransom set a modest pace of 47.88 seconds for the half-mile. That would make it tougher for any horse to come from off the pace, especially since most of the horses were bunched toward the front, stalking Regal Ransom. There might be a traffic jam entering the homestretch, and horses would have plenty of gas to finish the 1 ¼-mile race.
As the horses entered the backstretch, Zenyatta was still about 11 lengths off the lead, biding her time and blocked by a sea of horses as she made a ground-saving inside run. Regal Ransom continued to maintain a one-length advantage over Sussex Stakes winner Rip Van Winkle.
Nothing changed entering the far turn. She was still four lengths behind the 10th place horse, Richard’s Kid. “Zenyatta has a lot of ground to make up. If she wins this, she’ll be a superhorse,” Denman said.
Traffic Jam for Zenyatta
She started making her move as the rest of the field came out of the far turn for home, picking off horses one by one, but suddenly she had nowhere to go. Jockey Mike Smith maneuvered her to the middle of the pack, passed a few horses, and when that closed up, he then wheeled her outside in the homestretch as Gio Ponti made his own lightning move from seventh to first, taking the lead away from Regal Ransom.
The crowd of more than 58,000 leaped to their feet as they saw Zenyatta finally make her move. She was still sixth with an eighth of a mile to go, but Smith whipped her, and she took off down the middle of the stretch, sneaking up on Gio Ponti on the inside.
“Zenyatta’s come to the outside. Zenyatta coming, flying on the grandstand side . . . THIS . . . IS . . . UN-BELIEVABLE!” Denman exclaimed as Zenyatta plowed up the homestretch, passing the field with ease and finally letting those long legs taking the giant strides she was meant to take.
She caught Gio Ponti with about 50 yards to go and passed under the wire a comfortable one length ahead. She ran the final quarter-mile in 23 seconds, faster than the first quarter-mile was run.
She was indeed a superhorse. She had beaten the boys in what Denman called “one of the most sensational performances ever.” But she still did not win Horse of the Year. That honor went to the filly Rachel Alexandra, who was also undefeated and won the 2009 Preakness Stakes. The vote was 130 to 99.
Zenyatta won five more races in a row in 2010 before taking on the boys again in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. Almost the same result occurred, with Zenyatta putting on a furious stretch drive, except this time Smith timed the rally too late and she ran out of race track at the last second. Blame defeated her by a head and ruined her perfect record. But she’ll always be remembered for the way in which she dazzled the crowd in the 2009 Classic, coming from nowhere to beat the colts in their own race.
Photo Credit: © Breeders’ Cup/Mark Wyville 2009