Zenyatta – Queen of the Breeder’s Cup

Few Thoroughbreds can match the popularity of the great Zenyatta. In this day and age of social media and instant news reporting available to us, Zenyatta became a world celebrity on the same level as the most famous entertainment celebs. She has it all. Charisma, good looks, and unparalleled success in her sport.

Blessed with an abundance of talent and an exciting racing style, Zenyatta also had the ability to charm even the most jaded individuals into falling in love with her. She always began her races as if she was in no hurry, preferring to emerge from the starting stalls at a leisurely pace, spotting the rest of the field many lengths. Zenyatta would then get her long legs in sync as the field went around the first turn and along the backstretch, always gathering speed and momentum, swoop around as the field turned for home and zoom by in the home stretch to win. She had an immensely long stride, estimated at 26 feet in length, and as such covered more ground with each step than the rest. She never appeared to be going all that fast until she came up to another runner in the race, and then Zenyatta would just fly by as if she was from another dimension.

Zenyatta was born on April 1, 2004 at Winter Quarter Farm in Kentucky. Her breeder was Eric Kronfeld, who sold her at the 2005 Keeneland Yearling Sales to A&M Records boss Jerry Moss for $60,000. Moss named her in honour of the A&M released album Zenyatta Mondatta, recorded in 1980 by popular rock band The Police.

Zenyatta was sired by Street Cry, a dual group one stakes winner (Dubai World Cup, Stephen Foster Handicap).  A son of Machiavellian, Street Cry stood at Darley’s Jonabell Farm in Kentucky. Street Cry performed dual hemisphere stallion duties and is also the sire of another all-time great race mare, the sensational Winx in Australia. The dam of Zenyatta is Vertigineux, a winner of two starts from seven races. Vertigineux is by Kris S, a son of Epsom Derby winner Roberto, and she is a direct tail-female line descendant of the great broodmare Legendra, through the Mrs. Peterkin (third dam) branch.

A huge filly of 17.1 hands at full growth, Zenyatta was slow to mature due to her imposing size. John Sherriffs was given the enjoyable task of training Zenyatta and she raced in the now distinctive light teal with pink band, light teal sleeves with pink band and light teal cap colours of Jerry and Ann Moss. Zenyatta never raced as a two-year-old and did not start her first race until November 7, 2007 in a 6 1/2-furlong MSW race at Hollywood Park. She won by three lengths in 1:15.22. Three weeks later she took a 1 1/16-mile allowance race by three and a half lengths to close out her three-year-old campaign.

Beginning her four-year-old season on January 13, 2008, Zenyatta entered stakes caliber company and proceeded to win the El Encino Stakes, a grade two race at Santa Anita. Her first three races were run on a synthetic racing surface called “Cushion Track”. A mandatory edict from the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) effectively engineering the switch from dirt to synthetic. Zenyatta’s next race would come on April 5 at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, in the grade one Apple Blossom Handicap, to be run on a traditional dirt surface. In the field was the reigning Older Female champion Ginger Punch. Zenyatta also had the services of the great Mike Smith as her jockey. The new tandem crushed the field by 4 ½ lengths.

The Apple Blossom was a sign of great things to come. Zenyatta, racing on a new surface against a quality field (her first grade one) announced to the world that she is a star in the making. And what a star Zenyatta would become!

Zenyatta went back to Hollywood Park and won the Milady Handicap and the grade one Vanity Handicap, and then traveled down the coast to win the Clement L Hirsch Handicap at Del Mar in track record time. These three races were run on synthetic tracks, but the Del Mar surface was “Polytrack”, a slightly different synthetic composition than the previous synthetic she was used to. Her next race, the Lady Secret Stakes at Santa Anita would also be run on “Polytrack” as the famous Arcadia venue had changed the surface from the original “Cushion Track” earlier in the year. Zenyatta won the Lady’s Secret by 3 ½ lengths over Hystericalady in stakes record time.

This win set her up perfectly for the big prize, The Breeder’s Cup Distaff, then known as the Ladies Classic, at Santa Anita. Facing a strong field, the John Sherriffs trained emerging superstar duly won by 1 ½ lengths over Cocoa Beach in 1:46.85 for the nine furlongs. Now a perfect nine for nine, Zenyatta was the unanimous choice as Eclipse Award champion older female for 2008. She also received votes for Horse of the Year but was denied by the brilliant Curlin. Nevertheless, Zenyatta had developed a large legion of fans and support, which would grow exponentially during the next two racing seasons.

In 2009, Zenyatta scaled the heights of equine stardom that has rarely been seen in history. Following her Breeder’s Cup triumph, Sherriffs gave Zenyatta an extended holiday before unleashing her in the May 23 Milady Handicap at Hollywood Park. She pranced her way to the track, as she had now become known to do, and won the race over Life Is Sweet, a very accomplished runner in her own right, by 1 ¾ lengths. She followed this victory with another win in the Vanity Handicap a month later. Continuing along her previous year’s path, Zenyatta captured the Clement L Hirsch and the Lady’s Secret Stakes making four consecutive races she defended and now had won all thirteen races in her career to this point.

Next up was the Breeder’s Cup, to be run in 2009 at Santa Anita for the second successive year. But instead of going for another Distaff win, the Zenyatta team chose to enter her in the big daddy of races on the card, the Breeder’s Cup Classic. For the first time in her so far unblemished racing career, “Queen Z”, as her adoring public would refer to her, will face male Thoroughbreds. The Breeder’s Cup Classic always attracts a stellar field, and this edition was no exception. No fewer than eight grade/group one winners such as Quality Road, Summer Bird, Gio Ponti, Rip Van Winkle, Twice Over, Mine That Bird, Einstein, and Richard’s Kid posed a formidable field for Zenyatta to face.

An overflowing capacity crowd and millions of race fans watching on TV were treated to an epic race. Queen Z in stall #4 broke slowly as per her usual custom, and in the words of race caller Trevor Denman was “dead last”, as Regal Ransom led the field around the first turn. Zenyatta then began to get her stride in order as she passed Mine That Bird around the turn but was still a good fifteen lengths behind the front of the field. Along the backstretch Regal Ransom continued to lead from Rip Van Winkle and Colonel John and Einstein which brought this order to the far turn into the home stretch.

The field began to fan out through the turn and at the mid turn point Denman announced that Zenyatta has a lot of ground to make up. Mike Smith found an opening at the apex of the turn and the big imposing Zenyatta with her now substantial momentum shot through to carry herself to the outside on the home stretch. To quote Trevor Denman, “Zenyatta is flying on the outside! THIS  IS  UN  BELIEVE  ABLE !!! Zenyatta, what a performance! One we will never forget!” How right you are Trevor. Zenyatta crossed the finish line in 2:00.62 with Gio Ponti second and Twice Over finishing third. A race for the ages had just taken place. All anyone could say was “WOW!” Zenyatta became the first, and still only filly or mare to win the Breeder’s Cup Classic.

If Zenyatta’s popularity was ever in doubt before such a performance, then now after this jaw-dropping Breeder’s Cup Classic win her star must be the brightest in the universe. But wait. There was another bright star in the racing sky, and it happened to belong to a beautiful, fast and courageous filly named Rachel Alexandra. This star of the turf had dominated her female opponents and then battled many of the top male Thoroughbreds with a completely memorable eight for eight campaign to usurped Zenyatta for the Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year, in a very close vote. 2009 was a racing year that holds an indelible mark on history thanks to these two generational equine stars. Unfortunately, Queen Z and Rachel would never meet on the racetrack.

Zenyatta did win her second Eclipse Award as the top older filly or mare. Jerry and Ann Moss and John Sherriffs announced that she will be returning for another racing season. The entire racing world, and her millions upon millions of fans rejoiced at the news. More Zenyatta, how could life get any better.

Sherriffs mapped out essentially the same program for Zenyatta with the Breeder’s Cup Classic as the main goal, with one slight deviation. Z’s first race would come in the March 13 Santa Margarita Handicap, a race she had never entered before. In her customary fashion, Zenyatta cruised around the field and past the lot to win the grade one race by 1 ¼ lengths over Dance To My Tune. After this race, Queen Z would enter familiar races with the Oaklawn Park grade one Apple Blossom Handicap next up. Yes she won, this time by 4 ¼ lengths.

Her second Apple Blossom victory now tied her with a pair of turf legends for consecutive wins. Both Cigar and Citation had won sixteen races in row during their illustrious careers. Zenyatta had now joined them but with the added caveat of being undefeated. The two aforementioned greats had their respective streaks after sustaining a few losses before.

Zenyatta came back to familiar confines and would attempt to break the record in the Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park. With a capacity crowd on hand, Queen Z entered the record books with her seventeenth consecutive victory, and no defeats, with a workmanlike one length victory over St. Trinians. The old Hollywood Park grandstand shook from the thunderous volume as she was brought back by Mike Smith to the winner’s circle. Zenyatta had more to give her fans following her third Vanity trophy claim.

The Clement L Hirsch Handicap is another of her favourite trophies and Z took another trip to Del Mar to put her winning streak on the line. This race became a tight affair as Irish bred Rinterval dug in gamely in the home stretch to give Queen Z and her army a scare, but the big girl prevailed by a head margin to claim her third Hirsch win and eighteenth consecutive victory overall.

Back to Hollywood Park and the familiar Lady’s Secret Stakes and attempt nineteen wins in a row. Can any horse ever beat her? It was beginning to appear that there was no horse that could. Zenyatta defeated Switch by a length to capture her third Lady’s Secret to receive another rousing ovation as she and Smith returned to the winner’s circle. She had never entered a race without not leaving the track via the winner’s circle. Zenyatta also broke Bayakoa’s total of twelve grade one wins by a filly or mare with this her thirteenth such win. One more race to go, The Breeder’s Cup Classic which in this year would take place in her birth state Kentucky at Churchill Downs.

As the big day drew near, Zenyattamania took hold. Popular TV hostess Oprah Winfrey”s “O” magazine did an extensive profile on her. The long running and critically acclaimed TV news program 60 Minutes did a video profile on her. The Los Angeles Dodgers featured a picture of Zenyatta on billboards throughout the LA area. All the pre-Breeder’s Cup talk on TV and radio centered on “Racing’s Queen Z”. She had already been considered for Female Athlete of the Year in America (second in 2009 voting to tennis star Serena Williams) and now set her sights on absolute immortality.

November 6, 2010 was a sunny day at Churchill Downs, as the Breeder’s Cup Classic drew near. As the field of starters assembled in the walking ring behind the twin spired grandstand, the sun was beginning to set. Zenyatta walked to the ring, blanket over her shining dark bay coat, and performed her little dance routine as she entered the ring. The crowd had come to see her and cheered her entrance enthusiastically. Smiles etched on every face, but the tension was beginning to mount. Although this BC field was not as deep as the last year race, there were some very good and formidable opponents waiting to take a shot at knocking her down from the perch everyone in attendance had placed Queen Z.

Blame was a definite challenger. He had won The Stephen Foster and the Whitney and was coming off a hard luck second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup to Haynesfield, who was also entered. Three-year-old Lookin At Lucky had already won the Haskell and the Preakness. Quality Road was returning to this event in good form having won the Woodward Stakes, the Donn and the Metropolitan Handicaps. High drama and great excitement preceded this 26th running of the Breeder’s Cup Classic.

When the starting stalls doors flew open, Zenyatta strolled out behind the rest of the field in her usual manner. Last along the straight in front of the grandstand, no one watching were concerned for her because this is her signature style. First Dude led the field into the first turn followed by Quality Road, Haynesfield and Espoir City. Into the far turn and the front four did not change, while Smith was urging Zenyatta to make her run but was still last. The field bunched up considerably through the far turn and Smith found himself facing a wall of backing up horses. At the top of the home stretch, Lookin At Lucky assumed the lead, Blame then made a strong move outside of that one and took the lead. Smith found a small opening and steered Zenyatta around to go on the far outside with a clear run ahead.

With a furlong to go, Blame began to pull away from his nearest pursuers, but here comes Zenyatta on the outside and she is in top gear now. Blame keep going and dug in as Zenyatta kept her relentless pursuit. Stride by stride she was gaining on Blame but she was running out of track. Blame crossed the line a short head in front of Zenyatta, to pull off one of the most heart wrenching defeats racing history. The mighty Queen Z had suffered her first, and only defeat by a scant margin. The stunned crowd at Churchill Downs were in shock. Tears began to flow, except for the jubilant winners and their connections. To this day there are many devoted Z fans who can’t forgive Blame for defeating their beloved Queen. Yes, the result was very disappointing, but I say here and now, don’t blame Blame, he ran a great courageous race to defeat a true legend. It was as simple as that.

Now the attention shifted to the year end awards and which horse should be crowned as Horse of the Year. Blame could lay claim to the title having won the only race in which he and Zenyatta faced each other. He lost only once in the 2010 season. Zenyatta lost only once, but that loss was to Blame. In a another very close ballot, Zenyatta was named as the 2010 Eclipse Award Horse of the Year. Many have speculated that she won due to her missing out twice previously and to her immense stature in the racing world and beyond. Blame would have been a good choice, no doubt, but I must agree with naming Zenyatta as Horse of the Year. She made racing front page news and enthralled new and old generations of fans alike with her class, style and charming character. And she was oh so close to being undefeated in her career.

More honours came pouring in. Penny Chenery named Zenyatta as the winner of the Secretariat Vox Populi Award in 2010. Queen Z added the Eclipse Award as Champion older Filly or Mare for the third consecutive year. She again was runner-up in the ballots for Female Athlete of the Year, this time to skier Lindsey Vonn. In 2011 Zenyatta became the first horse to win the William H May Award which honours an individual or group that has provided worthy service to the Thoroughbred industry. And in 2012 Santa Anita unveiled a bronze statue of the great Zenyatta, which joined the statues of John Henry and Seabiscuit in the Paddock Garden. Santa Anita also runs the grade one Zenyatta Stakes, an 8 ½ furlong race for three-year-old and up fillies and mares.

Zenyatta retired from the track following the 2010 BC Classic. Queen Z did make a special appearance at Hollywood Park and again at Keeneland Racetrack to say so long to racing fans, and the Mosses had her shipped to Lane’s End Farm in Versailles, Kentucky where she has been ever since. Now she greets many fans throughout the year at Lane’s End who flock to the farm and see her, pet her and have their picture taken with her. Zenyatta as social and charming as ever enjoys the adulation and as she used to do when racing, gives so much back to the people who adore her.

Her breeding career however has seen disappointments and tragedies but hope springs eternal for her offspring. Her first foal is a dark bay/brown colt by Bernardini and goes by the name Cosmic One. He failed to win a race and never showed much as a racehorse. He has now been gelded and is embarking on a second career in show jumping. Z’s second foal is another colt, a chestnut son of leading sire Tapit named Ziconic. He too did not win a race but did have a pair of seconds and six third place finishes before being retired from the track. He is now an ambassador for Off The Track Thoroughbreds in California.

War Front became the next suitor to Zenyatta, and she produced a lovely bay filly in 2014. Given the name Princess Z by her public, Zenyatta’s little daughter suffered an untreatable injury and had to be humanely euthanized later in the year. Given a year off, Queen Z returned to War Front and produced a bay colt that did not survive. The following year she gave birth to a Medaglia d’Oro filly who is now named Zelda. She has not raced as of time of writing. Following an aborted pregnancy to Into Mischief, Zenyatta was not bred for the 2019 season. As of today, she is in foal to Candy Ride and is due to have her foal in the spring of 2020.

How popular is Zenyatta? Well since her retirement she has now got her own website, and her own Facebook page, which currently has more that 450,00 followers. Her picture is everywhere on the internet and nary a day goes by without somebody posting a Zenyatta link, story or pictorial on social media. She personified everything people look for in a Thoroughbred.

“She is a gift, an enormous gift” stated Ann Moss when recalling the thrill ride Zenyatta gave her. John Sherriffs said “I’ll never have another like her. She was once in a lifetime. She was unique, one of the best. Zenyatta took us places we never imagined we would go. She brought a euphoric feeling to a lot of people.” Mike Smith summed her up as “One of the greatest horses of all time. She is the horse of the decade.”

There are not many who would disagree with any of the above statements. Zenyatta truly is a remarkable horse in every sense of the word. We have been blessed by her presence and the memories of her incredible performances, charming demeanor and her almost human-like complete understanding of her role and place in the public heart.

Zenyatta was one of a kind, and that makes her special indeed.

(Zenyatta Wins Breeder’s Cup Classic signed by Mike Smith – Photo Credit PDJF) 

(Portrait of Zenyatta by Carole Andreen-Harris)

(Zenyatta – photo credit  Sarah Andrew)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *