Zenyatta: The Legend Behind the Legend

This year’s Secretariat Festival will feature two extraordinary events. One, which we reported previously, will be a visit to Claiborne Farm’s rarely visited Marchmont cemetery that is now the gravesite of the legendary Ruffian. The other will be a private visit to see the great Zenyatta at Lane’s End Farm, where you will also see last year’s exciting undefeated Horse of the Year Flightline. In this column we will take a look at many aspects of Zenyatta that people know little about and the degree in which she transcended the sport. ~ Steve Haskin

Zenyatta: The Legend Behind the Legend

By Steve Haskin


Excluding her exploits on the racetrack, including her remarkable 19 consecutive victories and a lone defeat that many feel was the best race she ever ran, we are about to delve deep into Zenyatta’s career and reveal what really separated her from all other Thoroughbreds and the extent of the profound impact she had on so many lives.

But first I need to set the stage from a personal viewpoint of a day unprecedented in racing history. And it was a day in which Zenyatta did not even race.

Although she did not go undefeated, Zenyatta proved in the end that perfection is not always measured in numbers. That was evident the day after the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs; a day that can best be described as surreal. There is something about vulnerability that endears us to someone, whether a human or a Thoroughbred.  Zenyatta’s defeat at the hands of a talented, classy colt in Blame actually brought out an outpouring of affection and admiration that transcended even the emotions she stirred in people during her 19-race winning streak.

For the majority of that morning and afternoon Zenyatta was taken out to graze, drawing hundreds of fans to the Longfield Avenue fence. They brought cakes and signs, and carrots, and apples, and even a large heart made of leaves. Leaving a trail of cars along Longfield Avenue, most ignored the police who stopped and asked them to move. Finally, the police just gave up and were not seen again, as the crowd began to swell during the afternoon.

I had to return to my hotel in the morning to write my recap of the Classic for Blood-Horse, but whizzed through it, returning in the afternoon to witness this once in a lifetime scene.

All the while, Zenyatta posed for photos, as dozens and dozens of people inside the backstretch lined up to have their picture taken with her. Those outside the fence got a treat when Zenyatta was brought over, with people kneeling down and feeding her carrots though the fence, several of them small children. Owners Jerry and Ann Moss stood by watching, their arms around each other.

Several women inside the fence broke down in tears, one of them hugging Ann and thanking her for sharing her horse with everyone. Through it all, Zenyatta never once became agitated, and accepted the kissing, the hugging, and the petting as if part of her normal routine. Occasionally, the chant of “Zen-Ya-Ta!” went up from the crowd. It was a scene that assuredly will never be witnessed again.

At one point Ann came over to me and said I should have my photo taken with Zenyatta as well. I had tried to separate myself from the love fest and remain professional, but it didn’t take much prodding from Ann for me to give in. She took my camera and shot around 10 photos of me hugging and kissing her. For that I will always be grateful to her.

Finally, Jerry and Ann and Dottie Ingordo Shirreffs, who was John’s husband and Jerry’s racing manager, went over to the fence and thanked everyone for their support, while accepting a cake passed over the the top of the fence. John Shirreffs on occasion would stop by and chat with the people. At 5 p.m., when Zenyatta was led into the barn to get ready for her trip back to California, the crowd gave her a warm round of applause.

Zenyatta was then flown to Lexington, Kentucky, but before vanning to Lane’s End Farm she was brought to Keeneland across the road from the airport where hundreds of half-frozen fans had been waiting for her for hours outside the walking ring behind the sales pavilion, their toes numb from the cold and the layer of snow on the ground. But they needed to get one last look at Zenyatta, as brief as it was.

“Boy, I can’t believe all those people stayed that long in that cold waiting for her to arrive,” Shirreffs said. “When we got there, the ramp leading to the barn area and sales pavilion was too steep, so we had to take her down to where the unloading ramps were and then walk her back up the road in the dark on the ice to get her to the sales walking ring where the people could look at her. I took her to the outside edge of the ring so people could reach over and touch her. And she was pretty cool about that. I just know it was so cold that night and everyone was really bundled up.

“A lot of these people were from Kentucky and they hadn’t been to her races in California. They had read about her or seen her on television and they wanted to see her in person. It was really heartwarming.”

Looking back, Zenyatta’s arrival at Churchill Downs for the Classic had been unlike anything ever seen, as hordes of photographers and TV cameramen crowded behind police barricades outside Barn 41 and onlookers gathered to get a good look at the Queen as she was led off the van following her police escort from the airport.

Trainer Steve Penrod, in whose barn Zenyatta would be residing, had never seen anything like it.

“It was like a Hollywood movie production,” he said. “And the most impressive thing was seeing all the cars stopped on Longfield Avenue as people got out to watch Zenyatta graze through the fence. She’s the biggest draw since Secretariat.”

The following morning, Penrod said to Shirreffs as the two stood by the gap, “You should see my wife. The last time you ran she was screaming so loud I told her, ‘You gotta stop; they’re gonna think I’m killing you.’ She screams and hollers until it’s over, and then she cries. A month ago, she said to me, ‘Talk to (stall superintendent) Mike Hargrave and see if he’ll put Zenyatta in our barn.’ When I told her a few days later that Zenyatta is coming in our barn, she started screaming.’

Zenyatta Stirred the Emotions

Shirreffs was constantly amazed at the outpouring of emotions that Zenyatta inspired.

“There are ladies who come to the barn and they’re literally shaking,” he said following the 2010 Classic. “They’re sweating and crying. One lady, who is a school teacher from Santa Barbara, said the first time she came to see Zenyatta she was in a wheel chair; she couldn’t walk. She said Zenyatta inspired her to push herself and try to walk. Before we left for Kentucky, she visited the barn and she was carrying three cameras and was walking.”

It is apparent that the bond many people have with Zenyatta is almost spiritual in nature. She has been an inspiration in ways never before seen. As I chronicled back in 2010:

Stephanie Lambert, who resides in Maine, had one wish in life: “I just want to see Zenyatta once before I die,” she said back in August. “I will sleep in my car if I have to. I just want to be able to say I saw THE greatest. She has been such an inspiration to me for two years and got me through some really rough times. My dad passed away; my husband had three strokes; three of my dogs died; I had to put my mom, who has third-stage Alzheimers, in a nursing home; and we went bankrupt due to my husband’s inability to work. I would come home after working 14 hours and sit at my computer and watch the videos John Sherriffs posted of Zenyatta and it would make me smile, and it gave me strength. I would think to myself, ‘I can do it, I just have to be like Zenyatta; I just have to keep running and run that target in front of me down.’ Sometimes God puts something in your way to give you courage and this is what Zenyatta did for me. She is an amazing example of what grace and courage are. God smiled one day and created Zenyatta.”

David Ingordo, Dottie’s son, who was the one who picked out Zenyatta at the yearling sale and purchased her for $60,000, was so moved by Stephanie’s story, he arranged to fly her out to California and get her seats and a hotel room for the Clement Hirsch Stakes.

Kari Bussell from Tennessee was trying to find out who it was that was grazing Zenyatta the day after the Breeders’ Cup. There was something she wanted to tell him. “He made sure I got to feel Zenyatta’s right ear graze my fingertip through the fence, and I want to tell him what that meant to me and thank him,” she said. “It was very emotional for me and was the highlight of my life. I am terminally ill and my dying wish was to touch her once. I know in my heart she is the reason I am still alive and have thus far defied the odds and what the doctors told me. She inspired me never to give up. I have refused to go anywhere until her story was finished.”

Catherine Jennings, from Washington D.C., has been in the horse business for many years and had become jaded by all the negative aspects of the sport. But she had one request.

“Zenyatta makes me remember why I started loving horses in the first place,” she said several months before the Classic. “A dear friend of mine named June, who also is a professional horse woman, is currently fighting stage 4 brain cancer. She has been on chemotherapy for almost 1 1/2 years now. I would love to get June an audience with Zenyatta. I’m sure she would go wherever Zenyatta was running. It would be a dream come true for her to just get to pet this great mare.”

Sadly, June passed away before she had a chance to see Zenyatta. Cathy still has one request: “I would love it if we could still get to see her and perhaps drink a toast in June’s memory. Truth be told, it would be a dream come true for me as well.”

Finally, there is Abigail Anderson, a schoolteacher from Montreal, who had been shaken by the death in August of a much-loved teacher named Marjorie Gawley, who loved dancing and got much joy in her final days from a video of Zenyatta ‘dancing.’ Abigail asked on behalf of the English-teaching community in Quebec if there was any way Zenyatta could run in the Classic in Marjorie’s name.

When Zenyatta went to the post on Nov. 6, she carried Marjorie’s name in the browband of her bridle.

The bond between humans and horses goes back thousands of years, but it seems whatever mystical hold they have over humans has manifested itself through Zenyatta. She brought them moments of sheer ecstasy, she brought them to tears in both victory and defeat, and just being in her presence. And in the end, she left them in awe. In short, she stirred the emotions.

What You Didn’t Know About Zenyatta

Turning to Zenyatta as a racehorse and her place in history, there will always be critics of great athletes. Holding Zenyatta’s defeat in the Breeders’ Cup Classic against her is like holding Seattle Slew’s equally close defeat in The Jockey Club Gold Cup against him. Most people feel that was his greatest race. The same can be said about Zenyatta’s Classic. Here are several things you might not have known about Zenyatta’s defeat and other aspects of her career.

DISLIKE OF SYNTHETIC SURFACES – Zenyatta’s critics liked to point out that, with the exception of three races – two victories in the Apple Blossom Stakes at Oaklawn and a courageous head defeat in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, all of her races were on a synthetic surface, which they felt detracted from her amazing 19-race unbeaten streak.

What people didn’t realize was that Zenyatta actually detested synthetic surfaces, and had such a dislike for Del Mar’s Polytrack she refused to even gallop over it, which is why trainer John Shirreffs kept her stabled at Hollywood Park to train over the dirt training track. The fact that Zenyatta won the Clement Hirsch Stakes three times at Del Mar, struggling each time to win by narrow margins, showed how great and competitive she really was.

She did work over Hollywood’s Cushion Track and won several stakes over it, but that surface had worn down and kept being replaced with dirt, which was basically piled onto what little Cushion Track remained.

But Del Mar which was pure synthetic, was a totally different story. “Each time after she won the Clement Hirsch, she refused to train at Del Mar,” Shirreffs recalled. “We would take her out to the track and she would gallop about a half-mile and pull herself up into a jog, then jog to the nearest gap and go off. There was no sense going on with her. We would take her out there every day and say, ‘OK, let’s see how far she wants to gallop today.’ And every day that’s as far as she would gallop. What are you going to do, hit her with the stick to try to make her go? She just hated that track. She tolerated it in a race, but after she ran she was done with it. So, each time we shipped her back to Hollywood Park and trained her on the dirt.”

She did handle Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride surface well enough to win six races over it, but as Shirreffs explained, that was because the newer version of it that she raced over acted more like dirt than the original Australian-made surface. If you add all that to the fact that three of her most impressive performances were on actual dirt there is no doubting she would have been equally as great on dirt.

TRAVELING – Throughout 2010, racing fans back east kept urging Shirreffs to ship Zenyatta to Saratoga to perform on racing’s greatest stage, where she would be treated like royalty and given a hero’s welcome. But what no one realized was that her trip to Oaklawn Park that April had taken a lot out of her physically, and Shirreffs did not want to risk another long trip, with the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs. Another reason Shirreffs remained in California instead of shipping back east was, because of Zenyatta’s massive frame and high-strung nature, shipping her was not easy.

“We always had to be careful with her weight,” Shirreffs explained. “We wanted to make sure she didn’t lose too much weight. And there was the dehydration factor.” When Zenyatta returned from Oaklawn she had become dehydrated and had lost weight, which made another cross-country trip and then a third one for the Breeders’ Cup more precarious. In addition to running in the Apple Blossom, Zenyatta spent a good deal of her time at Oaklawn outside the barn posing for pictures with the fans and media, and all that activity likely added to the stress.

“The day after the Apple Blossom, we had people lined up the entire length of the shedrow waiting to have their picture taken with her,” Shirreffs said. So it made sense why Shirreffs was reluctant to take Zenyatta on another long trip, especially to Saratoga, where she would get little down time, with visitors flocking to the barn at all hours of the day. He certainly did not want to risk getting her dehydrated and losing weight with another cross-country trip scheduled in two months.

DISLIKE OF THE STARTING GATE – This is another thing most people didn’t know about Zenyatta, and is why she broke so slowly every race.

“She was so big in the gate and so claustrophobic that until she actually cleared the starting gate and the open doors she would not get in gear,” Shirreffs said. “Some horses break like Quarter-Horses, but she wanted to get completely out of the gate before she clicked into gear and that’s why she was so far back in every race. Most people weren’t aware of her dislike of the starting gate. We tried schooling her in the gate, but the starter finally said, ‘There’s no sense breaking her anymore, because this is as good as it’s going to get.’ In the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs she not only broke slowly as usual, but two horses crossed over into her path and that pushed her back even farther.”

DISLIKE OF THE LIGHTS – In the Breeders’ Cup Classic run at night at Churchill Downs, Zenyatta looked as if she were going to go by Blame, but seemed to pause just a little nearing the finish line, and then put her head in front after the wire. Did the lights affect her in any way?

“Without a doubt,” Shirreffs said. “No doubt at all about that. First off, it was cold that night and she had never raced in cold weather before. When she ran at Hollywood Park in the evening, the lights were high overhead. It’s like a harness track with a big bank of lights around the outside. At Churchill Downs, it was night and the lights at the sixteenth pole to the wire are not only very bright, they’re only about 15-feet high. At the finish line they have a light that’s on a pole and it’s very low to the ground. We were worried about that when we saw it the day before. It was a concern. Also, remember that Blame was virtually unbeatable at Churchill Downs, his home track, and often trained there early under the lights.

Did Zenyatta get distracted by the lights just enough to get her beat a short head? No one can say for sure. The bottom line is that Zenyatta ran a sensational race that night, and it appears that there were several factors that contributed to her defeat – a horrible start, dropping some 20 lengths back, a traffic-laden trip, some hesitation by Smith nearing the head of the stretch and having to alter course, the lights at the finish line, and a great effort by Blame.

 THE DANCE – So, did Zenyatta actually break into her patented dance steps before a race to put on a show?

“She was very strong and needed to stay in control,” Shirreffs said. “That was just her way of expressing all that pent up energy and adrenalin she had going when she went to the races. When she was going to the races her adrenalin would really kick in. She just had all this energy and that was the only way she knew how to let it out, through that extension of her legs.

“In California where it was warm, we were very careful how much we warmed her up, because, as she did in her ‘dance,’ she would warm herself up pretty good before the race, so we taught her in the morning how to stand there and not overdo it. If we had warmed her up like a normal horse she would have wound herself up too much.

“That night at Churchill Downs, that’s when she really needed to warm up and not just stand there, and that might have also affected her, because she had never been in a cold climate and didn’t do what a normal horse would do to warm up in the cold.”

So, now we have a better idea who Zenyatta was. She was a complex individual and her complexities dictated her career in many ways and how she had to be trained.

“She was a perfect horse when you took the tack off her and led her out in the afternoon and let her graze,” Shirreffs said. “She was as content as can be and people could do anything they wanted with her; she was beautiful about that. Put the saddle on her and point her toward the racetrack and, boy, you better stand back. She was a totally different horse.”

No truer words were ever said about Zenyatta. She was a totally different horse, the likes of which we will never see again.

Photos courtesy of the Amy Zimmerman, Steve Haskin, and Breeders’ Cup

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.



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