Zenyatta arrived at John Shirreffs's barn at Hollywood in May 2006, and then he waited. And waited some more. She did not race that year as a 2-year-old and did not race for a long time as a 3-year-old. "What a tribute to John that he gave her time," says Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. "And what a tribute to Jerry Moss that he let John wait."
Zenyatta grew rapidly. "Her legs weren't ready to take care of that body," says Shirreffs. "We stopped and started on her. Puffy ankles, soreness here and there. She was asking me to take my time. If you compromise a horse when she's young, you'll never see her full talents." One day during the wait, Pat Valenzuela visited Shirreffs at the barn and the trainer took him to see Zenyatta. A fan of all sports, Shirreffs said to Valenzuela, "This is my Michael Jordan if I can get her right."
She finally went to the post on that Thanksgiving Day in 2007, in a 6½-furlong maiden sprint that was probably too short for a long-striding filly. Smith, who had been Giacomo's regular rider and was Zenyatta's presumptive mount, left town that day to ride a filly named Tessa Blue in Kentucky. He watched on television at Churchill Downs as Hollywood's track announcer, Vic Stauffer, saw rider David Flores bringing Zenyatta home and intoned, "Carmel Coffee has the lead, but you better take a look at Zenyatta!" She won by three lengths.
At the time Smith was 42. He had been a brilliant young jockey, winning a riding title on the fiercely competitive New York circuit at 26 and his first Eclipse Award as the nation's best jock at 28. But in 1998 he had been unseated in a bad spill at Saratoga, landing on the track in a sitting position and shattering the T12 and L3 vertebrae in his back. Smith made a successful return after eight months of recuperation, but he knew he was entering the final stages of his career. Zenyatta might be his last chance for a great mount, but Flores would keep her as long as she kept winning.
Smith has the body of a gymnast, but also a lump right at T12 in the middle of his back, where there is always pain. Zenyatta won three straight for Flores, but on April 5, 2008, with Zenyatta entered in the Apple Blossom Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., Flores stayed home to ride potential Kentucky Derby contender El Gato Malo in the Santa Anita Derby.
"Ran fourth," says Flores. "It's part of the game."
In Arkansas, Smith rode Zenyatta to a going-away 4½-length trouncing of reigning champion older female Ginger Punch, and he has been on her back for each of her subsequent wins, including both Breeders' Cup victories. "She's not even a once-in-a-lifetime horse," says Smith. "She's a once-in-several-lifetimes horse. You just don't see a horse like this. Maybe Secretariat or something."
When Zenyatta was four, Moss was inundated with offers to sell her. The bidding reached $5 million, and then, as Moss recalls, "people just started saying, 'What will it take?'" There was no number. "We're here on this earth for a certain amount of time," says Moss. "You sell her, and then you've got a bundle of money but no horse."
Now they have not just any horse, but a transcendent one. "She has a deep heart girth," says Shirreffs, "which indicates plenty of room for lung in her rib cage. But her chest isn't broad, which would inhibit her stride by putting her forelegs farther apart. Behind, she's very strong, when often a horse of her [height] would be narrow in back. The combination, her front and her back, it's amazing. And her heart, who knows how big her heart is. Whatever it is physically, it's huge metaphysically." Zenyatta is also uncommonly sweet at rest; Shirreffs allows fans to visit her almost without restriction.
While Zenyatta lags early in every race, she finishes explosively. This is her gift as an athlete, and Shirreffs trains her accordingly. In her workouts Zenyatta starts alone, with a "target" stablemate down the track whom she can pursue and pass before reaching the wire. "One of Mr. Moss's biggest frustrations," says Shirreffs, "is that I've used up a lot of nice horses in the morning working against her. Some of them just don't want to run as much after they've trained with her."