Two great horses. Two great stories. One male. One female. One’s tale is told in a new movie. The other one is a living Hollywood star. The movie horse is the legendary Secretariat. The right now horse is Zenyatta, the racemare racing to make history. If these two stories merge in the fall of this year, we’re all going to be horse crazy.
In the fall, Disney’s movie Secretariat is coming out, the story of one of the greatest racehorses of all time, a horse that captured the imagination of the nation in 1973 with his Triple Crown victories, setting records at the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes that still stand. In November, it is highly likely that real racehorse fever will be back on the front pages, this time with two female horses sharing the spotlight. Zenyatta is set to run in the Breeders Cup in Churchill Downs as the grand finale race of her career and she could well be facing her great female rival Rachel Alexandra. Both these racemares have spectacular victories under their girths and by November Zenyatta will be entering her last race with a possible 19-0 record. She is at 17-0 now and expected to run twice more before her November date with destiny.
The Zenyatta story runs deep. She is owned by Jerry and Ann Moss; Jerry Moss started A & M records with Herb Alpert in 1962, a legend in its own right in the recording industry. In 2005, Moss and his wife already achieved the dream of dreams of any racehorse owner: their 50-1 long shot horse Giacomo won the Kentucky Derby. Now the same owners, the same trainer and the same jockey have the spectacular mare Zenyatta poised to achieve a record unmatched by any of the great legends.
But her statistics are only half the story. She is a great personality; a star, a queen, an amazon and an adoring crowd sensation. Her racing style is the closer, the one who languishes at the back of the pack for three-quarters of the race and then thunders past every horse to win, sometimes by a head but more often by many lengths. Even her jockey, Mike Smith, who has ridden many great horses in a long and illustrious career, says she is the most incredible horse he has ever ridden. “I’ve never been on a horse that can run down anything. I’ve never felt the power that she has.” Even in her spectacular Breeder’s Cup Classic victory in 2009 over top male horses he says she never got to the bottom of her “gears.” She can overcome anything, he says. To his mind, she is the horse of the decade.
Zenyatta is a southern California phenomenon; she trains at Hollywood Park. She has raced at Del Mar and Santa Anita with a trip out of state to Arkansas for the Apple Blossom Classic, which she won two years in a row. The Breeder’s Cup Classic that she won—the first filly to do so—took place in Santa Anita in 2009 but will be in Churchill Downs in Kentucky in 2010. Rachel Alexandra, her rival in the minds of horse race fans, beat her out as the Horse of the Year in 2009 and races in the east coast. Built into this rivalry are familiar east coast versus west coast attitudes and challenges. Way over in Europe there is Goldikova, yet another stellar filly racehorse who has beaten “the boys,” as they like to say, on major European tracks. Both Rachel Alexandra and Goldikova have been beaten but recent strong victories for each of them put the three back on the map. Right now in horse race circles, the talk is all about the ladies.
Zenyatta’s next race is likely to be at Del Mar for the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes that she won in 2008 and 2009 on August 7, Zenyatta Day, whether she is there or not. Her owners have indicated that they will keep her in southern California rather than bringing her east. Meanwhile, the fan base is growing, the excitement for racing coming awake again in these tracks where Zenyatta is the draw. Her fans include droves of girls and young women sporting t-shirts and caps for Queen Zenyatta. When she makes her first appearance with her characteristic side-steps and dancing, prancing moves—her own personal warm-ups before the race—the fans go wild. At 17 ½ hands, she is a majestic and self-possessed athlete at the top of her game. She was brought out of retirement in January 2010 because clearly she had one more great year in her. As she gobbled down her 6 year birthday cake on April Fool’s Day, surrounded by her family: Jerry and Ann Moss, trainer John Shirreffs and his wife Dottie Ingordo, the manager of the whole shebang, and the stable hands who love her, she looked every bit the part of champion hungry for the next race.