2008-2009: Zenyatta's Classic Double
When the 2008 Breeders' Cup was held at Santa Anita, Zenyatta had been racing for about eleven months. Going back to her debut in November of 2007, the daughter of Street Cry and Vertigineux made eight starts before the Breeders' Cup, running her record to a perfect 8-0. Coming from off the pace to snatch victory from her rivals, Zenyatta developed a reputation for putting on exciting stretch runs that complemented her competitive nature. She liked to win, and did so with a powerful elegance each time she was in action. No one could stop her.
Therefore, it only made sense that the towering filly was sent off as the odds-on favorite in the 2008 Ladies' Classic (now the Distaff) on October 24. None of her seven rivals were close to her in the wagering. It was a tribute to Zenyatta's prior dominance on the track, as well as local favoritism given she was based in Southern California.
The fans received exactly what they expected. Drawing the rail, Zenyatta settled into last place early on as everyone else made early moves for position ahead of her. That was just fine with Queen Z, who appeared to be in the midst of a morning stroll in front of the grandstand.
The pace was slow going down the backstretch. Bear Now, the longest shot in the field at almost 75-1, guided the field as she set the tempo. The Ladies' Classic was 1 1/8 miles, and slower fractions meant more left in the tank for the last stretch of the race. But a pedestrian pace had no adverse effect on Zenyatta. She was content to run no matter how a race was set up, and no one was going to outfox her in the Ladies' Classic.
After staying in touch with the field going around the far turn, jockey Mike Smith knew it was time to go. Zenyatta effortlessly moved past her rivals, one by one. She had to go wide turning for the stretch run, but that was no problem, either. Her fans saw another display of greatness, yelling in approval as Zenyatta put on another patented stretch run, overtaking the rest of her rivals on the grandstand side to win the Ladies' Classic by over a length. With her ninth straight victory secured, Zenyatta was finished for 2008. But much more awaited her.
Just over a year later, the Breeders' Cup was back at Santa Anita, and so was Zenyatta. Only this time, she was not out to defend her Ladies' Classic title. She was out for the biggest prize of the weekend: the Breeders' Cup Classic on November 7.
Since the fall of 2008, Zenyatta had done nothing but win. Her 9-0 record was now 13-0 after her victory in the Grade I Lady's Secret Stakes at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meet. The prospect of her taking the Classic was thrilling to think of, but the assignment did not appear easy.
First, the Classic's distance was 1 1/4 miles, which Zenyatta had yet to try. It was not out of the question she could get the distance, though. Her sire, Street Cry won the Dubai World Cup over that route of ground, so the potential was there.
Second, Zenyatta was taking on the boys in the Grade I race, which was a new task for her. But she was tough, and trainer John Shirreffs was a skilled horseman. If Zenyatta was being entered, it was believed she could win.
That turned out to be the case on the tote board, too. Made the post time favorite at 5-2, Zenyatta entered post position four in the starting gate. With the gigantic crowd cheering in excitement, the twelve Thoroughbreds that made up the field left the gate and sought victory.
For Zenyatta, the start was like that of the Ladies' Classic, only there was a larger group to battle with. She broke okay, but went into last place as everyone else sped ahead of her. By the time Regal Ransom, the race leader, reached the first turn, Zenyatta was already more than double digits behind in last. It was a greater deficit than what she had encountered at any time in the Ladies' Classic, but Zenyatta was fearless. She let the race proceed, running with a calm and relaxed demeanor. For her, this was another day at the office.
The Classic moved at a pace similar to that of the Ladies' Classic one year earlier. Regal Ransom continued to head the field going around the far turn. Countless eyes were on Zenyatta, however, watching for the moment they had seen so many times before.
Then, they saw it.
With the field moving towards the top of the stretch, track announcer Trevor Denman mentioned Zenyatta's position. It was as if Zenyatta interpreted that as her cue. Without missing a beat, she began passing horses, getting more than half the field behind her when she straightened into the stretch. Only a few were ahead of her now, including graded stakes winners like Colonel John and Summer Bird, but they faze Zenyatta one bit.
No one did.
At first, Zenyatta had two rivals blocking her path. But then, an opening came on the outside. Mike Smith saw it and steered Zenyatta in that direction. Denman and the fans saw what was happening, and from the grandstand came an epic roar that was undoubtedly one of the loudest in Santa Anita's history. With a clear path in front, Zenyatta summoned her flair for the dramatic, handling her rivals with that powerful but graceful stride. Just before she reached the wire, Denman said what the fans thought, telling everyone watching that "THIS...IS...UN...BE...LEIVABLE!!!"
She did it. Zenyatta had proven her critics wrong, and made her connections proud. With her owners, Jerry and Ann Moss, and Shirreffs watching with great pride, Zenyatta embarked on a triumphant walk back to the winners' circle as thousands in the grandstand gave her a standing ovation for her greatest victory. Smith celebrated. Shirreffs celebrated. The Mosses celebrated. Her fans celebrated. It was the moment they all wanted.
Zenyatta did more than just win the Breeders' Cup Classic. She also produced one of her greatest accomplishments, for it was multi-layered. She became the first female to win the Classic, and by doing so earned the distinction of being the first horse to win the Ladies' Classic and Classic. It was an achievement one year in the making, and Zenyatta ensured her place in history with that triumph in the Classic.
Known for her unique dance in the walking ring, Zenyatta is one of racing's most colorful characters in recent memory. But on the track, she was all business. Male or female, it made no difference to her. They were opponents, and they were in for a fight when she was competing alongside them. There has been no one like her on the track before or since.
Given how she was a classic racehorse, perhaps no one but Zenyatta could have been the first to win those two Classics.