When it comes to watching a horse race, the most electrfying wins come from those who make brilliant rallies from the back of the pack. There is that wonder as to whether the horse will get up to the wire in time to snatch victory after appearing to be all but defeated just a few moments earlier. With each second, the crowd gets louder for the comeback, and horses can either win or lose by a nose after performing a tremendous charge in the stretch.
When it came to Zenyatta, who raced largely in California during her career during the late 2000s, she was, for many, the master of the comeback, defying the odds time after time. There were some close calls, and one rally that came up agonizingly short, but Zenyatta charged into the hearts of fans with her courageous attitude during her twenty starts.
Bred and owned by Jerry and Ann Moss, and trained by John Shirreffs, Zenyatta debuted in the autumn of 2007 at Hollywood Park. She rallied from well off the pace in that sprint, catching the leaders as she ran straight ahead, brimming with confidence. Her performance looked effortless, and the legend only grew from there.
Zenyatta went 7 for 7 during her 2008 campaign, and all of her wins came against graded stakes company. Among her triumphs were the Grade I Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park, the Grade I Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park, the Grade I Clement L. Hirsch at Del Mar, and the Grade I Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic (now Distaff) at Santa Anita. She always tracked the leaders from off the pace, most of the time several lengths down, but always found that gear that started her comeback. It was something to see, and there was always that potent acceleration she displayed in the stretch. Some tried to catch Zenyatta, but no one could. For her work as a four year old, she was honored with the Eclipse Award for Top Older Female.
The 2009 season consisted of five races for Zenyatta, and it was a year of repeats. Making return appearances in the Milady, Vanity Clement L. Hirsch and Lady's Secret, Zenyatta successfully defended her titles in those races, and then added the biggest win of her career that autumn when she defeated the boys to take the Breeders' Cup Classic in a stirring stretch run that sent the fans at Santa Anita in a frenzy. Zenyatta made history by becoming not only the first female horse to win the Classic, but also the first horse to win both the Classic and Ladies' Classic. She was a finalist for Horse of the Year and repeated as Top Older Female.
Initally, Zenyatta was to be retired, but she was brought back the following spring. Following a win in the Grade I Santa Margarita Handicap (which featured a daring move to the inside en route to the victory), Zenyatta made history in the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn, extending her undefeated streak to 16 and joining legends Cigar and Citation as members of that group. Up next was a third consecutive Vanity Handicap triumph (which featured a thrilling conclusion) that put her in a class by herself in terms of winning streaks, and then another score in the Clement L. Hirsch followed. At Hollywood Park, Zenyatta made it a triple in the Lady's Secret, and then came her career finale in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.
There was support for her as far as successfully defending her title in the main event, but early on she was far back, even more so than usual. Perhaps sensing the moment, Zenyatta made her rally once more, passing horse after horse until only one named Blame was in front. Zenyatta, being the fighter she was, did not stop until the wire, but this time the comeback was not successful. Her record stood at 19 wins and a second in 20 career starts.
Despite the defeat, it did not disgrace Zenyatta one bit. She captured a third straight Top Older Female title at the Eclipse Awards and was voted Horse of the Year, putting the fitting touches on a brilliant career.
For those who saw Zenyatta in action, they saw a racehorse who was as professional as any equine could be. She had a perfect sense of timing, knowing when to make her run, and she seemed to know she was the star. It was well known she performed a dance in the walking ring before races, and when she made her charge in the stretch, the roar from the crowd was deafening (particularly in the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic). By Thoroughbred standards, Zenyatta was tall at over 17 hands (1 hand equals 4 inches). Her height symbolized her towering presence on a racetrack, both literally and figuratively. She was a truly unique horse, a once in a generation type, and raced her way into legendary status.
In the fall of 2012, Santa Anita unveiled a statue of the horse known as the Queen. The sculptor of the tribute, Nina Kaiser, captured Zenyatta in motion, no doubt making one of her famous charges from behind.
Now, when patrons attend the racetrack and make their way to the main entrance to the grandstand by the Kingsbury Fountain, they see the horse who electrified the fans of California and the sport as a whole.
The Queen may be in Kentucky, but she still holds court in the Golden State and in the memories of those who saw her greatness in person.