The 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic
A field of thirteen horses made their way onto Santa Anita's main track on November 7, 2009. The race was the Breeders' Cup Classic, the zenith of two days that saw the finest Thoroughbreds and jockeys compete at one of the sport's most iconic venues. This was not new, for Santa Anita had hosted the Breeders' Cup more than once since the event debuted in 1984, but this version of the Classic featured one element that captured the attention of the thousands occupying the grandstand and infield of the Arcadia track.
There was a full field for the Classic, but many people were looking at just one horse: Zenyatta.
By this point in her career, the daughter of Street Cry had gone undefeated in thirteen starts, equaling the mark set by Personal Ensign twenty-one years earlier. With her towering height, propensity to close from far back to win races, and confidence she showed on race days, Zenyatta had been a fan favorite in her nearly two year career. She knew what it was like to win on the Breeders' Cup stage, too. Only one year earlier, she had defeated her rivals in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic at Santa Anita. Now, she was getting a chance to make some history in front of her hometown fans.
No female horse had ever won the Classic, but many felt Zenyatta could be the first to do so. She was made the favorite for the race, probably a mix of both form as well as sentimentality. However, anyone who had seen Zenyatta in competition knew she had no problem getting involved in a battle.
Still, winning the Classic was no guarantee. First, Zenyatta had not yet tried 1 1/4 miles in her career, but no less than six of her opponents had won at the distance. Among those with a win at ten furlongs were Richard's Kid, the winner of that year's Del Mar Futurity; Summer Bird, who captured the Travers in August; Gio Ponti, who conquered the distance on turf; and Mine That Bird, the surprise champion of the Kentucky Derby. Second, Zenyatta and Mike Smith would have to be careful not to be too far back. Otherwise, there could be too much to do come the stretch run.
As the horses loaded into the starting gate, the race became delayed after Quality Road did not load and was thus scratched. Once the field lined up and began their quest for victory, Zenyatta was in her customary position at the back of the pack. Up front, Regal Ransom hustled to the lead and took the field down the stretch for the first time with Gio Ponti, Einstein, Colonel John, and Summer Bird all part of the first group. The second half of the field behind them were strung out, with Zenyatta not only in last place, but already down more than ten lengths to the leader at the first visit to the wire.
Up front, Regal Ransom controlled the pace, not moving quickly at all. The opening quarter mile was just over 24 seconds and the half a bit below 48 even. Down the backstretch, Zenyatta had gotten past Mine That Bird while quietly gained ground as the race moved into its second half. Going into the far turn, the pace had not increased, and Regal Ransom was still the clear leader. Rip Van Winkle was close by, as were Colonel John and Einstein. It looked like half the field had a chance to take the Classic, and there were certainly eyes on Zenyatta to see what she would do as the stretch run drew near.
She ran behind the majority of her opponents in the second turn, looking straight ahead. It was as if she was measuring the situation, looking for the right moment to unleash the run she had displayed all those times before.
The moment was not lost on Santa Anita's track announcer, Trevor Denman, who had made sure of Zenyatta's location throughout the race. He knew that everyone watching would focus on her, and as he mentioned Zenyatta again right before the top of the stretch, she began passing horses. It seemed like Zenyatta had heard Denman's voice, like it was her cue. The charge had begun.
In one sweeping move, she was ahead of more than half the field by the time she straightened into the stretch. Only five horses were ahead of her, but for a moment there was nowhere for her to go. Then, on the outside, a gap opened to give Zenyatta the perfect path. It was on the extreme outside, but Mike Smith saw it and went right for it.
At that moment, Denman and the fans simultaneously saw it. Tens of thousands of voices melded into one as Zenyatta's rally continued. She moved past the leaders, one by one, her gaze on the wire. She seemed to move effortlessly, and that patented confidence was on full display. No one was stopping her. No one could stop her.
With the crowd collectively cheering, Denman summed up what many were thinking as Zenyatta inched closer to the win. In the final seconds, Denman exclaimed, "THIS...IS...UN...BE...LEIVABLE!!!
She had done it. Zenyatta had beaten the boys, won at ten furlongs in her first try, and became the first female to win the Breeders' Cup Classic and the only horse to win both that and the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic (now Distaff). It became an instant classic, and one of the most memorable moments in both Santa Anita's history and the sport's history.
The tributes did not stop. Zenyatta's trainer, John Shirreffs, beamed proudly as his star mare achieved the biggest victory of her career. Her owners, Jerry and Ann Moss, were equally proud as they celebrated in the stands. As Zenyatta moved back to the frontstretch, the thousands in Santa Anita's grandstand saluted her as she made that triumphant walk to the winner's circle. Those who were there that day knew they had seen a powerful, virtuoso performance from a truly magical horse.
In the long history of both Thoroughbred racing and Santa Anita, Zenyatta captured her place in the fabric of both on that autumn afternoon in 2009. She once again proved herself a champion in front of her local fans and in front of millions.
A lot of words can describe the horse that is known as Queen Z: Towering, colorful, electrifying, determined, focused, and brilliant are just a few that come to mind. But there is one more that aptly fits her after that dazzling victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic.