LOS ANGELES -- It reads like a cliched Tinseltown script. There's a music mogul, a model, a Vietnam vet, a salty sidekick, and a God-fearing, battle-scarred best friend who's looking for one last hurrah. They all orbit around one majestic female, a superior athlete whose dramatic flair and camera-friendly personality has energized a downtrodden sport. And in the final act, our heroine faces off against the world's best competitors -- all men -- in a showdown with history.
Of course, it's all true. And fittingly, Zenyatta -- the star of this tale, and horse racing's best story in decades -- lives at a place called Hollywood Park.
In a Deadspin era of loutish athletes, lewd text messages and litigious team owners, Zenyatta's climb to the top of thoroughbred racing feels out of place, like a relic from a more innocent sports world. There's no drug scandal or cheating accusation lurking on the periphery. There are no agents, marketing representatives or corporate sponsors involved. And even rivals admit that they'll be supporting her Saturday in what will likely be her final race, the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. Zenyatta has been tabbed as the 8-5, morning-line favorite from post eight in the 12-horse field.
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"We all want to win, but we don't mind getting beat by her," Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert told reporters last week.
Horse racing will likely never enjoy the popularity it once had in American life, but even for those who could care less about the so-called "Sport of Kings," Zenyatta is worth knowing. She is, quite possibly, the greatest female racehorse of all-time, an undefeated champion who has won all 19 races she's entered, including 13 "Grade 1" events, the highest rung of racing. Her winning streak is the longest in horse racing history, a feat no other thoroughbred -- including legends such as Secretariat and Man O'War and more recent champions such as Smarty Jones or Sunday Silence -- can match.
She has beaten girls and she has beaten boys. Last year, she became the first female to win the Breeders' Cup Classic, which unlike the Triple Crown races is open to horses older than three years old and is generally considered the world's premier competition. Zenyatta has also never had to pull out of a race, a remarkable achievement in a sport where horses enter fewer races than ever -- and where the slightest injury can lead to death on the track.
On the track, Zenyatta is the rare horse with a distinctive style. She always comes from behind. Like Michael Jordan's outstretched tongue or Fernando Valenzuela's skyward glance, Zenyatta's late-charging runs have become her athletic signature, a defining trait that has become part of her mythology. In nearly every race of her career, she appears sluggish -- almost indifferent -- until the absolute end, when she darts to the outside and goes for broke. It's a habit that's exasperating and exhilarating, even for those who know her best.
"She has the want inside of her to catch that last target, and you can't really teach that," says Steve Willard, the willowy, sharp-tongued 67-year-old who is Zenyatta's practice rider. (In the Zenyatta screenplay, he is the salty sidekick.) "Sometimes you gotta ask her and she'll go, 'oh okay, there it is,' but that's what makes her so special," he told FanHouse. "She comes from out of it every time."
It has all come together -- the team, the winning, the style -- to create a phenomenon that has propelled Zenyatta beyond the insular thoroughbred world and into the upper reaches of mainstream media. She's been spotlighted by "60 Minutes" and Oprah Winfrey, whose magazine recently featured Zenyatta in its rundown of the most powerful women in the world. (Also making the list: Julia Roberts, Vera Wang and Diane Sawyer.) Zenyatta is likely the first 1,200-pound animal with a Twitter feed, a Facebook profile (31,000 and growing) and a commemorative stein. But for all the 21st century trappings of success, her ascent has been decidedly old-school, overseen by a close-knit -- and colorful -- inner circle.
A Bronx, N.Y. native and Brooklyn College graduate, Jerry Moss had never seen a horse race until his early 30s, when a pair of influential disc jockeys in San Francisco took him to the track. It was the mid-'60s, and he had recently founded A&M Records with legendary trumpet player Herb Alpert. The label would go on to become one of the iconic shingles in the music business, as Moss and Alpert discovered, produced and marketed a string of memorable artists, including Quincy Jones, Liza Minelli, Joe Cocker, Janet Jackson, Bryan Adams, and The Police.
But in the label's nascent years, Moss would do anything to get a record in rotation, and Tom Donohue and Billy Mitchell, the San Francisco DJs, were big horse fans. "They probably dragged me to the park -- it was either Bay Meadows or Tanforan, neither of which exist anymore -- but those guys were the fathers of rock and roll, and if you went out with them, you pretty much covered the market," Moss. "They were wild and crazy guys who owned horses, and I caught the bug."
Moss's luck with the ponies started early. His first horse, Angel Tune, which he bought with Alpert, won its second race at Santa Anita racetrack in Southern California. "It was like a miracle," he says.
Throughout the '70s, he drifted in and out of horse racing, learning about the sport from noted horseman Bobby Frankel, who was voted "Trainer of the Year" five times. (Moss's relationship with Frankel came about, of course, through music -- singer/songwriter Burt Bacharach introduced them.)
Moss got more involved in the sport after marrying his wife Ann, a former model, in 1979. Their horses won several notable races, including 1990 Santa Anita Handicap and the 1994 Kentucky Oaks, the all-female showcase held the day before the Derby. Then they really hit the jackpot in 2005, when Giacomo -- named for the son of Sting, the lead singer of The Police and one of Moss's close friends -- won the Kentucky Derby as a 50-1 shot, the second-longest odds to win horse racing's most famous race.
The man who trained Giacomo -- and who has overseen Zenyatta for her entire career -- is John Shirreffs, a low-key, bespectacled man who could pass for an insurance executive. Like Moss, he did not grow up around thoroughbreds, and got into the sport after volunteering to serve in Vietnam as a marine. "I kind of fell into it," says Shirreffs, 65, who apprenticed for years at the Kentucky horse farm owned by media baron Marshall Naify. He became a full-fledged trainer about 15 years ago, and the Mosses brought him on in 2000.
Shirreffs doesn't have the pizazz of Baffert, the silver-haired Arizonan who's famous for his quips, or the gravitas of D. Wayne Lukas, who's trained the winners of 13 Triple Crown races and is usually easy to spot in his trademark white cowboy hat. But he has also never been penalized for using illegal drugs on his horses -- and with Zenyatta in particular, he's shown remarkable patience in a sport that is obsessed with youth and precocious prospects. Shirreffs did not believe Zenyatta was ready to race until late in her third year, after the lucrative Triple Crown events had been run.
"John is always cautious, he wants a horse to be in absolutely great shape, because you want the race to be a pleasant experience for the animal," says Moss. "It's just like with humans -- you want to feel good when you come to work."
More than anyone else, Shirreffs describes the horse in human terms, extolling the virtues of her "engaging" personality. "She's a confidante," he told FanHouse. "If you want to go up and talk to her, she's not going to pin her ears and try to bite you. You can go up to talk to her and you can pet her and say, 'You know, I'm having a really rough day today Zenyatta, but what do you think?' "
Shirreffs even shares the ultimate guy's pastime with his horse -- beer. Trainers have served thoroughbreds beer for years, both as way to maintain the animal's weight and as a relaxant. For her part, Zenyatta likes Guinness, the rich Irish stout. "Horses spend so much time in a stall, and you want to have something for them to look forward to, or something to be happy about or something to lift their mood," says Shirreffs. Adds Willard, the practice rider: "Don't you feel better after a beer?"
Another owner might have pushed back against a cautious trainer, but Moss doesn't believe in rushing a career -- be it in music or horse racing. "You've got to let it develop naturally," he said Saturday at Hollywood Park, where a crowd of about 100 fans clamored outside stable 55, Zenyatta's home, to get a closer look at the mare and introduce themselves to the owners. Managing horses, much like managing musicians, "is about building someone up so they can be at their best at the right time, and then letting fans get into them," he says.
Moss and his wife also had a special feeling about Zenyatta. They first met her just prior to the September 2005 Keeneland yearling sale, one of the industry's biggest auctions. "We just fell in love with this long silky horse. We were just looking at her and she put her head on my wife's shoulder -- that's very unusual," said Moss.
The average sale price that year for a one-year-old horse was $471,872. Jerry and Ann Moss bought horse No. 703 -- later known as Zenyatta -- for $60,000. "When the price stopped, we were thrilled," says Moss, who gave the horse another Sting-inspired moniker, naming her after "Zenyatta Mondata," The Police's 1980 album. To date, Zenyatta has earned just over $6.4 million, ranking her 15th all time. (Curlin, the 2007 Preakness winner, is the all-time earnings leader with about $10.5 million in winnings.)
At the time of her sale, Zenyatta's value was somewhat diminished because she experienced a case of ringworm around the time of the auction, and it also wasn't clear whether her father Street Cry, who had won the Dubai World Cup in 2004, would be a reliable sire. The market forces were clearly wrong. Zenyatta's rash healed fairly quickly, and Street Cry has proven to be a rock star in the breeding shed. In the same crop that produced Zenyatta, he also sired Street Sense, the 2007 Kentucky Derby champion and runner-up in that year's Preakness Stakes.
Once Zenyatta did begin racing, it was only a matter of time before Mike Smith took the reins as her jockey. Smith rode Giacomo and has been atop nearly 5,000 other winning horses during his stellar career. He was inducted into Horse Racing's Hall of Fame in 2003 and his horses have earned more than $213 million. He also nearly lost his livelihood -- and his life -- after two separate on-track accidents in 1998, including an awful spill at Saratoga Springs in which he somersaulted into the shrubs and was walloped by a 1,300-pound horse named Dacron. He suffered two broken vertebrae in his back and was in a body cast for months.
He eventually rehabilitated and moved to Southern California, where Smith hooked up with Shirreffs and the Mosses. At 42, and with persistent pain in his back, Smith realizes that Saturday's Classic may not only be Zenyatta's finale -- it could very well be his swan song, too. "I told myself about a week ago that I'm going to enjoy it," said Smith on Saturday. "I don't know if any rider has ever been in this situation. Not only are we favored, but she's running against the boys again, and you're going for 20-0, which in itself is overwhelming."
"But [Zenytatta] does what she does, I do what I do, we've done it a thousand times," says Smith. "And we're going to go out and do it again."
As great as she is, Zenyatta is not a savior for the sport, no matter how well she performs on Saturday. By just about every measure, thoroughbred racing is dying. With the exception of one or two venues, racetrack attendance is plummeting, and overall wagering on horses -- the lifeblood of the business -- has dropped dramatically over the last four years. So far in 2010, total U.S. pari-mutuel "handle," the industry term for wagers, is down 7.2 percent, following last year's decline of nearly 10 percent. Since 2003, total wagering has dipped nearly 25 percent, and tracks are sharply reducing their number of races.
"Zenyatta has created an awful lot of interest, but once she retires, it will dissipate very quickly," says Rick Porter, the owner of Eight Belles, the filly that was euthanized on the track after finishing second in the 2008 Kentucky Derby. "I don't think [the winning streak] is going to do anything long term to change the sport."
The breeding and sales market has also been hammered by the broader economic recession. As recently as two years ago, top sires such as AP Indy or Storm Cat could fetch as much as $300,000 per mating, In 2008, the owners of Big Brown, that year's Kentucky and Preakness champion, sold an ownership stake in the horse to Three Chimneys Farm, a top breeding facility, in a deal that reportedly valued the thoroughbred at nearly $50 million. Times have changed: The top sires are now lucky to fetch $100,000 per mating, and the auction market has dropped off a cliff: Overall sales at the 2010 September yearling auction at Keeneland were about $200 million, down nearly 50 percent from 2006.
On top of all that is the byzantine oversight of horse racing, which has no central governing body or commissioner. There are competing organizations for racetracks, breeders, trainers, and jockeys, with little coordinated promotion and advertising. "It's upside down and it's got to change," says Jess Jackson, the wine mogul and horse breeder who owns Curlin, the all-time money leader. "If you can market poker and NASCAR, you know you can market thoroughbred racing -- it's a far more beautiful sport."
Jackson laments the influence of "insiders" in the Kentucky and New York horse racing establishments, as well the market forces that have empowered venue operators -- not horse owners -- to determine purses. He also would have liked to see Rachel Alexandra, his female champion and the 2009 Preakness winner, race against Zenyatta. The two standouts were scheduled to face each other earlier this year at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, but Rachel pulled out just prior to the race. (Zenyatta entered the race anyway, and won.)
Some thoroughbred insiders snipe that Moss, Shirreffs and Dottie Ingordo, Shirreff's wife and the stable's racing manager, have not challenged Zenyatta enough -- that too many of her wins have come against inferior competition and on synthetic surfaces, which numerous owners would like to see eliminated. "She certainly is a special horse, something very extraordinary, but from my perspective the overall campaign they have run has been cautious," says Jackson.
Moss has little patience for the critics. He points out that Zenyatta has won twice in Arkansas, beat a field of male competitors at least year's Breeders' Classic, and that extensive travel is neither easy nor cheap. "We beat whoever showed up. I can't arrange races, I can't entice horses to come race my horse," says Moss. Win or lose, he's comfortable with her place in history. "I think her fate has already been determined -- she's the perfect horse."
Linda Watson would agree. Last Saturday, she came to Hollywood Park clad in a black Zenyatta T-shirt and black Zenyatta hat, with a Zenyatta-shaped charm on her necklace. "A horse like this just does stuff for your soul, they're breathtaking," says Watson, who used to work at Santa Anita racetrack. Moments later, when Zenyatta stopped dramatically and posed as fans snapped photos, Watson went up to Moss and hugged him. "Thank you, Jerry," she said. "Thank you for sharing her with us."