Undefeated Zenyatta heads to Churchill Downs to defend her Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) crown riding a 19-race streak of perfection. For the third time in her career, she three-peated in a major grade I race when she used her patented late charge to score a half-length triumph over Switch in Oak Tree's $250,000 Lady's Secret Stakes (gr. I) (VIDEO) before 25,837 fans at Hollywood Park Oct. 2.
Racing closer than usual to a pedestrian pace for jockey Mike Smith, Zenyatta wound up her sweeping move rounding the final turn. She came under urging in the lane as Switch, who bounced to the lead at the head of the stretch, proved resolute in the drive. Trailing by nearly three lengths approaching mid-stretch, the 1-10 favorite Zenyatta kept coming, however, getting control in the final strides while inching away at the wire.
``She seems to know where the wire is at and she likes to make it a little dramatic,'' Smith said. ``It's just incredible.''
Zenyatta completed the 1 1/16-mile trip in 1:42.97 for her 11th victory at the distance. She registered her eighth win over her home track. The 6-year-old daughter of Street Cry also completed her third consecutive three-peat following victories in the Vanity Handicap (gr. I) at Hollywood Park June 13 and the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes (gr. I) at Del Mar Aug. 7. It was her 13th grade I win and ninth at that level in a row.
``She has so much heart,'' trainer John Shirreffs said. ``She digs down every time.''
The complexion of the race changed when likely pacesetter, Rinterval, flipped in the paddock and cut herself. She was scratched by the track veterinarian, reducing the field to five.
Instead, Moon de French took control out of the gate and set moderate fractions --:24.67, :48.70, and 1:13.06 -- as Emmy Darling and Switch, along the rail, tracked in second and third. Switch, angled to the outside of her pace rivals by Alonso Quinonez, made an aggressive move to take control and opened a clear advantage in the lane.
Zenyatta, about six lengths off the pace when she commenced her bid, was cutting into the lead gradually as the two leaders drove toward the wire. But it was not until Smith asked her for more at mid-stretch that she really turned it on, getting up with room to spare.
Shirreffs pounded his rolled-up racing program against his chest after Zenyatta sailed across the finish line.
``She's a heart-stopper in so many ways,'' he said, smiling.
Zenyatta's exercise rider Steve Willard held his right hand over his heart, a relieved smile on his face.
``I'm sweating so much. Oh my God! It's just fabulous,'' said Dottie Ingordo Shirreffs, the trainer's wife and racing manager for Zenyatta's owners, Jerry and Ann Moss.
Switch, ridden superbly Quinonez, finished second by 4 3/4 lengths over Moon de French and Satans Quick Chick, who dead-heated for third. Emmy Darling trailed.
``I thought I was home free at the eighth pole,'' Quinonez said. ``I couldn't see Zenyatta coming because I was so into riding my horse. We lost, but it was exciting.''
Switch's trainer, John Sadler, was happy even in defeat.
``I've been tiptoeing around the barn all morning, saying, `I know we're going to give them a scare,' " Sadler said. ``To run second to the best horse in the world and one of the greats of all time is huge. I'm very, very excited.''
Zenyatta earned a free pass to the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic (gr. I) Nov. 5 at Churchill Downs. However, Jerry Moss said after the race that Zenyatta would next run in the $5 million BC Classic a day later "if she comes out (of the race) OK."
He added, ``I'm jazzed and I'm ready.''
The BC Classic would likely be the final race of her career.
The victory tied Zenyatta with Peppers Pride, who raced against New Mexico bred opposition before she retired unbeaten in 2008, for most consecutive wins in modern Throughbred history.
``She's done some amazing things the last sixteenth of a mile,'' Shirreffs said. ``Her heart must be huge.''
The victory was worth $150,000 and boosted the dark bay/brown mare's career total to $6,404,580. She broke the female earnings record for horses that have raced in North America of $6,334,296 established by the great Ouija Board, who retired in 2006.
Shirreffs said he was touched by the outpouring of affection from the fans for Zenyatta.
``The fans really demonstrate how I feel inside,'' the low-key Shirreffs said. ``I can't really show those emotions, so I really enjoy them getting into it because that's exactly how I feel.''
Zenyatta didn't disappoint, putting on her usual pre-race show by goose-stepping around the paddock as the crowd cheered her and Smith. Among her high-profile fans were Penny Chenery, owner of Triple Crown winner Secretariat; actress Bo Derek; and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Afterward, Smith stopped Zenyatta at the top of the grandstand to check out the crowd, then guided her to the middle of the track while she received a standing ovation.
Smith held up his right index finger, signaling No. 1.
``She's just amazing,'' he said.
Zenyatta was bred in Kentucky by Maverick Production. She is out of the Kris S. mare Vertigineux.
Zenyatta paid $2.20 and $2.10 and teamed with 4-1 second choice Switch ($2.60) for a $4 exacta. There was no show payoff.