In what could be her final start in California, the great Zenyatta remained undefeated with her 18th consecutive win in rather routine fashion by a neck in the $300,000 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes (gr. I) (VIDEO) Aug. 7 at Del Mar.
Before an admiring crowd of 32,536 at the seaside track, 6-year-old Zenyatta won the Hirsch for the third consecutive time while capturing her 12th grade I victory, this time over a mediocre field.
Rated off a dawdling pace for the 1 1/16-mile event by Mike Smith, Zenyatta was closer to the lead than usual and went for an early move while five wide to draw even with the leaders in upper stretch.
She edged past pacesetter Rinterval just past mid-stretch, but Rinterval, ridden by Rafael Bejarano, fought back to make it interesting. While it was the second-closest finish of her career, it never appeared that Zenyatta was in danger, winning with her ears pricked while urged slightly by Smith.
"She was literally playing," Smith told TVG afterward. "I hit the button a little too soon. When she gets in front, she thinks its over. She wants to salute the fans."
Owner Jerry Moss, a Grammy Award winner and founder of A &M Records, added, "It's all sweet. Having this horse is a miracle. It's so great the fans turn out for her."
Asked if Zenyatta might return later in the meet for the $1 million Pacific Classic (gr. I), Moss said, "I don't think so. This was her spot (at Del Mar). We want to run a mile-and-a-quarter later this year (in the Breeders' Cup) and save her for that."
Speculation all week surrounded whether Zenyatta would run. Trainer John Shirreffs expressed concern with the cuppy condition of the Polytrack. But the strapping mare arrived in San Diego on Aug. 4 and galloped easily around the track each morning befor the race as expectation built. The track gave away drink glasses to the public with Zenyatta's likeness on them.
"I'm glad it turned out well," Shirreffs said. "I've seen her run 18 times and I've seen her make that same kind of big kick."
Shirreffs has mentioned the Beldame Stakes (gr. I), a 1 1/8-mile race at Belmont Park Oct. 2, as a possibility for Zenyatta's final start before she defends her title in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) at Churchill Downs Nov. 6.
Rinterval finished a gutsy second, with Princess Taylor third. The final time was a slow 1:45.03 over a Polytrack that played heavy all day, though the final sixteenth was completed in 5.94 seconds.
Smith said he "got after my mare a little bit" in the late stages.
"That mare that hooked her today (Rinterval) was game," Smith said. "Good for her. But we got it done. She was Zenyatta. She's something to believe in."
Bejarano said he didn't want Rinterval to be in front early but had no choice.
"She was going OK," he said. "I tried to wait, but she (Zenyatta) came up outside me and I had to go. If I could have waited a little more, maybe it would have been different. But the winner deserved it. She was good."
Zenyatta, a dark bay or brown mare by Street Cry out of the Kris S. mare Vertigineux, went off at 1-10 and paid $2.20 and and $2.10. There was no show wagering. She earned $180,000 to push her career total to $6,254,580 and draw closer to 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.
Rinterval led the field of six early soon after the start but was crawling along through quarter-mile fractions of :25.41, :50.61, and 1:15.11 while tracked closely by Dance to My Tune and Princess Taylor. Zenyatta was fifth and about seven to eight lengths off the pace on the backstretch, Smith no doubt taking into consideration the short Del Mar stretch that almost got Zenyatta beat in last year's Hirsch.
It looked like Zenyatta would blow past her rivals after drawing even in the lane but she hooked Rinterval, a 5-year-old Irish-bred mare who had displayed some ability in fighting the 2009 champion female sprinter Informed Decision to a head decision when second in the Chicago Handicap (gr. III) on Arlington's Polytrack July 4. Zenyatta won with Smith waving his whip at her in the final furlong.
Rinterval, who led by a head at the eighth pole, was second by 2 1/4 lengths, returning $3.80 and completing a $9.20 exacta. Princess Taylor, ridden by Victor Espinoza, finished a clear third by 3 3/4 lengths, followed by Spring Style, Dance to My Tune and Made for Magic.
Zenyatta carried top weight of 123 pounds under allowance conditions, spotting her rivals just two to four pounds.
As is her custom, Zenyatta took her time returning for the winner's circle photo, stopping to check out the crowd and throw out a few of her dance steps.
Zenyatta won the 2008 Hirsch by one length before her close escape in last year's race, in which she nipped Anabaa's Creation by a head at the wire. In winning for the third time, she joined a select group of horses to have won the same stake at Del Mar three consecutive times. The others were Track Gal, who won the Rancho Bernardo Handicap (gr. III) from 1995-97, Flawlessy, who captured the grade I John C. Mabee Handicap (then the Ramona Handicap) in 1992-94, and Native Diver, winner of the San Diego Handicap from 1963-65.
With 18 victories in a row, she owns the modern-day record for consecutive victories in races not restricted to state-bred horses. Only Peppers Pride, who won 19 in succession against New Mexico-bred competition, has won more.
Kentucky-bred Zenyatta, from Street Cry’s first crop, was picked up at Keeneland four years ago for a bargain price of $60,000. She was spotted by bloodstock agent David Ingordo in the consignment of Winter Quarter Farm, which sold her on behalf of her breeder Maverick Productions.
Because of heavy action on the winner, there was a minus place pool of $94,675.39.