By Leslie Knauf
Champion mare and 2010 Horse of the Year Zenyatta never set foot in New York or in the upstate town of Saratoga Springs, but her firstborn son Cozmic One arrived at the renowned spa city's legendary racetrack last month to spend the summer learning about life as a racehorse.
A 2-year-old colt by Bernardini bred and owned by Jerry and Ann Moss, Cozmic One was first introduced to the saddle and to being ridden late last year at Mayberry Farm. The Ocala, Fla., training center has long been the first stop for the Moss' young Thoroughbreds—as it also was for Cozmic One's dam—when they are ready to leave the breeding farm in Kentucky.
"Coz," as the dark bay colt is known, was finally shipped north to Saratoga Race Course after spending nearly two months with John Shirreffs at the trainer's downstate base at Belmont Park, beginning his racing education in earnest.
Well-known for his patience and sensitive approach with horses, Shirreffs had some strategizing to do to get Cozmic One settled comfortably into an effective training program when the colt arrived at Belmont in late May.
"When he came from the farm, he'd had some time off," Shirreffs said one morning shortly after Cozmic One, with veteran exercise rider Kevlan Henry aboard, had jogged a few circuits of Saratoga's historic Oklahoma training track.
"They'd finished breaking him and they'd given him some gallops, so they decided they were going to give him a little time off," Shirreffs explained. "A lot of the better training centers have fields or large paddocks where they can turn (the young horses) out for some exercise.
"That was (Coz's) routine leaving the farm, so when he got here (to New York), suddenly he doesn't get to be turned out in the afternoon. It's a strange environment for him, and he doesn't really know anybody. Also, he's a young colt with a lot of energy that he needs to use in a positive way.
"My first thing was to find a way that we could exercise him without overdoing it. You don't want to just let him blast around the track a couple of times every day, and one of the reasons we couldn't really do that was that he hadn't had the recent exercise to strengthen his back.
"The big thing for us in the beginning was to strengthen his back so he could support the rider, and also (the challenge was) to find different ways of taking the edge off him without putting him in the field. That involved a lot of walking and things like that."
Cozmic One also demonstrated that, like his mother, he has quite a personality that he readily expresses.
"He's the kind of colt who's a little nippy," Shirreffs said, "so he liked to bite. That made it a little challenging to have him walk and have him nipping at the same time.
"It was just a matter of him learning about us, and we, in turn, learning what he is all about."
Over time, the lessons Shirreffs has imparted to Coz at the track have begun to make an impression on the young horse.
"We established a little bit of a routine so we could walk him maybe three times in the morning and then take him out and exercise him," the trainer said.
"He was a lot like his mother in that he recovered really quickly (from the exercise). He's got tremendous stamina. It was really difficult to get him tired, but you're sort of making these little baby steps moving forward."
Gradually allowed to do more, the colt started to get a sense of his future as a racehorse at Belmont before heading to the Spa in mid-July.
"He had a couple of two-minute clips at Belmont, then, coming up here was another change, but I thought it would be a really good change because one of the things about Saratoga for young horses is they get exposed to a lot," Shirreffs explained. "At Belmont the barns are very sheltered and enclosed, but here everything is open."
"It's a great experience for a young horse to deal with the golf carts going by, the clippity-clop of horses' hooves along the road—all that stuff gives them good experience, and if they get to be a nice horse in a big race with large crowds and random noises, they're used to it. They're exposed to it and aren't going to overreact to it. I thought that was really good."
Within the vast Saratoga racing complex, Shirreffs takes advantage of the facility's many options for showing Cozmic One a wide array of sights and sounds.
"Where I am at Oklahoma, if I want to go to Clare Court (a small enclave of barns and mini-training track located at the western end of the main track's backstretch area), it's a nice long walk there and walk back, so he gets exposed to the main track and horses galloping by," Shirreffs sad.
"Right now, it's all about exposing him to as much as we possibly can in a positive way, building up his muscles to support the weight of a rider, and, of course, a little bit of development of the cannon bones."
Shirreffs has seen some similarities in the young colt's progress to that of his famous dam—along with obvious differences.
"Well, of course, (Zenyatta) was a filly and he's a colt, so when a colt is standing on your foot and you push them to get off of it, he's going to push back—the filly will get off your foot—so it's a little bit different," he said.
"He is (like Zenyatta)—he's a very good mover. His carriage is getting a little bit better, his frame is really good, so when he gallops on the track now, he's learning to bow his head a little bit and carry himself a little better.
"He reminds me in quite a few ways of his mother. He's got great bone structure, he's got big, strong cannon bones, nice flat knees. He's got a lot of good qualities."
Shirreffs described Cozmic One as the equine equivalent of a young child.
"When do you ever see a child jog anywhere?" the trainer asked rhetorically. "They always want to run somewhere, right? That's what I say about Coz—Coz wants to run, so now we're trying to teach him to jog—a different pace.
"He's getting it. When he sees another horse on the track, he wants to go catch it right away. We'll save that and go back to that later."
Shirreffs also confirmed that Cozmic One learns quickly, as one might expect.
"Never underestimate how horses are learning. They're learning all the time," he explained. "Just like anybody—or any animal—they're trying to create the best world they can for themselves. They can't talk, so how you interact with that horse is very important. That will affect what kind of world they're going to create.
"It's very important because one thing you always want to do is create confidence. You want that horse to have confidence in his place, where he's going, everything around him. (You want) that horse to believe in that rider on his back—to go through that hole—or when he's tired, that rider is asking him to 'give me a little bit more,' all of that is very, very important."
Although it'll be too soon in his training program for Cozmic One to race at Saratoga, visual imagery might be yet another tool Shirreffs can use to deliver that extra bit of confidence for the colt to become a successful race horse when the time comes. Tacked on an inside wall of Coz's stall at Saratoga, courtesy of Ann Moss, is a color photo of the colt when he was a foal—with his mother, Zenyatta, by his side.
"Cosmic" inspiration, perhaps?
"You never know," Shirreffs said.