Trainer John Shirreffs

Trainer John Shirreffs

Anne M. Eberhardt

Shirreffs: Classic Winner Zenyatta is HOY

Mare's spine-tingling victory over males heats debate.

A day after undefeated Zenyatta became a giant of the racing world with a spine-tingling victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I), trainer John Shirreffs said she should be Horse of the Year over favored Rachel Alexandra.

"I would think so after her performance yesterday, beating that field," he said during a phone conference with reporters on the morning of Nov. 8. "She should be Horse of the Year."

In the 1 1/4-mile Classic, the 5-year-old Zenyatta closed from last in electrifying fashion to win by one length as 58,845 roared their approval, becoming the first female in the 26-year history of the event to win it.

Expected to be retired by owners Jerry and Ann Moss, the mammoth daughter of Street Cry–Vertigineux (by Kris S.) went out on top with her 14th consecutive victory, defeating a field that included 10 grade or group I winners in the Classic. It was her eighth grade I win.

"She defeated one of the best Breeders' Classic fields assembled in a long time," Shirreffs noted. He said Zenyatta's performance, including her prancing and posing before the race as well as her amazing come-from-behind style in winning it, makes her the crowd-pleasing favorite.

"How can you not say she's Horse of the Year," he asked, noting her 14-for-14 record and unprecedented win in the Classic. "How about horse of the decade? For me, she's the horse of a lifetime."

Shirreffs said it he was disappointment that Zenyatta and the 3-year-old Rachel Alexandra will apparently never meet as a result of different racing programs and the reluctance of Rachel Alexandra's connections to race on a synthetic track. But he said that should not detract from Zenyatta's accomplishments.

He noted that many East Coast-based writers, who are the ones who will decide the Horse of the Year question, got their first chance to see Zenyatta in person for the first time.

"It was great to win on racing's biggest day," Shirreffs said. "It's the way she does it. Stars make the game.

"It was electric, the feeling was electric," he said when asked his reaction at the time. Watching the race from the rail at the sixteenth pole, the normally reserved trainer said he threw his ever-present baseball cap into the crowd.

"The way the crowd was yelling for Zenyatta and for me, well, something had to go," he laughed. "It couldn't get any better than that."

Zenyatta won last year's Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic (gr. I) en route to an Eclipse Award as the nation's top older filly or mare, Shirreffs' only Cup win from 15 starters previously. He won two more this weekend, with Life Is Sweet winning this year's Ladies' Classic.

Shirreffs said he expected to have the Marty and Pam Wygod-owned Life Is Sweet back in training next year, but said Zenyatta is likely go to the breeding shed after given some time to unwind from her racing career, which included a 5-for-5 campaign in 2009.

"We're going to miss her a lot but (her accomplishments) will be with us for a long, long time," he said.

After her win in the $4,545,000 Classic, Zenyatta left Santa Anita for Shirreff's Hollywood Park stable at about 8 p.m.

The morning after, there was no sign of the war the gentle mare had just won. She placidly munched grass outside her stall and stared at the neighboring Home Depot, taking an occasional stroll around the small open area with her groom, Mario Espinoza.

Espinoza, who is also the groom of Life Is Sweet, was asked if this was the best weekend of his life. "Oh, yes," he responded.

"My feeling while watching (Zenyatta's) race was that I think I'm going to have a heart attack," Espinoza said. 

"She has evolved into something great," Shirreffs said. "It was the biggest stage in the world and she performed. She has always stepped up."

Not only did Zenyatta carry the weight of the crowd's expectations as the pari-mutuel and sentimental favorite, she has to overcome one of the strongest Classic fields ever in her first try at 10 furlongs. She endured a 12-minute delay at the start as the gate crew struggled with the recalcritrant Quality Road, who would be scratched. She broke flat-footed and gave the field quite a head start before jockey Mike Smith was able to get her back into the race on the backstretch.

"There was so much at stake," Shirreffs said. "All of the fans wanted to see her win and Horse of the Year was on the line. As they say in poker, we were all in. And she came through."

Shirreffs said the Classic win was better than winning the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) with Giacomo in 2005.

"Giacomo won the Derby at 50-1, but hardly anybody knew him," he said. "But everybody knew Zenyatta. She stood center stage. For her to win it under those circumstances, it was amazing."