Shirreffs Having More Common Time
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Breeders' Cup 2011 is a much calmer affair for John Shirreffs.

He’s got two solid contenders for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships this year, but for trainer John Shirreffs things are a whole lot calmer than they were in 2010 when he shipped from his Southern California base to Churchill Downs. As the conditioner of the then-undefeated icon Zenyatta, it would be wrong to say that every one of his moves was made under the microscope. It was more like an electron microscope.

“With Zenyatta, every hair was watched. Everyone was all over her every step she took,” said Shirreffs. “It’s a much different feel now.”

Zenyatta has moved on to broodmare work at Will Farish’s Lane’s End Farm in Kentucky, where she is currently about seven months pregnant with her first foal, by Bernardini  . She is a much different looking horse now than she was at the racetrack, displaying none of the martial dance steps and pawing at the ground that she became famous for while preparing to do battle.

“That’s why we tried to get as many people in to see her when she was in training,” Shirreffs noted after being told Zenyatta looks like, well, a horse these days. “It’s a unique experience to see a horse like that when they’re trim and in training and looking special.”

Shirreffs, his wife, Dottie; and Jerry and Ann Moss kept their star accessible far more than other operations would have in an attempt to satisfy Zenyatta’s millions of fans, and succeeded in no small part because of the way the laid-back Shirreffs was able to handle the very unusual circumstances.

“Oh yeah, it’s easier and more relaxed,” he said by phone before shipping to Kentucky. “I’m sitting in the barn staring at the wall.”

Shirreffs perked up while discussing Mr. Commons, however. “Oh my gosh, yes, he’s got so much natural ability and he’s extremely resilient. It takes very little out of him when he does something.”

Mr. Commons raced once last year as a 2-year-old, and has had an eventful seven-race schedule thus far in 2011. He has run multiple times on dirt and his last three outings on the turf. After a maiden score and an allowance victory, Mr. Commons ran third in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) and then was unplaced in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I).

“When he ran on the dirt he’d get anxious and displace in his races,” said Shirreffs. “After the Preakness we changed equipment on him and he calmed down.”

Since then, the son of Artie Schiller   has won the Oceanside Stakes on Del Mar’s turf, then missed by a nose in the Del Mar Mile Handicap (gr. IIT) and by three-quarters of a length when second in the Oak Tree Mile (gr. IIT).

“Really, nothing has gone his way in any race he’s run recently,” said Shirreffs. “In his last race he threw a hissy fit at the gate and banged his head and broke slowly. The holes haven’t opened up for him. One of these times things are going to go his way and he’s going to be double-tough.”

Mr. Commons was bred by and races for Ian Banwell’s St. George Farm. Banwell, who owns and runs an investment management company in South Carolina, has built an impressive Thoroughbred operation in just more than a decade in the sport. He owns 25 broodmares and has a similar number in training, some of which he races with G. Watts Humphrey. Mr. Commons represents just what Banwell is seeking to produce.

“I prefer to breed for the grass,” he said. “I see it as an interesting opportunity primarily because a lot of other people don’t. Our broodmares have that turf slant to them, and we like to breed routers.”

Shirreffs, bloodstock agent David Ingordo, and farm trainer Mickey Prager all agreed that Mr. Commons would move up when shifted to the grass, but he still faces a tall task tackling the likes of Goldikova.

“We’re in against one of the greatest horses ever and a host of accomplished older horses,” noted Banwell, “but with that said, we’re very encouraged. I think our horse has an improving line that compares favorably at least with the other American entries.”

And he’s also got a trainer who knows how to handle the pressures that the sport can deal out.

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