Santa Anita Park, on the eastern side of Los Angeles, sits in the shadow of the majestic San Gabriel mountains. It was a regular haunt of Bing Crosby, Cary Grant and Errol Flynn, and the Marx Brothers’ movie A Day At The Races was filmed at the track. Nothing that had happened there, though, could compare to Zenyatta’s performance on 7 November 2009.
I first saw this gigantic filly, 17.2 hands, 12 months earlier when she was breezing home in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic at the same track. She had the physique of no filly I had seen before, or since, and could run like the wind. A year on she would surely need to, because this time she was to go up against the colts and no filly had won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the richest prize in American racing at $5m.
Jerry Moss – the M of A&M records – had bought her as a yearling for $60,000 and named her after the album Zenyatta Mondatta recorded by one of his label’s most successful acts, the Police. The music tycoon had already won the Kentucky Derby with Giacomo, named after Sting’s son and, like Zenyatta, trained by John Shirreffs.
The two days of the 2009 Breeders’ Cup had been a terrific success for the Europeans, with Sir Henry Cecil’s Midday among four victors from across the Atlantic. There were high hopes Aidan O’Brien’s Rip Van Winkle could cap it all as he was the 2-1 favourite for the 1m 2f Classic. Also in the field was Cecil’s Twice Over, whom he had famously described as his best friend.
Zenyatta was to be partnered by “Big Money Mike” Smith, whose career earnings surpassed $300m. Smith was nerveless and riding this mare he needed to be given her propensity for a sluggish start and becoming detached from the field. Her trademark was to pick up turning for home and sweep past the field in the final furlong, which she had done in each of her 13 starts.
American racegoers rarely become as animated as they do in Britain but “Go Zenyatta” posters had been handed out and the collective roar as the dozen horses left the gate was equal to anything I had heard before.
Few who witnessed the ensuing 2min 0.62sec had a full set of fingernails by the finish. With a circuit to go the commentator, Trevor Denman, in an increasingly urgent voice observed: “Zenyatta is dead last, gotta be giving them 11 lengths start,” and a half a mile out she was scarcely any nearer, having passed only one rival. Turning for home Denman informed us that “Zenyatta has a lot, a lot of ground to make up. If she wins this she will be a super horse.”
Meanwhile, Cecil’s Twice Over was making his move. But Smith held his nerve and didn’t ask Zenyatta for her effort until they straightened for home with only 300 yards to run. With dirt flying in the horse’s face he pulled her wide off the rails and the acceleration was Ferrari-esque. At the furlong pole she was only seventh but we all knew she was going to prevail.
In the end Zenyatta won by a length from Gio Ponti, with Twice Over third. Denman was beside himself: “This is un-be-lievable. What a performance. One of the most sensational ever.”
As she made her way back to the winners’ circle, I stood there in awe of the most exciting race I had ever witnessed.
A year later, with 19 wins from 19 races, she tried to repeat the feat, this time at Churchill Downs. She lost by a head, and was retired with that sole defeat to her name.
A couple of years later Frankel captured our hearts winning all 14 starts and was rightly hailed the best in history but for excitement nothing could compare with Zenyatta’s Classic win.