Is Zenyatta the best racehorse ever?
This story was first published Oct. 31, 2010. It was updated on April 29, 2011.
It's Kentucky Derby week, so we decided to revisit the most popular female athlete of our time, and the most accomplished. She took on the boys at every opportunity and left them defeated and distraught. The most they could hope for was a poor second.
We met Zenyatta in October last year and it was, as they say, love at first sight. She was indisputably the queen in the sport of kings. Zenyatta was 19 for 19 at the time, which is unheard of in horse racing at that level. And she was about to enter her 20th and last race. It was the $5 million Breeders' Cup, the Super Bowl of the sport. She had won it in 2009 and we knew she would win it again.
She just did not know how to lose. But she did. She lost, by a nose. Objective, impartial journalists that we are, we were heartbroken.
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Extra: Working at the stable
She started out way behind, but she always did. That was the way she raced. As the finish line approached, she would go for broke and let the boys eat her dust. It was a strategy that caused coronaries, but it worked. And it seemed to be working this time too.
She was way back at the turn for home. But coming down the stretch, she fired off her rockets and started passing them all. Even the announcer thought she was going to pull it off.
And she almost did. But that wire came just 15 feet too soon.
When we started hanging out with Zenyatta, we were struck, not so much by her might as by her magnificence. She is quite simply the most splendid creature we'd ever seen. She's big for a mare, taller than most of the boys in the stable, and very calm.
Thoroughbreds are supposed to be high strung and hot blooded but there's something Zen about Zenyatta. She loves kids and welcomes strangers, particularly when they come bearing gifts.
The mere sight of Zenyatta can bring tears to the eyes of people who've been around horses all their lives. Perhaps it's her perfection, the sense that like the music of Mozart, you can't imagine a more beautiful creation.
But when she hits the track, there is a personality change you can barely believe. She becomes obsessed, it seems, with showing the boys that she is faster and tougher than any one of them. She drives people into fits of frenzy.
Her Hall of Fame jockey, Mike Smith, has won all the races in the Triple Crown, and nearly 5,000 more.
"How does Zenyatta compare to the other horses you've been on who won these championship races?" correspondent Bob Simon asked.
"She means more to me than all those," Smith said.
Asked if he can explain why, Smith said, "She's just who she is. She's Zenyatta. She's incredible. She's done everything that we've ever asked of her."
Where did she live? Where else - Hollywood! And at more than 1,200 pounds, she was the biggest star in town. The camera loved her and she loved the camera. Before every race she posed and strutted and did a little dance. But once on the track, she became a Ferrari racing against a pack of Volvos.
Track announcer Vic Stauffer has called Zenyatta's races from the very start, which is when she was just another horse. "And the bad start has Zenyatta at the back of the pack," Stauffer said during the second race.
That's where Zenyatta has always started - in the back, lingering languidly as if she's on a Sunday outing. But then she turns up the juice and slams into high gear.
Produced by Tom Anderson Vic Stauffer realized early on that this was one fast girl with a hell of a future. "And that's when you knew you were really lookin' at somethin' very special," he told Simon.
"She always comes from behind. You ever go a little bit crazy when she's way behind?" Simon asked.
"Again, yeah, because I've become a fan and I've rooted for her. But, that's just all part of the theater of her. She passes them all and I have a feeling that if there were ten more in front of her, she'd just pass them," Stauffer replied.
Jockey Mike Smith told Simon, "I think that's what keeps her sound and keeps her happy is that she only does what she has to do."
"So you might not have been on her at her fastest yet?" Simon asked.
"I truly don't believe I have. I've always, in every race that I've ridden her in, I've always felt that there was another gear if I needed it," Smith said.
But her beginnings did not seem special at all. The only thing remarkable about her was her price: she was bought at an auction when she was one year old for only $60,000.
John Shirreffs has been her trainer ever since. "We were just really blessed and fortunate," he told Simon.
Asked how they got her so cheap, Shirreffs said, "Well, I think because she had skin disease she had a form of ringworm so she wasn't particularly attractive at the sale."
Shirreffs told Simon she had a rash at the time.
"So, it's been from rash to riches?" Simon joked. "I don't quite believe I said that."
Under Shirreffs' tutelage, Zenyatta has won more than $6 million. But she was a late starter, not ready and too immature, Shirreffs thought, to run in the big races when she was a little kid.
Asked why he didn't run her in the Kentucky Derby when she was three years old, Shirreffs told Simon, "You know, she wasn't, as a three year old, she wasn't ready to race. You know, it took her a long time to mature into the horse she is now. And we just had to be patient with her."
Shirreffs gave Zenyatta time to grow up, and insisted on doing it at his own pace, without ever losing his temper. He thinks horses know when people are tense and they don't like it. We spent nearly a week with Zenyatta and, for a celebrity of her stature, we had unusual access. We could watch her beauty treatments in the morning, the bandaging of her legs in the afternoon. We played with her on the lawn which was planted just for her.
Zenyatta's owners, Ann and Jerry Moss, who made their fortune in the music business, knew how to pamper their starlet.
"She's touched and handled by 14, oh, at least 14 people a day," Jerry Moss said.
"She's touched by 14 people a day?" Simon asked.
"Over 14," Moss replied. "At least 14 people a day."
According to Moss, someone is with Zenyatta 24 hours a day.
"Pretty cozy," Simon remarked.
"It is," Ann Moss acknowledged.
But the training on the track was regimented and rigorous. Five days a week, John Shirreffs had Zenyatta run at a moderately slow pace. She didn't like slow, so her exercise rider had to use all his strength to hold her back.
Then once a week, she was let loose. But even then, Mike Smith says, she wasn't nearly at full throttle.
"What does it feel like being on her?" Simon asked.
"You know, there's just so much power," Smith said. "She's so athletic for such a big, big horse, which is just amazing."
"How does it feel when she starts her surge?" Simon asked.
"It's pretty amazing because within a matter of two or three jumps she can make up close to ten lengths," Smith said.
It's even more stunning from the jockey's perspective. "It's wild. It's mind-boggling too," Smith explained.
"Now who decides when she starts the surge? Is it you? Or is it her?" Simon asked.
"It's me most of the time. But it's also her at times. She's like a loaded gun," Smith said. "When you pull the trigger, I mean, she's gonna fire."
And every day, after the workout, it's lunch time.
"Here's a question I think trainers all over the world will want to hear your answer to. What do you feed her?" Simon asked.
"Well, you know, we give her oats and hay," Shirreffs said.
"Come on," Simon said, laughing. "Come on, you don't expect people to believe that."
"Well, okay, so we add a little bit of Aloe Vera juice, right. We give her Aloe Vera juice 'cause it's good for their stomachs. And then, if she's been really good, I could pop open a Guinness and she could have a beer in the afternoon," Shirreffs said.
Usually, Shirreffs said, she only gets one beer.
Asked how she'd react if she were given a different beer, he told Simon, "I've tried that. ...And Guinness is very expensive. She won't do it, you know. "
"Talk about a high-class horse," Simon remarked.
"Yeah, she just won't, she won't accept it. You know, it's got to be the stout," Shirreffs said.
And that's perfectly okay, because Shirreffs was happy to let her be a prima donna.
"When she's playing to the crowd, how do you see it? What physical manifestation is there?" Simon asked.
"Well, she gets very bright, you know. She puffs herself up. You know, she looks very strong and her eyes seem to stick out a little bit. And she's just really bright and alert. Her ears are extremely, you know, her ears are like this. She's just listening for anything. Look over here, look over there. She's really into it. Her whole focus is on what's going on around her," Shirreffs said.
"You really think that when she's prancing before the crowd, sticking her ears up, you really think she knows what she's doing?" Simon asked.
"Absolutely. Yeah. There's no doubt about it. Yeah," Shirreffs said. "There's no doubt about it. She just feeds off of it."
And the magazines fed off of her: Zenyatta was profiled in "W" magazine; Oprah called her one of 20 women rocking the world. The editors didn't try to interview Zenyatta, but Shirreffs says he talks to horses all the time.
"Horses are very special. You can talk to 'em, you can work out your problems with 'em," he told Simon.
"How do you communicate? What do you communicate with Zenyatta?" Simon asked.
"Yeah, well, you know, when you look up into her face, and look in her eyes, and you just say 'You're doing great. You're the best ever. Thank you for everything you've given me.' And you just see that really kind look. You know, you have a feeling that she's actually understanding you," he replied.
"Maybe she is," Simon remarked.
"Yeah, yeah. You have to believe it, don't you?" Sherriffs said.
In January, Zenyatta was named horse of the year. And that's just the beginning. She is clearly destined for membership in the Thoroughbred Hall of Fame.
"I think she could arguably go down as one of the greatest, if not the greatest horse of all time," jockey Mike Smith said.
She's retired now, in Kentucky, seems to be okay, still enjoys her little dance even if nobody's watching, makes friends easily and doesn't let anyone know about her glorious past.
"She's gonna have a good life after this. Green pastures. Motherhood," Simon remarked.
"Yeah. They often talk about who they'd breed her to. And I've always said no one's worthy," Smith said.
"No man is worthy of...Zenyatta," Simon remarked.
"No. Not at all. Not even close," Smith agreed.
Maybe not. But Zenyatta's always had a thing or two to teach the boys. And, for the first time, she is free to horse around.
She has already had a brief affair, but so far no kids. She's sure to keep trying though, and imagine what it will be like to have Zenyatta for a mother. Just try to live up to that!
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