Is Zenyatta the best racehorse ever?

Jockey believes Zenyatta has "another gear" and hasn't seen her fastest yet

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.

Zenyatta: A horse with charisma?
A horse is just a horse. That's what our veteran "60 Minutes" producers thought until they were shown differently by a junior staffer. Go behind the scenes with our very own horse-whisperer to meet the greatest filly in horse racing history.
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

60 Minutes App

New Look. New Season. The 60 Minutes app for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch!

More from 60 Minutes