The 2019 Zenyatta Stakes: An Ode to Joy

The Life
The winner’s circle ceremony for the Zenyatta Stakes, and a rare sighting of John Shirreffs! (Cynthia Holt photo)

“History does not repeat itself. It rhymes.” This aphorism was realized in abundance on Sunday at Santa Anita Park on an early fall day so glorious it might have been left over from paradise. In the Grade 2 Zenyatta Stakes, a “Win and You’re In” race for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff, the past merged with the present in an emotional marriage of memories. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the magnificent Zenyatta’s “UN-BE-LIEV-ABLE” triumph over the boys in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic, and who could contrive a better scenario than to have a horse trained by Zenyatta’s old mentor, John Shirreffs, win her signature race? Sometimes, especially on perfect autumn days, the racing gods conspire to work their magic.

Two names joined in perpetuity. (Cynthia Holt photo)

To the jubilation of the Zenyatta faithful and the profound joy of Dottie and John Shirreffs, along with owners HS Stable LLC, Martin J. Wygod, and Pam Wygod, Paradise Woods crossed the finish line 1 3/4 lengths in front of the 4-5 favorite Secret Spice, ensuring her a place in the Distaff starting gate on Breeders’ Cup Saturday, Nov. 2. It was Paradise Woods’ 17th career start, and her fifth win at Santa Anita Park. Her last visit to the winner’s circle under Shirreffs’ management was on April 27 in the Grade 2 Santa Margarita Stakes, in which she trounced the field by 10 1/2 lengths in a powerhouse performance.

Paradise Woods was piloted for the first time by 30-year-old, Guatemalan-born Abel Cedillo, a recent arrival to Southern California, who has successfully plied his trade on the Northern California circuit since 2010. Commenting on the rider switch to Cedillo from Mike Smith, who had ridden the mare in her last three starts, Shirreffs explained, “We weren’t sure if Mike would be available for the Breeders’ Cup. So this was the time, if you’re going to make a change, this would be the time. … Abel has been riding terrifically! We got the hot rider at the right time.”

Paradise Woods has been known to suffer prerace nerves, and it was a study in horsemanship to observe her handling in the saddling barn prior to the Zenyatta Stakes. There number of people in her stall was kept to a minimum, with no excess movement.  With Shirreffs on one side and his assistant, Frank Leal, on the other, they stroked the big mare softly and slowly, all the while maintaining total silence. Despite the claustrophobic conditions of the barn, and the close proximity of a noisy audience, including a child having a crying spell, Paradise Woods half-closed her eyes, lowered her head, and was lulled into a state of tranquility. However, when it came time to head to the track, she was all business, and took dead aim on her assignment. So did Cedillo. “Mike [Smith] told me you’ve got to keep her calm, and she’ll try hard.” Asked if he had been offered any advice from Shirreffs, Cedillo responded, “Win, just win, baby.”

Getting her game face on. (Cynthia Holt photo)

Tactically, the race unfolded like a dream. Paradise Woods dogged the pacesetter, Secret Spice, throughout, collared the favorite in the stretch, took the lead approaching the sixteenth-pole, and gradually inched away. It was the second time that Paradise Woods has captured the Zenyatta Stakes. She also won the race in 2017, when she was in the barn of Richard Mandella. Describing his uneventful trip with eyes that sparkled like a 6-year-old’s on his first visit to Disneyland, Cedillo recounted, “I kept her outside of Secret Spice, and everything worked perfect. She was standing perfect in the gate, and we knew that [Secret Spice’s jockey Flavien] Prat was the speed, and he would go. We broke good. I wanted to be close and not let him [Prat] go by himself."

In his own run-down, Shirreffs commented, “We wanted her to break well and not get shuffled back, and hopefully to be in the clear. In the past, she’s gotten shuffled back and got stuck behind horses, but today she broke well and was able to get to the outside.”

Happy jockey, happy trainer. (Cynthia Holt photo)

Following the race, a beaming John Shirreffs made the rare move of compromising his usual preference for watching the winner’s circle festivities from the sidelines, and stood beside his wife, Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs, who had been asked to present the winning trophy. It was an extraordinary, almost surreal day, a golden page in the memory book of two beloved members of Zenyatta’s team. With Paradise Wood’s win, Shirreffs became the all-time leading trainer for the most wins in the Zenyatta Stakes, formerly the Lady’s Secret Stakes, with five victories. Also prompting an echo from the past were the Wygods, whose filly, Life Is Sweet, a former Shirreffs trainee, won the Breeders Cup Ladies’ Classic (now Distaff) the same year that Zenyatta took the Breeders’ Cup Classic. This gave Shirreffs the rare distinction of training both a Breeders’ Cup Classic and Distaff winner in the same World Championships, an accomplishment equaled by Hall of Famer Bill Mott with Drosselmeyer (Classic) and Royal Delta (Distaff) in 2011.

Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs, who wears her heart on her sleeve all the way up to the elbow when it comes to Zenyatta, was almost too overcome to speak. Shirreffs still had his voice, however, and spoke movingly about the significance of the race and what it meant to him and Dottie, and to the Wygods: “Marty [Wygod] is at home and he’s watching it and he is overjoyed … he was the one who had so much faith in [Paradise Woods] and wanted to see her run another year. … Walking down [to the winner’s circle], my wife was almost in tears, because we won the Zenyatta on Zenyatta’s 10th anniversary of winning the Classic. … This race is so special, you can’t even begin to fathom or believe that you will ever win the Zenyatta, it is so hard to do. Having trained Zenyatta and to win the Zenyatta is really special.”

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!