Super Saturday at Santa Anita Evokes Memories of ‘Zen Magic’

Gormley in the winners' circle following his victory in the FrontRunner Stakes on Saturday at Santa Anita Park. (Cynthia Holt)

One of the most riveting aspects of horse racing is how it brings back echoes of the past, which often reverberate in the present. These echoes could be heard loud and clear for the fans of the great Zenyatta who attended Santa Anita Park’s blockbuster Super Saturday on Oct. 1, which featured five Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” Challenge races.

Among the featured preps was the Zenyatta Stakes for fillies and mares. Formerly named the Lady's Secret Stakes, it had been won for three consecutive years (2008-2010) by “The Queen," and was renamed in her honor in 2012. Beholder equaled Zenyatta’s record in 2015 with three straight wins in the Grade 1 event, and Richard Mandella’s mare would be trying for a fourth straight Saturday afternoon. There was magic in the air and on the ground whenever Zenyatta ran in those glory years. Super Saturday had its share of alchemy, too. Traces of Zenyatta’s huge hooves were stamped all over the day.

Zenyatta sculptor Nina Kaiser with future fan. (Katherine Witkoff)

Serendipitously, the magic began where it had officially ended in 2012, with cheers and tears, at the site of the magnificent Zenyatta bronze on the Santa Anita grounds. Sharp-eyed fans entering the track that afternoon may have spotted a petite woman gazing at the statue, just like any other besotted fan. On close observation, they would have recognized sculptor Nina Kaiser, dwarfed by the massive work to which she had devoted two years of her life. After casually motioning to a family that had stopped to admire the life-sized statue that she sculpted, Nina happily posed with their little girl. The youngster will come to know Zenyatta through legend and a keepsake photo of a day when she had been touched by “Zen Magic.” 

Zenyatta’s hoof prints appeared again in the fifth race, a maiden special weight at one mile on turf. There were 12 entries, but the name of the number 3 horse glowed as if it had been sprinkled with fairy dust. Whether by accident or design, Hootie bore the name of Zenyatta’s faithful pony horse, who had accompanied her on countless trips to the track for morning works during the course of her career.

The Queen's sorrel shadow, Hootie retired to heavenly pastures several years ago, but his memory remains green in the hearts of Zenyatta followers. Those who allowed their hearts to rule their pockets and wagered a bet for old time's sake on the first-time starter were richly rewarded.

In a Zenyatta-esque performance, this bay son of Candy Ride rallied from the back of the pack, swung six wide on the stretch turn, persevered with good courage to pass his rivals and bested the second-place finisher by a half-length in a thrilling finish. If this was not “Zen Magic" at work, then the least that can be said is that Zenyatta devotees had perfect vision to spot an excellent hunch play, which fattened their wallets by $20.20 on a $2 win bet! 

Gormley on his way to the receiving barn following his win. (Cynthia Holt)

If that wasn’t enough, the next race – the FrontRunner Stakes – provided an even more nostalgic link to Zenyatta’s past, and proved another financial boon for sentimental wagerers. Seven promising 2-year-old colts were primed to go postward in the Grade 1 FrontRunner, a Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on Nov. 5. Among the contenders was a handsome bay colt by Malibu Moon, the first starter for the stakes-winning Bernstein mare Road to Urga.

Trained by John Shirreffs and owned by Ann and Jerry MossGormley, who is named for the British sculptor Sir Antony Gormley, had won by 4 ¼ lengths in his debut at Del Mar on Sept. 4. In the FrontRunner, he would be taking on the Bob Baffert-trained heavy favorite Klimt, who had won all three of his previous starts, including the Best Pal Stakes and the Del Mar Futurity. The 1 1/16-mile race took a dramatic turn at the outset, when the number 3 horse, Secret House, exited the gate minus his rider, and was declared a non-starter following the race.

With a pluckiness that thwarted all comers, longshot Gormley took control from the inside post following the break, and lead the field wire-to-wire to win by three lengths. As Gormley’s familiar pink and teal silks flashed across the finish line, the erupting cheers evoked memories of a glorious past, when another horse carrying the same colors brought the fans to their feet, raising the rafters with their acclaim.

A delighted John Shirreffs holds court. (Cynthia Holt)

Following the race, a delighted John Shirreffs did not sway from his customary refusal to stand in the winners’ circle, preferring to watch the joy of others, and leaving the formalities to Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs, racing manager for the Mosses, who is also his wife. 

Honed by years of post-race press briefings from the days when Zenyatta stood center stage, Shirreffs spoke of his reaction to Gormley’s win.

“You know, it’s always a surprise in the afternoon,” he said. “The horse trains well in the morning and you hope they do well in the afternoon.

“He’s a young horse, he’s learning,” he added. “He needs to focus a little bit, and once he gets focused he’s got it handled. He looks like a million bucks, he’s a beautiful horse and he’s doing really well. I like that when he got into that big gear he has, he didn’t get too excited for a young horse, and today he was all business. We’re very happy and elated. … You know, it’s always special to win at Santa Anita, and it’s especially great with a young horse.”  

Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs and Victor Espinoza. (Cynthia Holt)

Fittingly, the final echoes of the great racemare on a day heady with emotion were found in the ninth race, the Zenyatta Stakes. In a dilly of a stretch duel, Santa Anita’s reigning queen, Beholder, fought fiercely to fend off the heiress apparent to the throne, Stellar Wind, but lost by a neck at the wire. A valiant loss also is worth respect and recognition, as Zenyatta fans appreciate to the core, and both champions were roundly applauded as they made their way back to the unsaddling area. Beholder would remain tied with Zenyatta for the most wins in this stakes race, and in that, there is no defeat.

In the presentation ceremony following the race, the familiar face of Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs, representing Team Z, could be seen, just as it had been on 19 other occasions during the Camelot days. That "one brief shining moment" may be gone, but more than mere memories remain.

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