The $200,000 Grade 2 Zenyatta Stakes on Sept. 29 at Santa Anita Park belonged to John Shirreffs, the trainer of the great mare for which the race is named, when Paradise Woods outran early leader Secret Spice to win the contest, a “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff.
Like Zenyatta, the champion mare who won three consecutive runnings from 2008-10 when it was called the Lady's Secret, Paradise Woods has now won multiple editions of the race, having taken it in 2017 when trained at the time by Richard Mandella. Shirreffs began training her in late 2018.
In winning Sunday, Paradise Woods utilized a slightly different style than in 2017 when she led throughout. This time she settled in second early, as favored Secret Spice spurted away and established splits of :23.14, :46.83, and 1:11.30. The end result remained the same, with Paradise Woods proving best in the stretch, pulling clear by 1 ¾ lengths over Secret Spice and completing 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.31 on a fast track at odds of 3.80-1.
The importance of winning a race named after Zenyatta was not lost on Shirreffs and his supporters.
"My wife was almost in tears coming down here," he said of his spouse, Dottie, as he walked toward the Santa Anita winner's circle.
The win carried a further benefit – an automatic expense-paid berth in the Distaff at Santa Anita Nov. 2 as a designed Breeders' Cup Challenge race qualifier. Paradise Woods ran third behind Forever Unbridled and Abel Tasman in the 2017 Distaff at Del Mar when last in Breeders' Cup action.
Sunday's victory was the second of the year from six starts for Paradise Woods, a 5-year-old mare owned by Steven's Sarkowsky HS Stable and Pam and Marty Wygod, whom Shirreffs credited for not retiring the mare after a winless 4-year-old campaign in 2018. A four-time stakes winner, she has won five of 17 races and earned $1,123,890.
"Marty is at home and watching, and he's overjoyed. He's the one that had the faith in her to keep her in training," he said.
The Zenyatta further illustrated the ascension of winning jockey Abel Cedillo, who notched his third graded stakes victory of the weekend at Santa Anita after winning the Grade 2 John Henry Turf Championship aboard Cleopatra's Strike and the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes on longshot Mongolian Groom Sept. 28. As in those races, he proved a proper judge of pace and was able to get Paradise Woods to break without incident, something she did not do smoothly in a couple of defeats in this year's Santa Maria Stakes and Clement L. Hirsch Stakes.
"I made her stand perfect and when she broke, I tried to use her a little bit, not too much," Cedillo said. "And she did everything perfect for me."
Secret Spice, the Beholder Mile winner and 4-5 favorite, gave an honest account in finishing second, but yielded somewhat in the race's final stages as she had in prior starts at the 1 1/16-mile distance in the La Troienne Stakes presented by Inside Access from Chase and Clement Hirsch earlier this year. She outlasted third-place Ollie's Candy by a neck, leaving La Force, Mongolian Humor, and Kaydetre to complete the six-horse field.