For some fans, Zenyatta represented more than a racehorse.
For Beth Shimkin of Pasadena, Calif., who battled depression for many years before she died of cancer in May 2012, the history-making mare offered a ray of light in a dark world.
“She inspires people with the way she comes from back in the pack and circles the field, the way she lengthens her stride and heads for home,” Shimkin said during an interview in October 2010. “She makes you forget for a minute and 43 seconds, or whatever the race is. She captures you, and you feel better.”
To gaze at Zenyatta as she stretched her neck to snare some leaves off the branches of a favorite tree outside her Hollywood Park barn was to marvel at nature. This was no petite filly. At her peak, the strapping daughter of Street Cry stood 17.2 hands at the withers and weighed more than 1,200 pounds.
With her funky prerace paddock dance and her breathtaking late run that allowed her to sweep all but the last of her 20 career starts, she developed into an international treasure during a career that extended from 2007 to 2010. And trainer John Shirreffs, his wife Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs, and owners Jerry and Ann Moss delighted in sharing her with the world.
“To me, it was crucial,” said Shirreffs, of their willingness to make Zenyatta readily available to the public. “I’ve been around horses for 50 years, and I’ve never seen a Thoroughbred like Zenyatta. She was that special that I wanted everyone who wanted to meet her personally to be able to do it. There was something about Zenyatta that made you feel good.”
Blind people found comfort in stroking her dark bay coat. Autistic children felt befriended by her. When the Los Angeles Zoo organized a breakfast with Zenyatta as a fund-raising auction item, there she was snaring carrots lined up on her private table while guests enjoyed more customary early-morning fare.
“She was so great with people,” Shirreffs said. “There were so many instances where she could have done something and then she showed her patience. She was really kind.”
From the moment she was saddled, her every move was captivating. She had so much pent-up energy in the paddock that she lapsed into an exaggerated walk that most closely resembled a goose step. Her running style was captivating. She never failed to start slowly. She never failed to finish powerfully.
Shirreffs attributed the slow start to her concerns with a starting gate that could barely contain her massive frame.
“Her style resulted from the fact that she did not like the starting gate,” the trainer said. “Until she was two strides past the starting gate, she didn’t get into gear.”
Shirreffs was criticized for racing her largely in California, which then featured all-weather surfaces. But it is hard to question the near perfection of 19 wins in 20 starts and $7,304,580 in purse earnings, the most in history for a North American-raced female at the time of her retirement.
In taking her first 19 starts, Zenyatta passed Cigar, Citation and Mister Frisky — all winners of 16 races in a row — in the North American record books for most consecutive victories in the modern era in races not restricted to state-breds. She later equaled Peppers Pride for the modern North American record for consecutive wins with 19, a record subsequently broken by Rapid Redux.
She clocked the second-fastest time for 1 1/8 miles in Breeders’ Cup history when she blazed that distance in 1:46.85 in the Ladies’ Classic in 2008. She provided a fitting encore the following year by becoming the only female to win the Classic for Mike Smith, who replaced David Flores as her rider for her final 17 starts.
She returned to defend her title in the $5 million Classic in 2010 at Churchill Downs. It was not to be. She endured an exceptionally slow start, even for her. Shirreffs estimated that it took her at least an eighth of a mile to find any rhythm. Later in the race, she swerved when Quality Road hesitated in front of her. Her mighty charge down the stretch left her a beat behind Blame at the finish line.
“You run that race nine more times,” Shirreffs said, “she probably wins all nine of them.”
Such was the magnificence of Zenyatta.
Note: This story was originally published in September 2016 and has been updated.
- She was named after the album Zenyatta Mondatta, by The Police. Jerry Moss, who died in August 2023, was the co-founder of A&M Records, record label for the popular English rock band.
- Zenyatta was runner-up for Associated Press’ Female Athlete of the Year in 2009 and 2010, finishing behind tennis star Serena Williams and then skier Lindsay Vonn.
- In 2010, she was named by Oprah Winfrey to the 2010 “O Power List” in O Magazine.
- Zenyatta was presented with an honorary membership to the Professional Business Women of California in 2011.
- In that same year, she became the first horse to win the William H. May Award for meritorious service to the industry.
- Zenyatta was inducted into the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame in 2016.