Zenyatta – Horseracing Natural Wonder
On November 22nd, 2007 a meteor from another planet struck down at Hollywood Park in the form of a dark bay, almost black, a filly with a blaze that streaked across her forehead. Zenyatta’s debut win was befitting of something out of this world, something that progresses with spectacular speed. The amazonian filly once unleashed upon the racing world would take it by storm. Her Graded Stakes launch pad came as a four-year-old in the El Encino Stake (Gr-2) at Santa Anita in January of 2008, it was only her third start. The run best described by then track announcer, Trevor Denman, was rather eloquent when noted “she covered so much ground with her bounding stride”. The type of stride and running style that is becoming increasingly rare.
Three years later and undefeated, the Classic run at Churchill Downs was the last race of her glamorous career. Zenyatta’s customary slow start was slower than usual, her strides short and choppy as she realized the comfort of California withdrawn – synthetic track no more, instead clumps of moist clay kicked back, hitting her face and some swirled in the evening chill just past her nostril. Though he knew it was not normal, Mike Smith let her be, he watched as her ears imperceptibly twitched like robotic antennas searching for signals. Attendees in the grandstand and countless watching TV sets across the globe all collective eyes were affixed to the rear of the field. At that point, millions of fans folded their arms and held their elbows tight as if to self-comfort and avert the pain of an embarrassing loss. Everyone knew this was going to be a definite clunker. On the slope of the first turn there was no sign of hope. Well behind on the backstretch she was bounding along at a lonely pace, her face erased by distance stretched far back some twenty lengths down at Churchill Downs. Mike niggled the back of her neck to get her going, suddenly the normal stride was back. Along the rail she trails all alone as the masculine field of rivals blistered upfront, splintering through the crisp evening chill of early November. Deficits erased, margins slimmed, they were much closer now. At seventeen and a half hands tall she could see them all, as she was now in touch with the field. Turning for home heavy hooves thumped the ground tearing up soil in front of her. She was buried deep on the rail while on their tails desperate to find a way through. At 1200 pounds in full stride and graceful poise she switch paths as smooth as silk. Temporarily steadied by faltering Quality Road, she angled further out searching for space. Moving sideways, she was surrounded by a wall of horses. Up ahead, Lookin At Lucky and Blame were unimpeded and overpowering flailing long shots Etched and Espoir City. With less than 24 seconds to go, she hop-scotched from path two to four with the nimbleness of a ballerina. Time was not on her side, it was slipping by. She needs to find a way out. Suddenly, like an uncaged bird with ruffled feathers and a flurry of flight, she saw daylight. Finally free far on the outside her patented speed was on full display. And what a run it was.
This was Zenyatta, horse racing natural wonder, that the world came to see. Blame intently hidden on the inside, Lookin At Lucky on his outside, Etched stretched to his limits in the middle, Zenyatta on the far outside two lengths behind slicing through the wind bearing down on them. In hot pursuit with relentless passion and dogged determination, she was slipping by Gr-1 winners like they were equine statues adorned in silks. Etched erased, one more to Blame, Lookin At Lucky vanquished, one more to be finished. Trevor’s voice animated with excitement knowing he was about to witness unbelievable once more. The wire approaching fast, this time faster than usual with less than a few strides to go. From announcer’s booth above to the grandstand below, “Zenyatta, Zenyatta, Zenyatta” echoed with elated sounds then deflated to tearful vocals that thunder down to the grandstand below and across the globe with the sting of a stirring, sentimental sermon. Silent echoes erupted as the crowd gasped and grasped the paradox of a tarnished record gallantly fought for. She stood tall, she ran the best race of her illustrious career and came up short. She was no longer undefeated.
Zenyatta’s impact in the Sport of Kings would come in the Breeders’ Cup when she became a beacon of hope for the industry as her effect triggered an attendance crowd that ballooned well over 114,000 in 2010 and a common pool handle of more than $173 million. Yes, the $60,000 yearling with skin rash, speed suspect sire, and stone-cold late run sold out the place in a recovering economy and worldwide recession. Her presence generated the second-highest attendance since the inception of the expanded race series. Only California Chrome and Arrogate’s tussle in 2016 at Santa Anita had more attendees. Somewhat like California Chrome, Zenyatta’s Classic run went down in defeat but not in disappointment.
Zenyatta was sired by Street Cry and produced by Virtigineux, a daughter of Kris S. From his first crop Street Cry sired other good runners; Street Boss, Street Sense, and Majestic Roi. There was a recent article by Sid Fernando that highlights the potency of first-crop sires. On the dam side, Virtigineux descends from family 4-r and is considered rich in speed type. The origins of speed-class in this family go back to Artful, champion 2-year-old filly of 1904. Artful was the daughter of Hamburg, and her full sister Artless was the fourth dam of Mrs. Peterkin. Sired by Green Tree Stud leading stallion, Tom Fool, Mrs. Peterkin became a mare of enormous importance as the 2nd dam of For The Flag, Mizzen Mast and Shareef Dancer. For The Flag, an excellent producing daughter of Forli was the 2nd dam of Zenyatta. The prestigious Fasig Tipton Keeneland September Yearling sale is well known for high priced yearlings. From the 2005 edition HIP 703 has been added to a very long list of low priced yearlings that slipped by savvy market buyers at sale venues across the world. Names like Seattle Slew, Northern Dancer, Overdose, Lady Glamour, Bonecrusher, Sincero, Polanski, Vo Rogue, Shoot Out, will forever be talked about.
The hammer fell that day for a paltry $60,000 and the rest is history. Most believe the sales price as a result of a skin rash. We have noticed sales price at select yearling auctions are usually governed by speculation of precocious stallions or proven sires and the economy. Although Street Cry won impressively stateside, the buzz was alive of his would-be talent as a sire. However, he had a list of yearlings that sold low or were RNA’d. That list includes HIPs 12, 107, 284, 285, 419, 599, 667, plus the famous 703. Alternatively, there were a few high priced ones too. If we consider his dam, Helen Street, by Troy, was almost entirely of European flavor that resonates well with turf whereby their progeny screams for distance and grass. This similar divergence is found in leading sire Kitten’s Joy when the Ramseys briefly considered standing him in Europe because distance grass sires were not evaluated equitably regarding stud fees and sales ring as comparably as dirt-speed sires.
Street Cry would later sire another daughter named Winx, that dominated the Australian racing scene with a familiar late run. Imagine the impact on Street Cry’s prestige if both Zenyatta and Street Sense were loaded in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby of 2007. Regardless of Zenyatta’s sire early appreciation value in North America, she squarely placed her dad front and center in breeding conversations as a sire to be reckoned with. Street Sense had already brought home championship honors at two and a classic crown at three when he won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Kentucky Derby.
The dancer, prancer super horse captured the hearts of many even in defeat and she continues to hold those hearts today as she calls Lane’s End Farmhome. Zenyatta, the super horse created her superstardom, she brought smiles and tears to all who loved her and she is coveted by many. The memories of her on track appearances, be it watching patrons in the stands, moving her feet through choreographed routine or making up ground from far back as she flew with grace past her competitors will be cherished, honored, and loved by all those who had a chance to see her. Zenyatta’s collective performances reminded us of what a wonderful sport horse racing is. The highs and lows, emotional ebb and flows, thrills and goosebumps that we’ve all experienced in making the industry vibrant and thriving. Celebrating her tenth anniversary of that remarkable run with head held high, we honor and cherish the sport we love, as we seek surety of perfection just as she displayed. We are proud to be witness to her legacy. Zenyatta, in appreciation of your tenth anniversary of Breeders’ Cup accomplishment, we salute you.