Lady and The Track | December 10, 2022

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Zenyatta: The Nonpareil Matriarch of Racing

Zenyatta; The Nonpareil Matriarch of Racing: One would be hard-pressed to find a modern day racehorse that has presented the level of consistency that Zenyatta illustrated on the racetrack. While fellow female Rachel Alexandra was busy making a name for herself on the East Coast, Zenyatta was slowly building her own empire of success that started in California. A matriarch of racing gradually effloresced from Zenyatta’s steady efforts.


While trainer John Shirreffs was again using these races to prepare Zenyatta for a start in the Breeders’ Cup, another start in the Ladies’ Classic was not the intent. Instead, the looming mare would face males for the first time in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI). Photo: Zenyatta and jockey Mike Smith cross the finish line first in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Breeders’ Cup Photo ©

A brown mare with a lovely white stripe adorning her face, Zenyatta did not step foot onto the track until late in her three-year-old year due to her large size. She began her career in November in a 6-1/2 furlong maiden special weight event at Hollywood Park over the all-weather track. In a form that would become her signature running style, Zenyatta rallied from behind to cross the wire first three lengths ahead of the rest of the field. She repeated that performance in an allowance at the same track, this time running 1-1/16 miles under a strong hold to finish in the fast time of 1:40.97.

Entering 2008 as a newly-turned four-year-old filly, Zenyatta faced other fillies and older mares in her first stakes attempt in the El Encino Stakes (GII) over Santa Anita’s foregone polytrack. Breaking slowly, as was her wont to do, Zenyatta again flew by the field in her come-from-behind style to win by 1-3/4 lengths over multiple graded stakes winner and frequent rival Tough Tiz’s Sis. The big, dark bay mare then left California for the first time to visit Arkansas to compete in Oaklawn’s prestigious Apple Blossom Handicap (GI) for older females. Zenyatta certainly put to rest any arguments naysayers may have had about her only having an affinity for polytrack and her home state, winning the Apple Blossom by a widening 4-1/2 lengths over Ginger Punch, the previous year’s Champion Older Female.

Returning home with Oaklawn laurels decorating her résumé, Zenyatta claimed her fifth easy victory in the Milady Handicap (GII) at Hollywood Park. She faced her most difficult challenge yet in the 1-1/8 mile Vanity Handicap (GI) in which she held on gamely and inched away to win by half a length over a field that again included Tough Tiz’s Sis and newcomer Sealy Hill, Canada’s 2007 Horse of the Year, Champion Turf Female, and Champion Three-Year-Old Filly.

Zenyatta continued to improve, winning the Grade II Clement L. Hirsch Handicap at Del Mar by one length and the Grade I Lady’s Secret Stakes by 3-1/2 lengths in preparation for a start in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic. That year’s Breeders’ Cup was hosted by Oak Tree at Santa Anita, so the undefeated filly was not asked to travel outside of her realm. Zenyatta crushed her field by an unhurried 1-1/2 lengths, leaving her perfect record intact and earning her Eclipse Award honors as the year’s Champion Older Female.

By this point, the racing public was well aware of Zenyatta and her accomplishments. Fans crowded in the paddock to see her perform her trademark dance before she left for the starting gate, a performance that showcased the mare’s long stretching and pawing legs. As if aware of her rising éclat, Zenyatta unabashedly pranced and posed for all onlookers and backed up her apparent claims of superiority with her feats on the track.

Owners Jerry and Ann Moss, evidently just as eager as the rest of the world to see if Zenyatta could defend her winning streak, allowed the mare to continue her career. Now a five-year-old, the flourishing matriarch debuted in the Milady Handicap to solicit her second victory in that race, this time winning by 1-3/4 lengths. In fact, the big brown lady repeated the majority of her four-year-old career by running in the Vanity Handicap, the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes, and the Lady’s Secret Stakes and winning by 2-1/2, a head, and 1-1/4 lengths, respectively.

While trainer John Shirreffs was again using these races to prepare Zenyatta for a start in the Breeders’ Cup, another start in the Ladies’ Classic was not the intent. Instead, the looming mare would face males for the first time in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI).

Zenyatta broke slowly from the gate, as was by then simply expected, and settled in behind the group of colts and horses aiming for the accolades and trophy awarded by a victory in the Classic. With the majority of the field in front of her, the dark mare became a dark blur as she overwhelmed her opponents down the stretch, passing such brilliant males as Gio PontiSummer BirdMine That Bird, and Einstein on her way to a one-length victory. In winning the purple and yellow blanket of flowers for the Classic, Zenyatta became the first mare to ever win the race as well as the first horse to ever win two different Breeders’ Cup races. While the end of her five-year-old career was complete and she had again achieved the title of Champion Older Female, her intentions to make history had not concluded.

Zenyatta appeared in March as a six-year-old mare ready to take on all rivals in the Santa Margarita Invitational (GI). She inhaled that field in hand under Mike Smith before again shipping to Oaklawn for the Apple Blossom Invitational Handicap. In a race that was highly publicized due to the possibility of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta finally facing one another, expectations were diminished when connections removed Rachel Alexandra from contention due to her most recent loss. Zenyatta didn’t seem to be bothered by this shift in her rival’s plans, taking the race by 4-1/4 lengths on her way to tying Citation’s and Cigar’s undefeated records in sixteen consecutive races.

The unconquered dame of racing returned to California to reel off a series of other records. In her third victory in the Vanity Handicap, Zenyatta broke the all-time North American record with 17 consecutive wins. Next, she achieved a record three wins in the Clement L. Hirsch, splintering the world record of 8 seriatim Grade I wins set by Rock of Gibraltar and tying Eclipse with 18 uninterrupted triumphs. Zenyatta achieved the trifecta with her following victory in the Lady’s Secret Stakes, this time obliterating the record for all-time North American Grade I victories by a female set by Bayakoa, all-time female earnings record set by Ouija Board, and tied the all-time North American record for consecutive victories without defeat set by Rapid Redux. 

Zenyatta was again tasked with winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic to complete her six-year-old career by setting a new record of 20 consecutive victories. To the shock of the racing world, Zenyatta’s seemingly interminable winning streak was extinguished. The bold mare closed expeditiously down the Churchill Downs homestretch, consuming the field with each of her lengthening strides, but it was not enough. Zenyatta just missed by a head to the appropriately named older horse Blame. 

While Zenyatta’s chances of setting an unblemished record of twenty wins were crushed, her exaltation as a great mare endured. Ironically, in the year in which she finally met defeat, Zenyatta was finally bequeathed with the honors of Horse of the Year and Champion Older Female of 2010. Throughout her impressive career, she was awarded the NTRA “Moment of the Year” from 2008 until 2010, received the Secretariat Vox Populi Award in 2010, and voted runner-up female athlete to Serena Williams in 2009 and Lindsey Vonn in 2010. Zenyatta enjoyed the occasional refreshment of Guinness beer, and her unique personality was specially featured on 60 Minutes and in the magazines O and W.

The established and celebrated matriarch of the racetrack was retired to Lane’s End Farm on November 17, 2010, with a near-perfect record of 19 wins in 20 starts and $7,304,580 in earnings, a large return from an initial investment of $60,000 for an unimpressive yearling filly suffering from ringworm. Zenyatta is largely expected to be a success as a broodmare owing to her own bloodlines. Her sire Street Cry won the Dubai World Cup (GI) and Stephen Foster Handicap (GI) among other notable races before siring Kentucky Derby (GI) winner Street Sense and Grade I-winning sprinter Street BossVertigineux foaled racing’s champion heroine, and she was also the dam of Grade I winner Balance and stakes winner Where’s Bailey, earning her the 2008 title as Broodmare of the Year. The successful stallion Kris S is Zenyatta’s damsire, and the rest of her female line is quite full of stakes winners and producers.

Like Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta’s first foal by BernardiniCozmic One, is currently in training towards an as of yet unannounced debut. She has also produced a 2013 colt by Tapit named Ziconic, but her 2014 filly by War Front was tragically euthanized after suffering from a paddock accident.

The racing world is unlikely to again witness such feats accomplished by Zenyatta anytime soon. The big mare with her dancing disposition and blazing turn-of-foot left an indelible mark on racing history, and she will not soon be past recollection.

Related Links:
Rachel Alexandra: Royalty on the Racetrack