Cup of Coffee: Zen Ten

- -

It took John Shirreffs 10 minutes. 

Ten minutes to get over the worst defeat of his life, the only defeat of Zenyatta’s life. 

Seeking her 20th win in her 20th start, in the dying light of a cold November evening at Churchill Downs, Zenyatta closed feet when she needed yards, falling a head short of Blame in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic. A tantalizing, yet agonizing head stopped a perfect ending to a perfect career. 

Shirreffs followed Zenyatta back to the test barn, where the 6-year-old mare cooled out like always, blowing off the exertion like she had run to the mailbox for a letter. Ten minutes, to be exact.

In 10 minutes, the other horses were huffing and puffing, she had her ears pricked, looking over the fence at the people outside,” Shirreffs said. “Just seeing how unaffected she was about it, that really helped, to see that she wasn’t down. She won 19 in a row. How can you be disappointed? It’s impossible to be disappointed. Then you reflect on what great gifts she gave us along the way.”

Those gifts culminated in Zenyatta being inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame Friday. A first-ballot inductee, Zenyatta added wattage to a star-studded class that included jockey Ramon Dominguez, trainer Steve Asmussen and the other great filly of the 2000s, Rachel Alexandra.

Shirreffs, who stabled here the past few summers, flew from California for the ceremony, celebrating his best horse. After the induction, Shirreffs stood in his own peaceful isolation, smiling and nodding, as fans and horsemen asked him to pose for photos, sign the brim of a Zenyatta hat and talk about the dark bay daughter of Street Cry. In front of the stage, in the middle of a bustling crowd, the 71-year-old conditioner felt at ease with what Zenyatta had accomplished in her iconic career.

“The thing is she overcame so much,” Shirreffs said. “Her races were just a mirror image of what she was, what she overcame.”

Sometimes, trainers speak in sound bites, not expecting to be asked to elaborate on those bites. When asked what Zenyatta had overcome, Shirreffs hesitated and then explained the stones that made Stonehenge.

“She overcame her fear of the gate. She overcame being physically too big, she had to overcome a lot of little things,” Shirreffs said. “She had to find a way to put it together, to be a successful racehorse, she had to find a way to lengthen her stride, she didn’t run harder at the end of the races, she just had that uncanny ability to lengthen her stride, you could see her head come down and her stride get longer. I remember one trainer told the exercise rider, ‘You know, I don’t think she’s going to be too much, she carries her head too high.’ I said, ‘Not at the end of the race.’ “

No, never at the end of the race. 

Owned by Jerry and Ann Moss, Zenyatta made her debut at the end of her 3-year-old season, won an allowance race in her next start and then ran in 18 consecutive graded stakes, winning the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic in 2008 and the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2009. 

Shirreffs and the late great exercise rider Steve Willard realized early that Zenyatta was special, that all they had to do was keep the train on the tracks. 

“Steve, we don’t have to reinvent training here,” Shirreffs said to Willard, after her first race. “We just have to follow the proven path, the path that’s been successful for generations and generations and generations.”

Willard nodded and fell easily into that routine, a semblance of commons sense and horse sense. 

“You know what the horse likes and you stick with it. You don’t get fancy at the end, ‘Oh, today, I think I need to give her a real good blowout,’ well that’s a change in routine,” Shirreffs said. “We stuck with her routine, work every eight days, train her on the training track, when we took her to the main track, we stood her in a certain place, because she had so much energy, that we had to conserve it before the race. Walking over to the paddock, she did enough, so we stood her on the racetrack and waited until all the other horses warmed up and went to the gate, just the little things we found out, then we did that.” 

The routine produced 19 wins, a second, four Eclipse Awards, $7.3 million in earnings and a plaque on Union Avenue. Along the way, Zenyatta made fans and friends as Shirreffs always made her accessible.

“You get so close to the horses that you’re training, and Zenyatta, you get even closer because she’s so special,” Shirreffs said. “It’s just great to see everybody appreciate her the way we did. It’s like, ‘Sharing is caring,’ it’s that kind of feeling, where everybody cared and we were all sharing.”