Flashback: 10 years ago, Zenyatta cut it close in the Hirsch

By Keeler Johnson, Special to HRN
July 23, 2019 09:11am

One of the most fabled winning streaks in the history of horse racing belongs to the great mare Zenyatta, who rattled off 19 consecutive victories from 2007 through 2010.

But before Zenyatta pushed her streak to its historic length — before she beat Citation’s sixteen consecutive victories, before she won the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), before she became a legend in her own time — she was nearly undone by an innocent slow pace in the 2009 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes (G1) at Del Mar.

Zenyatta never did show much of an affinity for the synthetic Polytrack surface then installed at Del Mar. Dirt, Cushion Track, Pro-Ride — she was versatile and handled several different surfaces through her remarkable career. But the conditions at Del Mar just didn’t seem to suit the famously imposing mare.

So when Zenyatta lined up to contest the Clement L. Hirsch 
— a race that renews Sunday at Del Mar  perhaps bettors were a bit hasty making her the overwhelming 1-5 favorite against six rivals. True, Zenyatta had won 11 straight races, but she’d worked a little harder than usual to win the 2008 Hirsch by one length, and defending her title in 2009 would require the deep-closing mare to face a field with little to nothing in the way of early speed.

This might not have mattered if not for the fact that Zenyatta’s main opposition — her own Grade 1-winning stablemate Life Is Sweet — was also a deep closer.
  Life Is Sweet had given Zenyatta a bit of a fight in the Milady Handicap (G2) two months prior and would eventually prevail in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic (G1), making her a rival worth respecting.

So it’s understandable why Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, Zenyatta’s regular rider, elected to follow Life Is Sweet from the moment the starting gates opened. When Life Is Sweet settled near the back of the pack. Smith dropped Zenyatta just behind her and waited for Life Is Sweet to make the first move.

And so the 1 1/16-mile race unfolded with Zenyatta trailing the small field through increasingly slow fractions of :23.86, :48.84, and 1:13.64 set by 24-1 shot Lethal Heat, with 22-1 shot Anabaa’s Creation not far behind in third place.

The pace was so easy, Zenyatta could have moved closer at any moment had Smith asked her to advance. But instead, Smith bided his time, watching Life Is Sweet, waiting for the right moment to move.

Suddenly, everything began to happen at once. Lethal Heat, full of run on the front end, accelerated the fourth quarter-mile in :23.64 (the quickest fraction yet) to secure a two-length lead passing the eighth pole. Anabaa’s Creation set her sights on the front-runner, and Life Is Sweet — the supposed horse to beat — surprisingly failed to unleash a meaningful rally.

So there was Zenyatta, still in last place approaching the top of the stretch, with six accelerating rivals to pass and barely more than a quarter-mile remaining to make it happen.

Smith realized the seriousness of the situation and went to his whip, letting Zenyatta know they had more work to do than usual. The task ahead of them seemed impossible. Passing the eighth pole, Zenyatta still had 4 ½ lengths to make up, and the leaders continued to accelerate through strong finishing fractions.

But once Zenyatta got rolling, she gobbled up ground with massive strides. At the sixteenth pole, with about six seconds left in the race, she had gained two lengths and was flying to the finish. With 50 yards to go, she pulled up alongside Lethal Heat and Anabaa’s Creation, and at the final moment of the race she roared past Anabaa’s Creation to win by a well-measured head.

“I certainly underestimated the competition today,” Smith said in the August 15, 2009, edition of The Blood-Horse magazine. “I was just going to track Life Is Sweet. When she made her move, I was going to make mine. I looked up, and they had kind of skipped away from us before either one of us had made our move.”

A lesser horse would have come up short under such adverse circumstances, but Zenyatta handled the challenge with aplomb. The August 15, 2009, edition of the Thoroughbred Times noted that Zenyatta sprinted the final quarter-mile in :22.49 “according to track calculations” and crossed the finish line traveling 40 miles per hour.

“She was pricking her ears and just having fun all the way down the lane,” added Smith in The Blood-Horse.

Fun? Zenyatta may have enjoyed her heroic stretch run, but her countless fans — holding their collective breath down the lane — would surely have preferred a less heart-pounding outcome!

J. Keeler Johnson is a writer, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. You can follow him on Twitter at @J_Keelerman.s


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