Flashback: Zenyatta's 'un-be-lievable' Breeders' Cup Classic

By Keeler Johnson/Special to HRN
October 22, 2019 10:30am

They said it couldn’t be done.

They — analysts, handicappers, industry professionals — said the great mare Zenyatta was facing too tough a task in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita.

She was too slow, they said, insisting her speed figures didn’t stack up against those of her male rivals. She was unproven over 1 ¼ miles, they noted, saying the distance would trip her up. Yes, she was undefeated in 13 starts, but she had been beating easier competition within her own division. No filly or mare had ever won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and Zenyatta wasn’t going to buck the trend.

I listened to these arguments, and formulated my own. Yes, she’d been facing easier competition, but she was always winning under a hand ride. True, she’d never run 1 ¼ miles, but her sensational finishing fractions at the end of shorter races suggested she would handle the added distance just fine. Granted, her speed figures were modest, but she usually competed in slow-paced races over synthetic tracks, making it difficult for her to earn impressive numbers.

Perhaps I was naïve, a relatively new racing fan without the experience to understand why Zenyatta wouldn’t —
couldn’t — win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Or perhaps, with my inexperience, I could see what more veteran handicappers could not — that Zenyatta wasn’t an ordinary racehorse. That she was overcoming poor setups time and time again to win with ease because she was in a completely different league than her rivals. Her margins of victory and form lines could only reveal a glimmer of her abundant talent; a glimpse at the incredible engine fueling her massive strides.

To fully understand Zenyatta, you had to watch her run. Witness the ease of her triumphs. Analyze her fractional splits and shake your head in wonder.

I was confident Zenyatta would defy traditional logic and make history in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But that didn’t stop me from feeling nervous when the starting gates opened on Nov. 7, 2009, and Zenyatta dropped back to last place behind 11 accomplished male rivals. Dead last. Fifteen lengths off the pace, trailing even the famously late-running Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird.

Wouldn’t you be nervous, too?

It’s the early days of live streaming races online, and I’m watching from home, surrounded by horse-loving family members who have gathered at my urging to watch Zenyatta make history. We comment on her slow start; I periodically point to her position. But mostly, we watch in silence, listening to track announcer Trevor Denman describe the drama unfolding onscreen.

“Zenyatta is dead last! Zenyatta is dead last early,” Denman calls, drawing attention to the mare’s slow start.

The race unfolds furlong by agonizing furlong. Horses vie for position on a sunny afternoon. Slowly, Zenyatta gains ground on the leaders. She passes Mine That Bird. She catches up with the main body of the field.

“…And now here’s Zenyatta, and let’s see, Zenyatta has a lot, a lot of ground to make up,” warns Denman on the far turn. “Zenyatta, if she wins this, she’ll be a super horse…”

Suddenly, Zenyatta dives between horses. Jockey Mike Smith is guiding her through the field. He never sends her through the pack; he always takes the overland route. I’m not sure what to think; I’m not sure what to expect. I briefly lose sight of Zenyatta in the pack, then spot her white noseband advancing between runners.

“Oh, there she—oh…”

My favorite mare is trapped behind a wall of horses at the top of the stretch. Smith is hauling her to the outside, trying to split horses, looking for an opening, any opening. Time is running out.

Someone asks me where she is. “White noseband—“ I start to say, but I interrupt myself with a groan of frustration as Zenyatta steers still wider, off the heels of Twice Over to the extreme outside. She’s finally free, but there’s only a furlong left to run and she still has five horses to pass.

The Santa Anita crowd bursts into a deafening roar of approval as Zenyatta sets her sights on the leaders.

“Come on!”

I utter a half-hearted cry of encouragement. For a moment — just a fleeting moment — I doubt whether Zenyatta will overcome the adversity of having her run stopped behind horses. I doubt my own belief in her abilities. I doubt whether she will actually accelerate and run down the leaders.

Then she does.


Everyone starts screaming and cheering at the same time. I’m shouting loudest, my voice cracking with excitement as Zenyatta lengthens her stride and flies past blurry horses on the inside, gobbling up ground with leaps and bounds, moving into the lead and into history in the span of a few glorious seconds.


I’m celebrating before the finish line. My heart is pounding because Zenyatta has done it; she’s kept her unbeaten record intact, she’s defeated the classy male rivals so many folks said she couldn’t defeat, and she’s become the first filly or mare in history to prevail in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“This. Is. Un. Be. Lievable!” Denman exclaims as Zenyatta strides triumphantly across the finish line. “Zenyatta, what a performance, one we’ll never forget, looked impossible! But it is Zenyatta, still unbeaten under Mike Smith!”

The analyst side of me is overwhelmed by the racing fan side of me, and all that matters in the moment is Zenyatta — the champion — indisputably my favorite horse. I sit and appreciate the roar of the crowd over the simulcast. Someone asks me who rounded out the top four finishers, and my answer sums up the day:

“I don’t know.”

I didn’t know. I didn’t care.

It didn’t matter.

Thanks for the memories, Zenyatta.

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.


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