US racing holds breath before one last cry of 'Go Zenyatta'

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The equine First Lady, unbeaten in 19 races, carries fervent hopes and a frisson of fear as she aims for a perfect 20 on Saturday

In the warren of stable blocks on the back stretch, it is not difficult to find the one housing Zenyatta. Two cars in the beige livery of the Jefferson County Sheriff are parked alongside. The police are here to keep an eye on a reverent, excited crowd, and a mare whose unprecedented achievements already qualify her as one of the greatest achievers in Turf history. Zenyatta has won every one of her 19 races. Every time she runs, the stakes seem to get higher – and on Saturday she faces perhaps her final challenge, one of the most momentous ever embraced by a thoroughbred.

With her immaculate record, defeat in the Breeders' Cup Classic would feel like the violation of a vestal. And as the hour approaches, the euphoria she has brought to the American sport is complicated by a contagious frisson of fear. She has largely raced against her own sex, in her home state of California, on safe, springy, synthetic tracks. Here she takes on a field of virile colts on the punishing dirt surface that stages the Kentucky Derby.

She won the Classic last year, but in her own backyard at Santa Anita. Taking her feminine, wilful streak to unladylike lengths, she provided one of the most dramatic spectacles in Breeders' Cup history. Barely deigning to pursue the herding males through the race, she suddenly took off from the far turn, and ran down champions from both sides of the Atlantic in the home stretch. Thousands of fans, waving pink Girl Power placards, went crazy in the Art Deco grandstands.

Among them was Pat Day, who had won the race four times in his riding days. Yesterday he was among the throng who followed Zenyatta back to her barn after she had breezed round the dirt circuit. Day sought out her owners, Jerry and Ann Moss, and told them: "In all my years on the racetrack I never saw anything so electrifying as the Breeders' Cup Classic last year. I was standing up on my chair, screaming and crying."

Having initially resolved to retire Zenyatta, the Mosses had a dramatic change of heart last winter, and have since gained a touching sense that their ownership nowadays is largely titular. True, she will be trying to win them the biggest prize in the American sport, but if you divided $5m (£3.1m) among all those who feel a proprietary interest, they would barely get a dime apiece.

As if to corroborate their status as mere fans, the Mosses and their trainer, John Shirreffs, were themselves taking pictures yesterday as the glossy beast made her way to and from the track under a bruised, sallow sky. The big, dark mare is always on parade, pawing and preening and strutting. When she arrived in Louisville on Tuesday, she was escorted from the airport by police cars and a helicopter. Oprah Winfrey included Zenyatta in her Power List of the most influential females of 2010. You almost feel as though the mare suffers Mike Smith to sit on her back only because his everyday name would not deceive anybody that he contributes anything to her stardom.

Yesterday Smith duly took his place among the spectators, her exercise instead entrusted to a hollow-cheeked, 67-year-old work-rider named Steve Willard, known to all on the back stretch as "Grandpa". Willard's frilly leather chaps are worn through on the inside of his calves, and something similar will be happening to his heart in the melancholy likelihood that this will be the mare's final race. "She has so much want," he says. "We've never got to the bottom of her."

Smith was, meanwhile, being embraced by Angel Cordero, a bigger star in his time even than Day. "I am so happy for you," Cordero said. "Good luck!" Few would envy Smith's duty on Saturday, when charged with not screwing up by so many. Zenyatta always tests their nerves by leaving things late, and has won her last three starts by no more than half a length. "It's almost as if she doesn't want the other horses to feel bad," Ann Moss says.

She smiled to herself as Zenyatta cooled off, strolling round the barn. "She needs a bigger blanket, don't you think?" she said. "She makes it look like a bikini." The Mosses remain a striking pair. She was once a model and her husband, at 75, stands tall under a mane of grey hair, his aquiline features frequently breaking into a benign grin. He made his money from a record label that stabled some of the top artists of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, including Sting, whose Police album Zenyatta Mondatta inspired the mare's christening.

Nor will you find anyone round here to begrudge Shirreffs his good fortune. After serving with the marines in Vietnam, he just wanted to surf, to become a beach bum. He was heading to the Pacific, riding across a Californian valley, when his horse sank over his hocks into a bog. Shirreffs extricated the animal, little realising his efforts were being admired by a ranch manager, who promptly offered him a job. So began an odyssey that seemed to reach its consummation when Shirreffs came here in 2005 and won the Derby with a 50-1 chance named Giacomo. At the time he impressed everybody with his easy, reflective demeanour, but none could imagine he would return at 65 with a shot at greater glory still.

True, there has been a mean-spirited reluctance in some American professionals to salute the mare. Last year, Horse of the Year voters instead favoured Rachel Alexandra, whose connections had refused to run her on what they disparaged as a "plastic" surface at Santa Anita. The introduction of synthetic surfaces has created a bitter schism in the American industry. Zenyatta's arrival here, at the spiritual home of dirt, is duly saturated with symbolism – and some would discover a deep, secret satisfaction in seeing her beaten at last under Churchill Downs' twin spires.

The majority, however, can perceive a messianic quality in Zenyatta. Sooner or later, anyone who works with thoroughbreds is made to see them as agents of a random fortune. Even the best will sometimes get beaten – mutely nursing some latent discomfort, perhaps, or held up in traffic, finishing too late. Given her running style, it's amazing that Zenyatta has never done that. In her metronomic brilliance, she seems to warrant the hopeless, Sisyphean rituals of horsemen everywhere. There are hundreds of other horses stabled here, and they all get the same treatment. Every morning, the same modest ceremonies are patiently played out – the splashing of hoses, the pitching of steaming straw. Here is a creature to give hope to everyone on the racetrack. Here is one dream, so it seems, that was not doomed to drain away with the soapy water, to putrefy in the muck heap.

They are billing Saturday's race as "the quest for perfection". Such is the folly of men; such is the disappointment they guarantee in horses. This time, though, they reckon to have found one equal to their most ingenuous fantasies. These will be two of the most pulsating minutes in American sporting history. The sense of benediction is not lost on Ann Moss. "Zenyatta touches people's hearts," she said. "It's amazing to see people jumping up and down, hugging people they don't even know. She's a joy-maker. Every day with her is a celebration."

Turf account

Chris McGrath's Nap

Dubburg (7.30 Kempton)

Down to a lenient mark and for the third time running shaped as though ready to take advantage over course and distance last time, set plenty to do and hampered on his way through into fifth.



Next best

Rule Of Nature (1.20 Lingfield)

Has repeatedly promised to exceed this kind of rating but lost her way before shaping much better on her last two starts, left too much to do when hampered last time but still managing fourth. Extra furlong a help here.



One to watch

Joviality (J H M Gosden) made a very encouraging debut at Newmarket last weekend, working her way past all bar two in a big field while seeing plenty of daylight and running green.



Where the money's going

Zenyatta is 2-1 from 5-2 with Coral to crown her unbeaten career in the Breeders' Cup Classic on Saturday.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
football
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
News
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<p>
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
</p>
<p>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
<p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
<p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
News
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
Voices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?