But no couple is closer to the unbeaten 5yo champion than groom Mario Espinoza and hot walker Carmen Zamora, his wife of seven years.
Espinoza, 45, knelt next to Zenyatta in her stall in Barn 66 Friday morning as the mare contentedly nibbled at some hay in a net attached to the inside of her stall gate.
Espinoza and his wife, both natives of Mexico, always hoped they would one day work with a champion. Espinoza, who began his career on the track at San Luis Rey Downs 30 years ago, has worked with Zenyatta since she was an unraced 2-year-old.
"At the beginning, I never thought anything like this would happen," said Espinoza. "You do your best, and hope they have a horse good enough to run. A horse like this is your dream. I got lucky with her."
Hall of Famer jockey Mike Smith and exercise rider Steve Willard are two other key links in the team.
"She's going to have to have her A game and be lucky too," said Willard after an uneventful gallop around the main track. "I think the distance will be right down her alley, but there are five or six real good horses in there and no slouches. I just want her to have a safe race, come home good and make babies."
Zenyatta is scheduled to be retired to the broodmare ranks next year.
* Rip Van Winkle - The 3yo colt made his daily visit to the main track Friday morning in company with the contingent trained by Aidan O’Brien.
The well-regarded son of Galileo, owned by Mrs. John Magnier, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith, has won his last two starts, both Group I races in Europe: the Sussex Stakes on July 29 at Goodwood and the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes on Sept. 26 at Ascot.
O’Brien and his staff have performed a juggling act of sorts this year dealing with foot issues that are the result of a serious infection that the colt had over the winter. O’Brien said the most recent problem, which developed in the right hind foot in October, has reacted well to treatment.
According to O’Brien, Rip Van Winkle traveled nicely over the main track at Santa Anita during his morning exercise this week. O’Brien said that there is no need to make any shoe changes on the colt for his run at Santa Anita.
“I think it’s a beautiful surface,” O’Brien said. “For everybody, it’s definitely the way forward. If you don’t want to race on grass, it’s the best alternative. It’s safe. It’s even. It’s level. It’s smooth. And it’s still forgiving. I think for everybody going forward, all over the world, there is no doubt that it’s a safe, beautiful surface.”
* Summer Bird – The 3yo son of Birdstone galloped the Santa Anita main track Friday morning, covering 1 1/2m in his final trip to the track before a start in Saturday’s Classic. On Saturday, the colt will walk the shedrow before taking on 12 other runners later that afternoon.
Summer Bird’s trip to the paddock to school with the field for Thursday’s second race was uneventful. According to trainer Tim Ice, the Belmont Stakes winner took everything in stride.
“He got on the muscle a little bit coming home, but that’s normal,” Ice said. “So far so good.”
* Mine That Bird - The Kentucky Derby winner kept to his usual routine and jogged once and galloped once around the Santa Anita main track. Trainer Chip Woolley reported that his charge was acting “sharp and ready” for Saturday’s Classic.
When asked what his favorite part of the week has been, Woolley replied, “The last few days, watching the people and the excitement build. The recognition he’s gotten as the Derby winner has been great. I’m starting to realize that it’s more of an honor than a privilege to win the Kentucky Derby.”
* After discussing options, owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey and trainer Mike Maker informed the Breeders’ Cup racing office Friday morning that they would withdraw Kera’s Kitten from Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, thus allowing their Dean’s Kitten to draw in off the also-eligible list.
“We would have been comfortable running either one of them, but were forced to pick,” Maker said. “It was a tough call. Dean’s Kitten has more seasoning. He’s been running against better competition and we feel he’ll be better (than Kera’s Kitten) with the short turn around. We’re running the horse we feel gives us the best chance to win.”
Dean’s Kitten, who draws into post 12, will be ridden by Ramon Dominguez.
* Because of the success the European team enjoyed last year when they won five Breeders’ Cup World Championships events at Santa Anita, the British bookmaking firm William Hill is offering odds on a repeat performance.
In addition to taking wagers on the individual Breeders’ Cup races, William Hill is offering proposition betting on how many Irish and United Kingdom-based winners there will be in 2009.
The longshot in the betting at 16-1 is “none or one,” followed by 11-4 on two or three; 11-8 on four or five; and 7-4 on six or more.
Another special bet is based on Frankie Dettori’s strike rate this year. The odds offered are 11-8 for none; 5-4 for one; 7-2 for two, and 20-1 for three or more.