Another horse had never finished better than fifth in a stakes race. Yet another horse had been beaten in 19 of 22 starts.
Not a very salty lot, the five mares who lined up against Zenyatta in the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes at Del Mar. By rights, Zenyatta should have been giving them 10 pounds or more, but the Hirsch and its forerunner, the Chula Vista, haven't been a handicap race since 1999. Weight-for-age conditions applied, which made the weights fair for everyone but the horses not named Zenyatta.
Mike Smith, who rides Zenyatta, was smitten long ago, and this time he said: "If she can pull two more (wins), to me she might go down as the greatest horse of all-time."
Well, they all have to say something, don't they? A win over chopped liver at Del Mar will not get Zenyatta past Man o' War and Secretariat, but a second win against males in the Breeders' Cup Classic in November will at least rocket her into their league.
Some of the others at Del Mar had passed the entry box because of the rumors that Zenyatta wouldn't run. Her co-owner, Jerry Moss, was the only racing commissioner who didn't approve of synthetic surfaces for California when that 2006 vote came, and John Shirreffs, Moss' trainer, once said that running on ersatz dirt is like traveling over Velcro. Del Mar's Polytrack layout is not unlike the other synthetics in California, fraught with problems, but by race day Moss and Shirreffs had painted themselves into a corner. Del Mar was giving away a set of pint-sized glasses in honor of Zenyatta, and a crowd of 30,000 was expected (actually, 32,000 came). No Zenyatta and racing would have left just one more sour taste in a lot of mouths.
All week long, the main purveyor of the Zenyatta-won't-run rumors was Jerry Jamgotchian, arch-critic of California racing, Del Mar especially included. In what looked like heresy, Jamgotchian laid out about $15,000 to fly his Irish-bred, Rinterval, from Chicago to California to run in the Hirsch. Jamgotchian came about as close as he'll ever come to sheepishness when he said it wasn't the devil, but Rinterval's decent synthetic-track record back East, that made him do it.
By week's end, Jamgotchian backed off his theory that Zenyatta wouldn't run, and kept Rinterval in the race, anyway. That was a good thing. She was the second-place finisher, earning Jamgotchian $60,000. Zenyatta collected $180,000, hiking her career total to $6.2 million. "She was playing," Mike Smith said. "When she gets to the front, she salutes the fans." The two races Smith referred to are the Beldame at Belmont Park (probably) and the Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs (definitely). Zenyatta's chopped-liver days are over.