I’ve always enjoyed sports but have never been too interested in horse racing. Until Zenyatta came along. The huge mare won 19 straight races – all from behind, way behind – over a period of four years and just barely lost her 20th by a nose in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Her consecutive win streak put her past racing legends such as Cigar, Citation, Personal Ensign and the great Man O’ War.
But there was more to Zenyatta than just her wins. It was how she won, how she danced for her fans and for joy, and how she inspired people to overcome adversity in their lives just by watching her. There is much to the story of Zenyatta and the team that has allowed her legend to be born and still thrive, and I’ll beg your indulgence as I chronicle her story here in my blog.
Please look for the headings in bold italics to learn important resiliency tools.
So how did this . . .
become this . . .
to inspire this?
Greatness doesn’t always start out that way
For those of you who know of Zenyatta or have recently googled her, you know that she is the glamour girl of horse racing, “The Queen in the Sport of Kings” as the song by Liza G. Fly goes. But, like many resilient creatures, she certainly didn’t start out this way. The fuzzy little foal grew into a tall, gangly girl by the time of her sale at the Keeneland 2005 yearling auction. The filly had some obstacles to overcome to get buyers to look at her seriously: Her father, Street Cry, wasn’t proven as a sire yet, she had a skin rash that was very unattractive and she was, well, so big.
It helps to have a supportive team
Sitting in the audience, however, was 29-year-old David Ingordo, bloodstock agent for long-time thoroughbred owners Jerry and Ann Moss. Ingordo was raised in the thoroughbred world and had consulted on ”hip number 703″ (the filly’s auction number) with the Mosses, their trainer, John Shirreffs, and the Moss’ racing manager, Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs. Are the names starting to sound familiar? Dottie is David’s mother and the wife of John Shirreffs. Team Zenyatta, as it came to be known, started out from the beginning as a close-knit, supportive family.
But back to the auction. John Shirreffs favors big horses with big strides and the Mosses thought she looked “pretty nice” and were prepared to spend up to $200,000 for her. The bidding for her didn’t exactly go through the roof. David Ingordo was so surprised when he bought hip number 703 for $60,000, he had to check twice to make sure he got the right horse. The Mosses purchased another yearling at the sale for $650,000 and the top youngster at the auction sold for a staggering $9.7 million.
Now, what to do with “the big girl”, as she was known at her yearling farm. First, a name. Jerry Moss, co-founder of A&M Records, had pretty good luck with one of his horses the year he and his wife bought the big girl. At 50-1 odds, Giacomo won the 2005 Kentucky Derby on Jerry Moss’ 70th birthday. The longshot was named after recording artist Sting’s son, so Jerry went back to the well again, this time naming the big girl “Zenyatta”, after the Police album, Zenyatta Mondatta.
But how would they bring this big girl along to become a racehorse?
In spite of their vast wealth, Jerry and Ann Moss are two of the most grounded, loving people one could meet. And they are faithful. Not in a religious sense, but in that warm, hope-for-humanity sense. They have faith in each other, in their friends, their family, and their community (as seen by their sponsorship of the Los Angeles Remote Area Medical event last year). Jerry knows personally the role faith has in overcoming adversity. He had faith in both himself and the music that captured his soul. Following his bliss, he grew from working-class kid out of the Bronx to co-creator of A&M records with buddy Herb Alpert. Ann is a walking paradigm of faith in the power of love and positive energy, gently correcting one’s negative musings with a soft, “Cancel, cancel.”
At some point, owners of racehorses have to let go, to have faith in the trainer and the team that supports him/her. Jerry and Ann have this faith in John Shirreffs. And John makes a practice of surrendering and trusting the outcome. “It’s all about letting go,” he said to Eclipse Award-winning ESPN.com writer Wright Thompson, “Training horses is all about letting go . . . That’s why I found, while they’re in your care, it’s important to do the best you can. Enjoy that moment.”
John has faith in the moment. That’s what led him to the patience he needed with Zenyatta.
Most of us are familiar with the Triple Crown races, especially the Kentucky Derby. Names like Secretariat, War Admiral, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed are part of our common knowledge base because they are among the few horses who won all three races in the Triple Crown. Yet, Zenyatta never raced in a Triple Crown event. Why? With the Moss’ success with Giacomo, and the buzz about Zenyatta that started at her yearling farm and followed her to Shirreffs’ barn, wouldn’t they want to see if they could get the big filly’s career started early so she could be a Triple Crown contender?
The answer is both yes and no. While the Mosses were excited about Zenyatta’s potential, they also kept their faith in John Shirreffs. Despite pressure within the racing circles, Shirreffs knew Zenyatta was not ready for the track as a two-year-old, the age most Triple Crown contenders start racing. She wasn’t mature enough and hadn’t grown into her big body well enough yet. So he patiently waited, working with Zenyatta just a little bit longer than usual. A few years later, Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas would say, “What a tribute to John that he gave her time, and what a tribute to Jerry Moss that he let John wait.”
Faith and patience were worn by the Moss/Shirreffs team like badges as they grew gangly, rashy, unknown hip number 703 into the 3-year-old Zenyatta who was about to dance her way into her first race in November, 2007.
Next time: The big girl becomes the Queen of racing . . . and hearts.
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“So,” I asked my client, “Is your little girl excited about Christmas?”
“Yes, somewhat,” she answered. “But in our family, whenever we talk about getting gifts, we practice being even more excited about the gifts that we’re going to give.”