ARCADIA, Calif. — Even among the best of his protégés, trainer John Shirreffs can usually find some slight hole in their armor, some minor issue that can hinder even the best talent if not corrected.
But when it comes to the 4-year-old filly in his care by the name of Zenyatta, Shirreffs — like the rest of the racing world — has yet to detect so much as a hint of weakness.
Of all the rarefied feats in horse racing, perfection has long been a most unattainable goal for even the legendary figures in the sport.
On Friday, however, Zenyatta will attempt to keep her exceptional unblemished streak in tact when the filly faces seven rivals in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic (formerly the Distaff) at Santa Anita Park.
In a rise that rivals the ascension of reigning Horse of the Year Curlin, Zenyatta has gone from unknown commodity to queen of the racing community in less than 12 months.
Since breaking her maiden in her debut at Hollywood Park last Nov. 22, Zenyatta has been unbeaten and virtually untested, winning all eight of her career outings, including three Grade I triumphs.
Aside from Tough Tiz's Sis, who got within half a length of Zenyatta in the Grade I Vanity Stakes on July 5, no one has been able to seriously test the daughter of Street Cry. She has won her races by a combined margin of 201/4 lengths.
"I've had a lot of nice horses and some very nice fillies and usually a horse has a bit of an Achilles' heel or something that bothers them or causes them not to run as well," said Shirreffs, who trained 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo. "Zenyatta doesn't have any of those things. She's just a great racing athlete and she does everything so well."
An imposing physical specimen at 17.1 hands, Zenyatta's late start to her racing career can rightfully be attributed to the time needed for her to grow into her striking dark bay frame.
Even before she arrived in Shirreffs' barn, Jerry and Ann Moss's filly was beginning to show she was light years ahead of her peers in ability.
"She came in with the reputation of being able to outgallop anything at the farm so we always had a real good feeling about her," Shirreffs said. "I've had horses that could really quicken, but not only does she quicken she lengthens her stride so she gets longer and lower."
About the only critique of Zenyatta is she was a slow learner when it came to the starting gate, but her brilliant late-running burst makes up for some less than perfect starts.
Often content to rate near the back of the field, Zenyatta doesn't usually get rolling until she enters the stretch but, by then, her lengthy strides are swallowing up her competitors on the outside.
And while she has made the majority of her starts on the West Coast, Zenyatta proved she was hardly a synthetic specialist when she shipped to Oaklawn and trounced reigning Distaff winner and champion older mare Ginger Punch on the dirt in the Grade I Apple Blossom Handicap on April 5.
"I just can't describe her to be honest, she just leaves me speechless," Zenyatta's jockey Mike Smith said after her 31/2-length romp in the Grade I Lady's Secret Stakes at Santa Anita on Sept. 27. "She just seems to be sent from heaven. She does things other horses aren't supposed to do.
"She's flawless. I mean, what else can you do beyond flawless?"
In 1988, the legendary racemare Personal Ensign became the first horse in 80 years to retire undefeated and sound when she pulled off a memorable win over Winning Colors in that year's Distaff.
Current plans call for Zenyatta to return for her 5-year-old season regardless of what happens in the 11⁄8-mile Ladies' Classic.
And should she emerge with another celebratory blanket of flowers draped on her neck, she would be one step closer to emulating the standard Personal Ensign set two decades ago of 13 perfect races.
"When I think of fillies like Personal Ensign whose race was probably the greatest race I've ever seen and... I remember how she went to the breeding shed completely undefeated," owner Jerry Moss said. "That would be fantastic if we could accomplish something similar to to that."