Zenyatta 'seems to know where the wire is'

Mike Smith rode the undefeated Zenyatta to victory in the Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park last month. The mare will try to win the Clement Hirsch Stakes for the third time Saturday.
Mike Smith rode the undefeated Zenyatta to victory in the Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park last month. The mare will try to win the Clement Hirsch Stakes for the third time Saturday. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Mike Smith rarely lets the notion run through his head, so the last thing he wants is to hear such an idea go public.

"No, let's just not even throw that out there," the Hall of Fame jockey said during a teleconference this week when asked if he ever thought about his unbeaten mount Zenyatta not reaching the finish line first. "Let's put it there that she'll just continue to do what she does."

Smith can afford to tuck such thoughts of defeat into a corner of his mind he doesn't have to visit. After all, when one is associated with Zenyatta, the only thing to deal with is the constant wonder at how the heck she keeps pulling this off.

On Saturday, five challengers will line up to try to put an end to Zenyatta's 17-race win streak in the Grade I Clement L. Hirsch Stakes at Del Mar.

Though Zenyatta has won the Clement Hirsch the past two years, trainer John Shirreffs wouldn't commit to running the 6-year-old daughter of Street Cry until he was satisfied with how she ran over the track's Polytrack surface.

Her connections said that neither the race's 11⁄16-mile distance nor Del Mar's Polytrack — which can play on the looser side — are ideal ones in Zenyatta's world.

Whether she likes something or not, Smith knows that Zenyatta has yet to encounter an obstacle strong enough to beat her.

"I mean she's incredible on anything to be honest with you," said Smith, who has ridden Zenyatta in all but three of her career starts. "I think you could run her on grass and she would do the same thing. I mean she just seems to do everything you ask of her and good Lord willing we continue."

Ironically, it was last year's Clement Hirsch where Zenyatta gave her loyal following their biggest collective scare as she only narrowly got up to defeat long shot Anabaa's Creation by a head.

Smith says it was he, not his agile late-running mare, who was more to blame for that tight margin as he admittedly waited a little too long to fully unleash her long strides.

"You know, I was so concerned about (Grade I winner) Life Is Sweet and I was paying more attention to her than the rest of the field," Smith said. "When I realized (Life Is Sweet) wasn't going to fire her A game, I went ahead and got out around her finally. And when I looked up (they) had kind of put some distance between us.

"So that was more my fault than anyone's and once I got to riding her although it was a head margin I felt confident all times she was going to get there."

The intangible with Zenyatta is she always manages to get there, whether logic says she should or not.

In her most recent start, the Grade I Vanity Handicap, Zenyatta again looked defeat in the face and smirked when she collared St Trinians in deep stretch to win by half a length.

Of the five horses slated to face Zenyatta if she runs Saturday, Dance to My Tune is the only one who has faced the champion before, finishing second to her in the Grade I Santa Margarita Handicap by 11/4 lengths on March 13.

"She seems to know where the wire is," Smith said. "I mean there's been times we've all seen where it looks like, oh she isn't going to get there today, and then all of a sudden she goes from waving at the crowd to like business in two or three jumps and she's gotten by them and then there she goes again just pricking her ears and galloping around there.

"She's got that X factor, whatever it is, that she has it. She knows it and she uses it to her advantage."