She wasn't engaged in one of her patented how-will-she-get-there-this-time surges toward the wire or even in her now infamous dressage-like dance routine she dutifully performs before each of her races.
It was just a charity event for the Los Angeles Zoo this past summer for about 16 lucky fans. Yet, during a seemingly benign moment, the undefeated racemare Zenyatta couldn't help but demonstrate one of the qualities that makes her unlike any other entity currently in her sport.
"They had this charity thing, breakfast with Zenyatta, and they had these two big tables out on the grass in front of the barn," her trainer John Shirreffs recalled. "I'm feeding her on the grass and she starts pulling me, tugging me ... and she sticks her head over this chair and I'm like, 'What does she want?'
"There was a black purse on the chair, and I said to this lady, 'I think she wants to take your purse,'" Shirreffs continued. "The lady goes, 'Oh, my gosh, I forgot, I've got carrots in there!' I thought, how did she know she had carrots in there? She was just on the grass on the other side."
For the better part of the past four years, Zenyatta has possessed an uncanny knack for knowing exactly where the ultimate prize is and letting absolutely nothing halt her path to it.
How does she do that?
No one quite knows how Zenyatta's talent works, and 19 starts into her career no challenger has been able to overcome it.
But on Saturday evening in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs, the racing world will collectively hold its breath to see if the 6-year-old mare who has both re-energized and polarized the Thoroughbred industry has one more master-class effort left in a career that has featured nothing but flawless performances.
There have been beacons of perfection in horse racing before, from the legendary Personal Ensign and her 13-for-13 record to the New Mexico-bred diva Peppers Pride and her unblemished 19-race career. But with Jerry and Ann Moss's champion mare Zenyatta, her thus-far flawless record has stood out both for the nature in which it was achieved and for where it might ultimately rank her among her sport's all-time greats.
Since breaking her maiden as a gangly 3-year-old with her now-customary last-to-first rally in a 61/2-furlong test at Hollywood Park on Nov. 22, 2007, the former $60,000 Keeneland September yearling purchase has never let her connections or her fans know what it's like to taste disappointment.
Impressive as the black-and-white reality of her 19 wins, 13 Grade I victories, and two Eclipse Awards is, consider the fact that the late-running daughter of Street Cry has been last or next to last leaving the gate in every one of her starts, putting her at the mercy of almost all her would-be challengers.
As Zenyatta prepares for what is expected to be her career finale in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic on Saturday — the same race she became the first female runner to win a year ago — Shirreffs, the Mosses, and regular rider Mike Smith still find themselves trying to explain how a mare who starts every single race of her life lounging toward the back of the field has never once failed to hit the wire in front.
"I wish I knew. She's just very special," said Shirreffs, whose keen eye recognized early on that letting the 17-plus hand mare grow into her body would pay far more dividends than getting a 2-year-old start into her. "She has a real ability to lengthen her stride at the end of races. Sometimes you hear that horses quicken, and run a little harder. But you just watch her, when her head starts to drop down and she starts to lengthen her stride, you seldom see that in horses.
"I've seen her do some amazing things. I've seen her extend her stride for half a mile. The only thing you have to do is keep her mentally happy and wanting to do it."
More than anything, Zenyatta just wants to run. It's why the Mosses brought her back this season after initially announcing her retirement following her triumph over males in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park. And it's a large reason why the dark bay mare has been able to accomplish every task asked of her.
'She knows where the wire is'
Female runners in particular can lose interest in racetrack life in the blink of an eye, trading their competitive fire for a desire to enter the breeding shed.
Shortly after the 2009 Breeders' Cup, however, it became apparent from Zenyatta's attitude that being a mom wasn't in her immediate plans. She was still blossoming, Shirreffs said, still eager in the mornings.
She just wasn't ready to stop doing what she was clearly best at.
"It's all timing. When you want to do a bit of a harder work with them, you have to prepare them to do that," said Shirreffs. "You have to sort of deal with the ups and downs they go through and be in sync with it. But Zenyatta is a different story."
Zenyatta's 2010 story has been no different than her previous chapters. In five starts this season — all Grade I races — she has given her following some scares, but nonetheless racked up triumphs in the Santa Margarita, Apple Blossom, Vanity Handicap, Clement L. Hirsch, and Lady's Secret.
Even when she has had to seemingly lay her body down to defy defeat, as she did when she edged the upstart Rinterval by a neck in the Clement L. Hirsch on Aug. 7, she exits her races with an almost arrogant ease, as if it were all just a tedious exercise she was trying to make more interesting.
"She's really smart. She knows where the wire is," said trainer Bob Baffert, who will send out champion Lookin At Lucky to face Zenyatta in the Classic. "It's almost like a game to her. She's like a killer whale playing with the seals. She locks down on the leader and just gets after them."
Facing Zenyatta's critics
For as much marveling as has been done on Zenyatta's behalf, Team Zenyatta members still find themselves going on the defensive against critics who question the perceived soft nature of her schedule and the true depth of her greatness.
Instead of shipping Zenyatta to different parts of the country as the Mosses originally said they would do this year, her only race outside of the synthetic tracks of California was when she came to Oaklawn Park for a 41/4-length romp in the Apple Blossom — the same race she captured in 2008 and only her second career start on dirt.
"She's in the right place for (the streak) in California I guess because the weather is usually consistent and the tracks are synthetic," said trainer Al Stall Jr., who conditions Grade I winner and leading Classic contender Blame. "I'm not sure that would have happened if she had to race at Oaklawn, Churchill, Keeneland, Saratoga, Belmont, Pimlico, whatever, where the conditions change and everything changes.
"It's a great feat in itself, but I think she had a better chance of (staying undefeated) where she is."
Rather than face some of the best West Coast handicap males in races like the Goodwood Stakes or Pacific Classic, Zenyatta has run only against her own gender so far this year. The fact that none of the females she's run down this season are Grade I winners leads some to say she's merely facing the same overmatched group she's toyed with for the past two years.
"The thing I think where everyone keeps her a little in the gray area is the synthetics and beating up on the same horses," said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who conditioned such great females as 1986 Horse of the Year Lady's Secret. "Every time she'd win a race, someone would say, 'Well she beat them before, why wouldn't she beat them again?' If she comes back here (in the Classic) and does it on the dirt, I think it'll stamp her. If she whips them twice in the Classic on two different surfaces, I would say you'd have to mention her with Spectacular Bid and Secretariat and stuff."
Critics point to her less-than-ambitious schedule as evidence that keeping Zenyatta unbeaten became more important to her camp than testing her greatness. Shirreffs dismisses that notion and points out that last time he checked, Zenyatta had not only beaten some of the world's best males in last year's Breeders' Cup, but hasn't been outside of Grade I company since May 2009.
"I thought a Grade I was a Grade I," Shirreffs said. "I really didn't consider (facing males in California). I always felt we were going to do the same thing we did last year, hope to peak at the Breeders' Cup Classic and not do anything that would cause any interference with that.
"When a horse is as great as Zenyatta, people are looking that maybe she's not great this way or that way. As far as I'm concerned she's one of the best ever. If she goes up to the pasture and she's 19-for-20 or 20-for-20 I think she'll be OK."
Horse of the Year?
What Shirreffs will not be OK with is Zenyatta ending her career without a Horse of the Year trophy.
When the brilliant 3-year-old filly Rachel Alexandra bested Zenyatta in the voting last year following a campaign that saw Rachel Alexandra beat males three times, Zenyatta's defenders heatedly argued her career body of perfection in addition to her exploits in 2009 should have been given greater consideration.
While stating it was "absolutely fair" Rachel Alexandra won Horse of the Year, Shirreffs said he felt it would be "almost too much" if Zenyatta were denied the honor this season regardless of what happens in the Breeders' Cup.
"For what she has done for the horse industry over the last three years, I would have to say that would be a real slap in the face (to not get Horse of the Year) even if she doesn't win (the Classic)," he said.
Where she ranks among racing's all-time greats might still be up for debate, but it is indisputable that Zenyatta already belongs in the discussion.
If she was having a bad day, it has never shown. And on days when she could have legitimately had excuses made for her, she shunned the need for them altogether.
Even if that all comes to an end on Saturday, the journey of watching Zenyatta try to attain the unattainable has lifted her sport and her connections to transcendent levels.
"I think every trainer, once she passes you in the stretch, everybody starts rooting for her," Baffert said. "She means that much to everyone."