— There are 167 of the finest thoroughbred horses in the world who will compete as afterthoughts here the next two days. They are warm-up acts to No. 168, a mare named Zenyatta.
It is amazing to behold.
Not only do other owners and trainers of horses entered in this year's Breeders' Cup, where $26 million in purses will be won, not resent her dominance of the scene. They welcome it.
Renowned California trainer John Sadler, who has four entrants in this annual prestigious showcase of horse racing's finest, estimates he has seen the magical Zenyatta run in 15 of her 19 races — all 19 victories, of course. He says, "Sometimes, I don't want to watch, because I just don't want to see her get beat."
Al Stahl, Jr., trainer of Blame, one of the top threats to Zenyatta in Saturday's grand finale, the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic, says, "If we make the lead coming home and she blows by us, it's not the end of the world."
Mike Pegram, one of the owners of another Classic contender, Lookin At Lucky, says of Zenyatta, "She'll be a monster on dirt."
Thursday dawns overcast and chilly in Louisville. Morning temperature hover in the high 30s, and a biting wind slices through the backstretch and barns of fabled Churchill Downs. But the crowds come anyway, in numbers many longtime racing observers call unprecedented for a routine morning jog.
Grown women yell in the direction of Barn 43, where Zenyatta lives these days, "We love you, Zenyatta." The verbal affection isn't necessary. The size of the crowds already says that.
Thursday is more of the same. Zenyatta looks great. She is eager and energetic in her jog. She perks her ears and poses for the crowd, which makes a human tunnel for her when she goes to the main track.
"She just loves all this," says her trainer, John Shirreffs. "She has developed a great personality. She looks for it (the attention) now."
The family-like core connections around Zenyatta give her story a Leave It To Beaver feel.
Thursday morning, exercise rider Steve Willard chats outside the barn and points to David Ingordo, who had discovered Zenyatta and recommended the purchase to his mother, Dottie. Dottie, the stable manager, passed the word along to Jerry and Ann Moss, her owners.
"None of us would be here, doing this today," Willard says, "if it wasn't for David."
Dottie's husband, and David's father, was jockey agent Jerry Ingordo, who died in 1998. Along the way, the Mosses asked Dottie to find a trainer to develope young horses. David recommended the relatively unknown Shirreffs. Dottie hired Shirreffs, then later married him.
Soon, it is time for Zenyatta to go for a jog. Willard mounts, the masses part like the Red Sea, and all members of the immediate family follow along.
Ann Moss films the departure and narrates. "Good morning, sweetie," she says. Her husband trails. The longtime Hollywood record executive, along with partner, Herb Alpert, produced the 1980 album by The Police, "Zenyatta Mondatta," from which the name came.
Jerry Moss takes in the scene and says," Isn't this great?"
Shirreffs stands with Dottie, away from the crowd and watching Zenyatta's every move through binoculars. Nearby, fans approach the Mosses, wishing them well and thanking them for what they and Zenyatta have done for racing.
Mike Smith, her Hall-of-Fame race jockey, watches intently as Willard takes Zenyatta slowly down the long back stretch.
A fan approaches and asks Smith what it is like to ride Zenyatta.
"I wish I could describe it," he says.
Close by, other horses continue to enter the track for works. Each has a prestigious Breeders Cup saddle clothe and their name. Each is a successful, wealthy star.
And, on this day, each is barely noticed.
What: 27th running of the Breeders' Cup World Championships
When: Today (six races)-Saturday (eight races, Classic at 6:15 p.m.)
Where: Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.
TV: Today, 4 p.m., ESPN2; Saturday, 1:30 p.m., ABC, 3:30-7 p.m. on ESPN