She stands out from the crowd

Zenyatta pulled off another one of her trademark last-to-first wins in the Santa Margarita. Courtesy Benoit Photo

A girl sat on a man's shoulders near the crowded paddock Saturday afternoon at Santa Anita Park, the better to get a view.

Her shirt was the pink and green of the silks jockey Mike Smith wore. The sign she held said, "Go Zenyatta."

Dustin Hoffman watched from inside the walking ring. All around, the crowd pressed in.
They were looking at the horse.

"Queen Zenyatta is back! Dance 4 us," another sign read.

The crowd of 20,315 at Santa Anita Park wasn't huge, but the giddiness over the return of unbeaten Zenyatta was palpable.

The 6-year-old mare who won the Breeders' Cup Classic last fall -- the first female horse to claim it -- was racing for the first time since, only months after owners Jerry and Ann Moss said they planned to retire her, changed their minds.

Pulling off another of her trademark last-to-first runs Saturday, Zenyatta came away a winner for the 15th time in 15 races, winning the $250,000 Santa Margarita Invitational by 1ΒΌ lengths without feeling Smith's whip.

Someone asked trainer John Shirreffs if Zenyatta was better than before.

"That's hard to say," he said. "How can you be better than perfect?"

Zenyatta was still in the paddock before the race when her only rival went to the starting gate across the country in New Orleans.

Rachel Alexandra -- the horse that edged Zenyatta for 2009 Horse of the Year after becoming the first filly to win the Preakness Stakes since 1924 -- was running in the $200,000 New Orleans Ladies at Fair Grounds Race Course.

The video screen beside the paddock showed the race, and most faces turned toward it.

A victory by Rachel Alexandra could have helped build the rivalry to a fever pitch before a planned $5 million showdown between the horses in the Apple Blossom Handicap on April 9 at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark.

But as the fans shouted and cheered -- seemingly unsure if they wanted Zenyatta's rival to lose or to win to keep the drama and prospects for a dream matchup alive -- Rachel Alexandra lost, finishing second to Zardana.

"Who's the horse of the year now?" someone shouted.

That horse-of-the-year vote marked the first time in history two female horses were finalists. But there won't be a recount.

"We're just excited she's back," said Jerry Moss, who owns Zenyatta along with his wife. "She looks amazing. Everybody's happy. We watched Rachel's race in the paddock. I'm sorry she lost, but she lost to a better horse today. We'll see what happens the next race."

Zenyatta is still pointed toward the Apple Blossom, "regardless" of what Rachel Alexandra's connections decide, said Shirreffs, coincidentally also the trainer of Zardana.

"Zenyatta came back so we could have some fun with her and other fans could see her," Shirreffs said. "That was the whole thing."

Her fans were out Saturday.

"Everybody really loves her," Moss said.

"Everybody's pleased to have her back and to root for her, and when she wins, she makes everybody happy. It's sort of like something going on inside each and every one of us. She's perfect. She's the idol of perfection we all strive for. That's about as profound as I get."

Smith, stopped again and again by fans, couldn't make it back to the jockeys room until the horses were almost to the gate for the next race.

"I don't know what to say. I'm like a fan," he said. "This was a great, great race for her, and it wasn't taxing at all."

People stopped him for pictures or autographs, then stopped him again when he took a few steps. Then again.

"Can we get a picture with you too?"

Finally, Smith broke into a trot, the two security officers with him jogging alongside.
"Hey, Michael," a man shouted, and Smith paused.

"What gear did you get to today?" the man said. "Fourth?"

Smith looked back, held up two fingers and mouthed the word "Second."

After 15 races, second is a place Zenyatta has never finished.

Robyn Norwood is a freelance journalist and was a sportswriter at the Los Angeles Times for more than two decades.