ARCADIA, Calif. -- Zenyatta displayed her brilliance, and continued perfection, in Saturday's $250,000 Santa Margarita Handicap at Santa Anita, extending her winning streak to 15 races.
In her first start since a historic win in the Breeders' Cup Classic here in November, Zenyatta used her customary come-from-behind style to win the Santa Margarita by a comfortable 1 1/4 lengths over 51-1 Dance to My Tune.
To remain unbeaten after 15 starts, jockey Mike Smith improvised through the final quarter-mile. Instead of bringing Zenyatta to the outside, where she has typically rolled home past her overmatched rivals in the last few years, Smith guided the 6-year-old mare through traffic and reached the front just past the sixteenth pole.
Smith did not strike Zenyatta with his whip. He did not need to.
"I wish I could say I contributed," Smith said. "I might have done a little steering, but that was about it."
The victory put Zenyatta on course for the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park on April 9, where she may face the 2009 Horse of the Year, Rachel Alexandra. Minutes before Zenyatta's win, Rachel Alexandra was beaten in her 2009 debut in the New Orleans Ladies by Zardana, who like Zenyatta is trained by John Shirreffs.
In the Grade 1 Santa Margarita, Zenyatta ($2.60) ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.20, while carrying top weight of 127 pounds.
She was last in a field of eight to the final turn, when Smith guided Zenyatta inside of Pretty Unusual and began closing ground. Zenyatta had moved past the back of the field and into fifth place with a furlong remaining. Extending her stride through the stretch, Zenyatta quickly closed on leader Dance to My Tune and reached the front when Smith guided her to the outside of that mare before the sixteenth pole.
The style of the win left trainer John Shirreffs stunned.
"Isn't it amazing?" Shirreffs said. "I have so much faith in Mike. When you have a big X on your back, things don't always happen. You find yourself in places in races you need to get away from."
Dance to My Tune, the longest shot in the field, set fractions of 23.88 and 47.69 seconds and ran on late to finish second, a nose in front of Floating Heart. Trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, Dance to My Tune was sixth in the minor Wishing Well Handicap on Feb. 12.
"When [Zenyatta] was blocked, we had a chance, but it didn't last very long," said Hollendorfer's assistant, Dan Ward. "She couldn't have run better - couldn't ask for more than that."
Floating Heart ran credibly, considering she seemed agitated in the saddling enclosure, where hundreds of fans were watching Zenyatta's every move.
Floating Heart, trained by Todd Pletcher, was third in the Grade 2 La Canada Stakes for 4-year-old fillies here on Feb. 14.
"I think we needed to be realistic," said Pletcher's assistant, Michael McCarthy. "This is what we were hoping for. It's nice to finish within two lengths of [Zenyatta]."
Zenyatta earned $150,000, improving her career earnings to $5,624,580.
"She's a super athlete," Shirreffs said. "She can do it all. How are you going to be better than perfect?"
Despite the drama through the stretch, Smith is convinced that Zenyatta was not fully extended in the Santa Margarita.
"I wanted her to have an easy race, her first race back and carrying 127," he said. "I don't know what to say," Smith said. "I'm her biggest fan, and I have the best seat in the house."
"I think she'll get something out of it. She wasn't really tired at all. It's as easy of a race as she's had. It's just phenomenal."