Two years ago, Paradise Woods rebounded from a flop at Del Mar to run away with the Santa Anita feature named in honor of Hall of Famer Zenyatta. On Sunday, the now five-year-old mare achieved a similar turnaround in the same race, a “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1). But this time, her victory in the $200,351 Zenyatta (G2) came for Zenyatta’s trainer, John Shirreffs, and a new pilot in hot-riding Abel Cedillo.
Aside from returning to her favorite venue, the key was for Paradise Woods to break cleanly and find a stalking perch in the clear. Flubbing the start was one factor in her last two losses, including her fourth in the Clement Hirsch (G1) at Del Mar. Once Cedillo had her perfectly positioned tracking 4-5 favorite Secret Spice, backers of the 7-2 third choice had a right to feel confidence rising.
Secret Spice, who just missed in the Clement Hirsch, rattled off fractions of :23.14, :46.83, and 1:11.30. That was a testing pace on a deep, tiring surface, and Secret Spice, yet to win at this 1 1/16-mile trip, slowed in the lane.
Paradise Woods stuck to her task in workmanlike fashion and outstayed the favorite by 1 3/4 lengths in 1:44.31. Cedillo was celebrating his third graded score of the weekend, after Cleopatra’s Strike in the John Henry Turf Championship (G2) and Mongolian Groom’s upset of McKinzie in the Awesome Again (G1).
In a further reversal of the Clement Hirsch form, Secret Spice held off Hirsch winner Ollie’s Candy by a neck. Ollie’s Candy reverted to off-the-pace tactics here, rather than her front-running coup at Del Mar, and found it harder to make up ground. Confirmed closer La Force likewise was up against it and could get no nearer than fourth, compared to her runner-up finish in the 2018 Zenyatta. Mongolian Humor wound up fifth, and Kaydetre, the 65-1 longshot, was last.
Paradise Woods was originally in the care of Hall of Fame horseman Richard Mandella. In 2017 she veered from such spectacular successes as the Santa Anita Oaks (G1) and Zenyatta to clunkers like the Kentucky Oaks (G1). Paradise Woods ended her sophomore season with respectable placings in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff and La Brea (G1), but she regressed in early 2018.
Switched to Shirreffs ahead of her 2019 campaign, Paradise Woods took three starts to rediscover her brilliant best. She was a rank fifth in her comeback in the February 16 Santa Monica (G2), a better third to Secret Spice in the March 30 Beholder Mile (G1), and put it together in a 10 1/2-length tour de force in the April 27 Santa Margarita (G2). The Union Rags mare couldn’t duplicate it next time with a bobbling start in the June 1 Santa Maria (G2), settling for second to La Force, and she reiterated her lack of enthusiasm for Del Mar in her latest.
By regaining her Zenyatta title, Paradise Woods became the first to score in non-consecutive years, and handed Shirreffs his fifth win in this race formerly known as the Lady’s Secret. While his first winner would be the answer to a trivia question (Manistique in 1999), his others were furnished by Zenyatta’s three-peat (2008-10). Hence the fitting renaming of the prize for fillies and mares.
Out of the unraced Forest Wildcat mare Wild Forest, Paradise Woods descends from French champion and influential matron Lianga, ancestress of Mr. Greeley and Street Sense.
Paradise Woods was bred by Herman Sarkowsky in Kentucky and races for the partnership of HS Stable and Pam and Martin Wygod. Shirreffs credits the latter for opting to give Paradise Woods another season of racing rather than retire her to the broodmare life.
The decision has reaped dividends, and she’ll bring a record of 17-5-3-3, $1,123,890, into the Breeders’ Cup. With Hall of Famer Mike Smith, her previous rider, committed to presumptive Distaff favorite Midnight Bisou, Paradise Woods is expected to renew her partnership with Cedillo.
Quotes from Santa Anita
Winning rider Abel Cedillo: “Mike (Smith) told me you’ve got to keep her calm and she’ll try hard. I kept her outside of Secret Spice and everything worked perfect. She was standing perfect in the gate and we knew that (Flavien) Prat (aboard Secret Spice) was the speed and he would go. We broke good…I wanted to be close and not let him (Prat) go by himself. I just want to thank all the owners and trainers for letting me ride their horses.”
Winning trainer John Shirreffs: “We wanted her to break well and not get shuffled back and hopefully to be in the clear. In the past she’s gotten shuffled back and got sucked behind horses, but today she broke well and was able to get to the outside.”
On the jockey switch: “We weren’t sure Mike (Smith) would be available for the Breeders’ Cup, so this was the time if you’re going to make a change.
“It was the first time (on her) today. Abel has just been riding terrifically! We got the hot rider at the right time.”
On co-owner Marty Wygod: “Absolutely (he decided to keep her in training). He was the one who had so much faith in her and wanted to see her run another year. Turning for home, it seemed like she was maintaining her stride and she had good action all the way.
“This race is so special you can’t even begin to fathom or believe that you will win the Zenyatta, it is so hard to do, having trained Zenyatta and to win the Zenyatta is really special.”