Sunday, June 28, 2009

With all others fleeing Rachel, Zenyatta might fill void

Last week, it looked for all the world like a showdown between unbeaten 5-year-old mare Zenyatta and seemingly world-beating 3-year-old filly Rachel Alexandra might never happen.

Weeks ago, trainer John Shirreffs said Zenyatta would be staying in California all the way through the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita. And this week, Jess Jackson of Stonestreet Stables, primary owner of Rachel Alexandra, said his filly would be skipping the Breeders' Cup rather than run on the "plastic" Pro-Ride surface in California.

Collision averted. Regrettably.

But on Saturday morning, even before Zenyatta carried 129 pounds in defending her title in Hollywood Park's Grade 1 Vanity Handicap and Rachel set stakes records for time and margin of victory in the Mother Goose S.-G1 at Belmont Park, Zenyatta's owner, Jerry Moss, said his desire for his mare to be named Horse of the Year (she lost out to Jackson's Curlin in 2008) might well send her on the road to hunt down the upstart Rachel.

"There's a good chance," that Zenyatta would leave California despite Shirreffs' earlier statements, Moss said in an interview during the program "Down the Stretch" on XM Satellite Radio, reported by The Daily Racing Form. "... If the two horses are ready and at the top of their form, I would very much like to see a race between the two of them."

Wouldn't we all?

Sending his senior Zenyatta out to meet Jackson's saucy sophomore is something Moss doesn't exactly have to do. I've written that I believe Rachel needs to beat Zenyatta -- not just rest her laurels on a gutsy Preakness win over males or even beat boys again in the Haskell or Travers -- if Jackson wants her to be Horse of the Year. It would be a weak link in Rachel's case for the title to leave a lifetime-unbeaten Zenyatta with a pair of Breeders' Cup victories on the table, unchallenged. No matter how good Rachel has looked -- and there isn't a superlative that fits her at the moment -- Zenyatta seemed to be in the position of strength so far as dictating where, when and whether a clash of the two female titans would take place.

Meanwhile Rachel's ridiculous run Saturday, while it added another Grade 1 victory and $270,000 earned to her resume, actually turned up the pressure a bit on Jackson. Only two other 3-year-old fillies showed up to race: Edward P. Evans' Malibu Prayer, who finished second beaten 19 1/4 lengths; and Godolphin's Flashing, who was third beaten roughly 32. The connections of Don't Forget Gil and Hopeful Image scratched them out Saturday morning due to "elevated temperatures."

Rachel Alexandra set records for the Mother Goose for time when run at 9 furlongs, 1:46.33 (besting Lakeway's 1:46.58 in 1994), and margin of victory (shattering the 13 1/2-length margin set in 1975 by the sublime Ruffian).

And that presents a conundrum for Jackson and Rachel's trainer, Steve Asmussen, when considering where Rachel goes next. Earlier in the week, while ruling out the Breeders' Cup this fall, Jackson listed several potential "next starts" for Rachel after the Mother Goose.

If she enters the Coaching Club American Oaks-G1 at Belmont on July 25 or the Aug. 22 Alabama S.-G1 at Saratoga -- each restricted to 3-year-old fillies -- either might become a walkover at the rate fillies are fleeing Rachel. She could face colts and geldings again in the Aug. 2 Haskell Invitational H.-G1 at Monmouth or the Aug. 29 Travers S.-G1 at Saratoga. Both would be much bigger challenges.

But management of one Mid-Atlantic track has to be drooling over the prospects that perhaps both top females will decide to muss-up their hair and lipstick in a donnybrook at their own Delaware Park on July 19. The Delaware Handicap is but a Grade 2 race, yet the purse this year has been set at $1 million. That's considerably more cash than either of the Grade 1 opportunities at Saratoga for a Zenyatta vs. Rachel Showdown, the $300,000 Go For Wand on Aug. 2 or the $400,000 Personal Ensign on Aug. 29.

Both girls have earned plenty of G1 blacktype. Beating the other one -- whether in a Grade 1 race or a 400-yard dash at Los Alamitos -- is just about all that matters now.

I think the Personal Ensign is least likely. For Zenyatta particularly, who could win and then go home (or lose and do the same to recuperate in time for the Breeders' Cup) I think the earlier a collision with Rachel, the better. Shirreffs has hinted he doesn't necessarily want Zenyatta going 10 furlongs, so asking her to cover an untried distance, on conventional dirt (over which she's only raced once), while also making the sporting gesture of shipping cross-country to where Rachel is training at The Spa, is one concession too many for the California connections.

With the Go For Wand being the least lucrative matchup (not that either camp is hurting for cash), the Delaware Handicap begins to look even more attractive. It's mile-and-a-sixteenth course is Zenyatta's most-frequently raced distance (six of her nine graded wins), and the slightly shorter distance and huge purse (meaning a hundred-grand for third) might help attract a few more mares to the party than the 9 furlongs of the Go For Wand, which went off with only six entries last year when champion Ginger Punch cast a long shadow over the entry box.

While I'm wanting to see Zenyatta vs. Rachel, I'm not asking for a one-on-one race. And a deep-closer like Zenyatta is going to want some pace to run at, which I think she'll more likely get with a few more mares in the mix and a shorter distance to travel. Plus, from Zenyatta's perspective, at least the Delaware Handicap would require Rachel to be vanned away from Saratoga, where she'll be training the next few months.

It makes me wonder, though, whether Saratoga might try to up the ante. "Back in the day," namely when tracks were trying to land the Seabiscuit-War Admiral match, bids came in from across the country. Might the New York Racing Association and Saratoga be able to scrounge up a title sponsor to contribute a huge chunk of change and bump the Go For Wand's purse to match Delaware's bankroll?

After all, a title sponsor for this race is going to get plenty of attention. If Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra are nominated to the same race, all eyes will be on that venue from the moment the showdown is announced until at least a day or two after the dust has settled.

1 comment:

  1. Some days, I think the idea you are espousing at the end of your blog (a track or sponsor offering up financial incentives for a RA v. Big Z matchup) is what it will take. It makes the idea more attractive for the owners and for the likes of NBC Sports. After all, America is definitely about good marketing, right?

    But then I remember that Jess Jackson and the Mosses do not seem motivated by money. They make decisions based on some mix of egoism and the best interests of the horse. Would they really be swayed by a $2,000,000 or $3,000,000 purse if it meant deviating from the "conservative path"? I'm not sure.

    I do know that there's an extraordinary opportunity here, with only a very small window to realize it (3 months, not counting October since Big Z will need to be settled-in at Santa Anita by then, in preparation for November 6th). With Shireffs committing Big Z to the August 9th Clement Hirsch, that leaves only September.

    And as you allude to, beyond overcoming their own issues, they would then have to bring pressure to bear on at least 6-to-8 other horse owners and trainers to get a properly-sized field.

    I guess I'm just pessimistic it will ever happen, much less in the idealized way of a well-organized matchup. It's a sad reality of the bifurcated world of west v. east coast racing.


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