Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Rachel. Zenyatta. Belmont. ... And pigs fly.

Until proven wrong, I'm going to chalk this one down under the heading "I'll believe it when I see it." But the Daily Racing Form is reporting that the New York Racing Association is actively pursuing a sponsorship that would put a sizable chunk of change on the table in hopes of securing a race that draws both 3-year-old filly phenom Rachel Alexandra and unbeaten older mare Zenyatta.

DRF reports that a source inside NYRA claims the association is close to securing a sponsor that would most likely help bump the purse of the $600,000, Grade 1 Beldame Stakes at Belmont Park on Oct. 3 to $1 million as an enticement to the connections of both fabulous females.

Trouble is, money is just about meaningless to the connections of both horses. Rachel's principal owner, Jess Jackson, is the self-made-billionaire owner of Kendall-Jackson Wines. Zenyatta's owner, Jerry Moss, co-founded A&M Records with bandleader Herb Alpert and names horses in honor of his pal Sting. (Not the wrestler.)

The proposed $1 million purse of the Beldame is walking around money for these two.

Rather, at this stage of their lives, both Jackson and Moss are interested in one thing: Seeing their beloved horses win. A meeting in the Beldame might be fine for one of them -- Jackson, whose filly is training at Saratoga and has a huge win in the Mother Goose S.-G1 over the Belmont strip -- but makes little sense for Moss, trainer John Shirreffs and Zenyatta.

Though Shirreffs isn't yet rejecting the idea.

"We've talked to the owners, we've talked to the trainers. Nobody is saying 'no,'" the DRF's anonymous source said.

Shirreffs confirmed that the race is "something to consider."

"As far as going to New York, I'd love to take Zenyatta back there and have her seen there," Shirreffs told the Racing Form. "I'm from Long Island. One of my wishes in life is to spend some time at Belmont Park."

But, I figure, probably not now.

Mind you, it's now Shirreff's mare that has more reason to need this race. There was a time when I thought Rachel's connections would blink first in the staring match between these two camps; that she'd have to track down and beat Zenyatta to win any championship other than 3-year-old filly. But that was before Jackson sent his filly off for a second time hunting colts. Now her trophy room includes first-place hardware from both the Preakness and Haskell, and the pelts of the two other 3-year-old classic winners this season, Mine That Bird (Kentucky Derby) and Summer Bird (Belmont Stakes).

Meanwhile, Zenyatta has run her lifetime mark to a flawless 12-for-12 (Rachel was not unbeaten at 2), but hasn't left California in doing it and is coming off the closest call in her life; winning by a head in a photo over Anabaa's Creation in the Clement L. Hirsch-G1.

By winning a Triple Crown race and beating the boys twice, Rachel Alexandra is the biggest sensation in all of American racing this season. Zenyatta by comparison is the most dominant horse on the West Coast. As a friend pointed out in a discussion recently, when his co-workers were asked about racing, even those who didn't follow the sport knew full-well about Rachel Alexandra. Nobody had a clue who Zenyatta was.

Lucky for Zenyatta and her connections, then, that the clueless don't vote for Eclipse Awards. (Though your opinions may vary.)

Especially because of the relative lack of stars in the male ranks, I believe that either of these fine females could still be horse of the year. Neither is more than two wins away.

It's how best to get there that matters.

Jackson has already said -- and said, and said -- that Rachel will not run in the Breeders' Cup on Pro-Ride at Santa Anita, where his champion Curlin struggled home fourth in the Breeders' Cup Classic of 2008. Usually ducking the Breeders' Cup would make it very hard to win a championship, but Rachel has been so dominant this year, even against males, that she's given herself a fighting chance.

I'm not sure that beating 3-year-old colts and geldings again in the Travers S.-G1 is her best bet on the road to Horse of the Year, but she could always run against older males in the Grade 1 Woodward at Saratoga on Sept. 5. Possible starters for that race include Grade 1 winner Macho Again and G2 winners such as Asiatic Boy, Arson Squad and Smooth Air. And no female has ever won the Woodward. So if Rachel notches yet another historic win, in that company -- perhaps even scaring some of those gentlemen off -- she could probably be shut down for the season by Jackson and trainer Steve Asmussen and still be Horse of the Year. Running and winning in the Beldame about a month later would just add a second, sweet layer of icing to the cake.

But for Zenyatta, does winning Horse of the Year require beating Rachel? Well, not if somebody else does it for her.

Yes, the best way for Zenyatta to overtake Rachel in the race for the top title would be to beat her head-to-head. But the Beldame is not a race that plays in Zenyatta's favor.

Shirreffs, who planned to keep his mare in California all year leading up to the Breeders' Cup, would have to take her off the West Coast synthetics (where she's usually a monster) and ship her thousands of miles east to run on plain dirt, at a track where Rachel has already set records. The only advantage left for Zenyatta would be her age and physical maturity, but even experience is now on Rachel's side; though only 3, she's run one more race than Zenyatta in her life (13 vs. 12) and she knows what it's like to lose and seems to have decided she'd rather never do it again, thank you.

Shirreffs says Question 1 for Team Zenyatta regarding the Beldame is "does it fit into the Breeders' Cup schedule?" At this stage of the season, if I were them, I think it doesn't. Shirreffs can instead point Zenyatta to the Grade 1, $300,000 Lady's Secret at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting on Oct. 10, hopefully win with a little more cushion than in the Hirsch, and stay put for the Nov. 7-8 Breeders' Cup at the same track.

Provided she comes out of the Lady's Secret with a win -- and especially if Rachel runs against males again in either the Travers or Woodward and loses -- then Moss and Shirreffs can decide whether to let Zenyatta try to repeat in the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic, which very well might not be enough to win her Horse of the Year, even at 14-for-14 lifetime, or to take on males herself in the Classic at 10 furlongs, a distance she's never raced. Winning the latter, coupled with a Rachel Alexandra loss, and Zenyatta indeed could be Horse of the Year, not just champion older female.

Yes, an aggressive, proactive Moss and Shirreffs might go after Rachel at Belmont in the Beldame. But an aggressive Zenyatta camp wouldn't have staked out an all-Cali 2009 schedule in the first place for an unbeaten defending female champion.

And for wealthy men more concerned with the win/loss record than the size of the winner's check, a $400,000 bump in the purse of the Beldame doesn't seem likely to make them any less conservative now.


  1. The tenor of the comments coming out of Big Z's camp is encouraging. They've been pretty open to the idea of a matchup AND they've made it clear they're willing to run her all the way through February. That opens many other options besides Belmont's Beldame.

    I've always thought the Clark Handicap is a non-starter, as it's too close to the Breeders Cup (three weeks, while fine for many horses, doesn't fit with Big Z's history of training and racing, where she normally takes a month or two to prepare for each race).

    I think a wintertime matchup down in Gulfstream Park makes sense, although some horsemen have reacted poorly to that when I've brought it up, opining that the GP track is much too hard for a horse like Zenyatta who is used to forgiving surfaces. A wintertime matchup at Aqueduct also works, I think.

    Any way you cut it, I think Big Z's connections are open to the idea of racing on dirt against RA sometime between now and February. Hopefully, it will happen. If it does, the handle at each race track in North America will be off-the-charts high :)

  2. I agree that the Zenyatta camp isn't opposed to the notion of racing Rachel, which means "on real dirt."

    But I do believe that the Beldame compromises Zenyatta's chances -- potentially both in that race and working towards the Breeders' Cup -- with no real concessions made by Team Rachel.

    You know, how about the Fair Grounds proposal? They've added a stakes race for fillies and mares six weeks after the Breeders' Cup. Presently only a $100,000 purse (and, as a new race, of course ungraded) I'm sure if both camps wanted to race there, sponsorships could easily be secured to drive that purse to $750,000 or $1 million.

    And everybody could party in the French Quarter for a week or so beforehand and either celebrate or drown their sorrows there after.

  3. I just thought of something. Could you imagine what the reaction would be if these two superstars met and Zenyatta caught up to, but didn't pass, Rachel Alexandra at the wire, and it was a dead heat? I think I'd be chuckling for days ... :)

    I think Fairgrounds makes sense (which reminds me of someone else's idea which I think makes the most sense: open up Oaklawn for a weekend and do it there, the only track they've both raced on). I've always suspected we're ALL going to have to learn a lot more about Louisiana racing, as Delta Downs is where so much of the money is right now ... :)

  4. That would, indeed, be special ... a dead-heat. :-)

  5. I would think the Gulfstream idea, which I'd seen elsewhere is a non-starter for the simple reason that GP is relentlessly speed-favoring; Zenyatta would be a huge disadvantage there.

  6. So glad to see you this morning!!! I hope you enjoyed your Chick-fil-A experience - and the cow-stume!!! :-)

    Wasn't that little fella adorable!


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