Monday, January 4, 2010

Classic aside, I'd still vote Rachel

If the AP's Female Athlete of the Year voting is any indication seems that Zenyatta -- historic winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic -- is gaining the edge over flashy filly Rachel Alexandra in the pre-Eclipse handicapping for Horse of the Year.

Zenyatta finished second to Serena Williams in that balloting. Rachel Alexandra was a distant seventh.

But for my money, I'd still take Rachel. Here's why.

Zenyatta -- while undefeated lifetime over 14 races -- was the winner of exactly one truly challenging race in 2009; said Breeders' Cup Classic.

Yes, that race was a great effort amid a global and talented field. And it was an historic victory; Zenyatta was the first female ever to win in the Classic.

But it was one race. Run over a track on her "home" circuit in Southern California. Which Zenyatta never left during the course of 2009. And while the field was stacked with some very nice horses, frankly a lot of them were turf horses (Gio Ponti finished second), including Euros whom, frankly, nobody had any real idea whether they'd perform well with the long ship, the comparative heat of Southern California, and the synthetic surface.

For such a seemingly talented field, the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic wasn't exactly a group from which any horse could emerge victorious. In fact, Zenyatta was not only favored at a little less than 3/1, but only Rip Van Winkle (at a little over 3/1) was anywhere close in the odds.

Final order of finish, with odds (rounded) and comments:
1. Zenyatta, 3/1*, an unbeaten synthetic monster racing at home.
2. Gio Ponti, 12/1, turf horse.
3. Twice Over(GB), 9/1, turf horse.
4. Summer Bird, 7/1, 3-year-old with no prior synthetic form.
5. Colonel John, 12/1, a synthetic G1 winner in Southern California.
6. Richard's Kid, 11/1, another synthetic, G1, SoCal male.
7. Awesome Gem, 52/1.
8. Regal Ransom, 39/1.
9. Mine That Bird, 14/1, hadn't won since the Kentucky Derby.
10. Rip Van Winkle(IRE), 3/1, quit early, a turf horse with no prior synthetic form.
11. Einstein(BRZ), 10/1, a horse I liked here due to prior synthetic form, but who did nothing.
12. Girolamo, 25/1, how the hell was he only 25/1?

Now, by my count, from that group of also-rans, there are exactly three Grade 1 synthetic victories: One each for Colonel John (Santa Anita Derby at 3), Richard's Kid (2009 Pacific Classic) and Einstein (2009 Santa Anita Handicap).

Zenyatta had six G1 synthetic wins (granted, among females) going into the race.

I wrote a blog just before race-day that Zenyatta might be a bet-against in the Classic, but based solely on synthetic form -- and why should we have looked anywhere else? -- I don't know what in the world I was thinking. She was sent off as the favorite and probably should've been 3/5 instead of 3/1.

Meanwhile, much was asked in 2009 of Rachel Alexandra.

After she crushed 3-year-old fillies by record lengths in the Kentucky Oaks -- a race from which some handicappers predicted a bounce -- she was sold to Jess Jackson and wheeled back for the Preakness, against colts. There (granted, with a weight break) she was the brave winner, holding off a late charge from the Derby victor in Mine That Bird, despite having done almost all the work on the front end. Winning the Preakness was something no filly had done since Nellie Morse in 1924.

After beating the colts at Pimlico, Rachel returned to the 3-year-old filly ranks to set another record-lengths mark, this time in winning the Mother Goose Stakes. The ease with which she crushed her own age and gender in the Oaks and Mother Goose was simply breathtaking.

So, with seemingly no more challenges facing her in the 3-year-old filly ranks, Jackson and Co. sent her back again to face boys her own age. Her next race was a fleet finish over a sloppy track in the Haskell, splashing home in 1:47.21 for 9 furlongs. In that race, she crushed Summer Bird -- who was later sent off as third-favorite in the Breeders' Cup Classic -- by six lengths.

Some of Rachel's detractors imply that her connections ducked the distance by skipping the Travers Stakes in order to run in the Woodward Stakes at 9 furlongs.

But, frankly, what was a girl to do?

If Rachel had gone to the Travers and had beaten 3-year-old colts again, so fricking what? And if she was sent somewhere, anywhere, to run 10 furlongs and beat older fillies and mares not named Zenyatta, the yawns from race fans and Eclipse voters alike would have been even bigger.

So Jess Jackson and Co. pointed her to the Woodward Stakes, a race -- like the Breeders' Cup Classic and with a much longer history -- that had never been won by a female.

Yes, Rachel got a weight break in the Woodward. Yes, Calvin Borel flogged her down the stretch. Yes, she barely won that race. ... But she won.

And since the world seems so fond of touting the field-strength for the Breeders' Cup Classic -- a race, as noted, with exactly three G1 wins over synthetic among the 11 horses that faced Zenyatta -- let's weigh the strength of Rachel's six opponents in that Woodward.

Post, horse, comments:
1. Da' Tara, surprise winner of the 2008 Belmont Stakes, but that's a Grade 1 win on dirt.
2. Bullsbay, won 2009 Whitney H.-G1.
3. Rachel Alexandra.
4. Cool Coal Man, G2 winner on dirt.
5. Macho Again, won 2009 Stephen Foster H.-G1.
6. It's a Bird, two G3 wins on dirt and DQ'ed from first in the Oaklawn H.-G2.
7. Asiatic Boy, four group-level wins in Dubai, G1-placed on three continents.
8. Past the Point, second in the Woodward S.-G1, a year prior.

So, Zenyatta faced 11 opponents with three lifetime G1 wins on the "surface of the day," synthetic. Rachel in the Woodward faced six opponents with an equal number of prior G1 wins, three, on the surface over which they'd be racing that day, dirt. The Woodward field also had a four-times GSW and three-times G1-placed horse in Asiatic Boy, a G2 winner, a multiple G3 winner, and the defending runner-up in this very race.

Was the Woodward really all that "light" a field? And the Breeders' Cup Classic -- in hindsight particularly, noting how the horses actually performed -- really one of the deepest Cup fields ever, as some have suggested?

I think the answer to both questions is, "no."

Throughout 2009, consistently more was asked of Rachel Alexandra than of Zenyatta. The 3-year-old filly recorded historic wins against males in the Preakness, Haskell and Woodward, and record-shattering victories against her own age and gender in the Kentucky Oaks and the Mother Goose. Zenyatta meanwhile beat up on a talented stablemate in Life is Sweet, and otherwise the same cast of SoCal distaff characters, throughout a conservatively (and brilliantly) managed season -- until owner Jerry Moss and trainer John Shirreffs took their one big shot of the year, and hit the bulls-eye in the Classic.

I'm not being dismissive of Zenyatta's accomplishments; 14-for-14 lifetime is a big deal (although the first nine shouldn't count toward 2009 HOTY voting) and being the first mare to win the Breeders' Cup Classic -- in exhilarating fashion, no less -- certainly is memorable.

But Zenyatta went 5-for-5 in 2009 with one signature win. Rachel Alexandra went 8-for-8 with at least five victories that were noteworthy, either for their ease (Oaks, Mother Goose) or for beating boys in Grade 1 races (Preakness, Haskell, Woodward).

Were I voting -- and I'm not -- Rachel Alexandra would receive my ballot.

That doesn't mean Zenyatta is undeserving. And I think it's more likely that she'll win Horse of the Year.

But I truly don't believe Zenyatta did as much over the course of the year to earn it.


  1. Much has been made of Rachel Alexandra "ducking" the Classic. It should be remembered that Zenyatta "ducked" the Distaff - run the same day Rachel Alexandra won the Oaks by 20 lengths - because the track was wet. Is it possible Zenyatta's unable to handle the slop?

    I completely agree with you. Zenyatta is brilliant; her Classic was brilliant. But Rachel had the HOY year.

  2. Glenn,
    Simply put, I agree totally with you!

  3. voters make absolutely no sense. You say,Zenyatta stayed on her own turf....wellll Mr. Craven so did RA this year.
    They have both switched surfaces during the course of their racing careers so... what gives? Why is it okay for one but not the other. I smell a rat! Double standards should NOT be allowed. A truly gifted race horse is going to lose HOTY honors due to the voters worn out reasons for their RA vote. How sad that course turned up sloppy at Churchill. Then this nonsense would have been solved. RA's races were carefully orchestrated this year as well. NO weight gains vs... 129 for matter how good you are... spotting your opponents 16 pounds is a lot...strap an extra 16 on your ankles and see how you do. RA ran against a bunch of has beens in the Woodward who beat up on each other and then have never won a race since and against 3 other fillies in another stake she won, now that is competition,ha. She NEVER ran in a BC race where she had to face top notch fillies or mares from across the world.In fact she never ran aginst older mares. Zenyatta was the first filly or mare to win the BC Classic and two BC races of different categories.
    RA never showed up with the lame excuse of synthetics, which she has won on at Keeneland. Her old trainer said she could win on anything... yet her new owner...ran scared.
    One thing you voters can never take away from Zenyatta is her will to win with her ears straight up, her charisma, her fastest ever last quarter in any BC race, and that troublesome, unbelieveable win in the BC Classic. More people will remember that than a win in the Woodward or even the Preakness where....another jump and a better ride for Mine That Bird, and RA would have LOST that race. Let's face it...Ra has limits on distance... Isn't this why sprinters never win HOTY? If not, Aratx, who also set a few records his last year, should have been a contender for HOTY during his last year of racing.
    You will all have egg on your faces... when RA wins HOTY. Shame on you!

  4. Anonymous: Knocking Zenyatta for staying on her home turf is not merely a complaint that she never ran off synthetics. Rather, it's noting that she never even left Southern California; never really shipped anywhere nor, outside of a stablemate Life is Sweet and the competitive Cocoa Beach, faced much of anything.

    Rachel Alexandra went 8-for-8 over six different tracks. She shipped from Churchill to Pimlico on two weeks' rest and beat boys in the Preakness, the first filly in 85 years to do so. (Meanwhile, Zenyatta never ran back on two weeks' rest in her life.)

    It's laughable that someone can give Zenyatta's camp a pass for not running at Churchill in the mud, but be so derogatory toward Jess Jackson for choosing not to race on a synthetic track that the connections of several other horses ALSO avoided on Breeders' Cup day. ... Rachel's won in the slop. Team Zenyatta doesn't even TRY? ... And you're going to suggest I'm employing a double-standard?

    Certainly Rachel Alexandra's campaign was carefully plotted, as well. I should hope every horse has connections who really think about what's right for the horse before running him, or her. But it was an orchestrated campaign that included taking on boys three times, not one, and notching historic victories on multiple occasions, not one.

    As for Rachel one time only running against two competitors, pull the lifetime PPs for Zen. She raced against only four in the 2008 Milady, and three (including Hystericalady) in the 2008 Lady's Secret, without it costing her the 2008 Champion Older Female crown. And in her four 2009 races leading up to the Breeders' Cup, Zen faced an average of 5.5 opponents. During Rachel's 2009, despite that Mother Goose in which everybody but two ducked her, Rachel averaged running against 6.25 opponents -- and different ones from Kentucky, to Maryland, to New York, to Jersey and back to New York; not the same general cast of SoCal distaffers that she beat last time, and the time before, and the time before that, like Zenyatta.

    It's been written, and it's likely true, that you'd have to reach back to Busher in 1944 to find a campaign for a 3-year-old filly that was so ambitious. ... So why all the Rachel haters?

    By the way, I'm not a member of "you voters." ... I wish, but not yet.

  5. Anon - wouldn't be like putting 16 pound weights on...16 pounds is 1% of her weight (she's 1200 pounds). So it would actually be like me (160 pounds) putting a 1.5 pound weight on.
    2nd, do you know WHY horses pin their ears back when the run? It's to keep the wind out of their ears. You know WHY Zenyatta keeps her ears pricked the whole race? Have you not noticed the big, white cotton balls in her ears?
    Trainers put cotton in horses ears to muffle sound, so excitable, high-strung horses don't freak out over every noise.
    So...toss out those two "reasons" as to why Zenyatta is such a great horse.

    Also...Rachel didn't only run one distance. She's raced 1 mile to 1 3/8 miles this year and WON them all. By the way...1 3/8 miles is only 100 yards less than the "classic distance" (1 1/4).
    Zenyatta DID only race in her backyard (one state all year), Rachel didn't. That's odd that you would say that. She raced in SIX different states.
    Your comments discredits yourself as a knowledgeable horse person and race fan, and just makes you come off as one the crazy Zenyatta fanatics.

  6. I'm satisfied to know what I've known about your racing mind set. And this is no dis, BUT...

    If one is a speed freak...RA has it (still think MTB would have got her in 10 more strides in the Preakness).

    If one is, I gotta' have it now with no thought to an extended tomorrow or the details of persistence (Oh, please, let's argue managing a racing year to the end versus buying into running a mount short cause the owner doesn't like plastic!) ..RA has it.

    If winning, no matter the time expended by other contenders, ability, $ numbers (because that's the most important...right?)...RA has it.

    Glenn: RA is spectacular.

    I'll take the 5 yo mare for now and I think the industry should reward her and the connections because they're clean, dedicated and support the industry on it's biggest day. RAs connections didn' dis against her. She'll be back....Z won't.

  7. I can't buy handing out the award to connections because they're "dedicated" (who gets to judge which owner is MORE dedicated) or "support the industry on its biggest day."

    If you feel the industry has made a decision that is detrimental to your horse, you have little way to protest but to NOT run your horse. And Jess Jackson isn't the only owner to make such a decision.

    The Breeders' Cup Sprint lost Fabulous Strike due to the synthetic track. Kodiak Kowboy, a multiple G1 sprint/miler, skipped the weekend. A G1 winner in Macho Again -- certainly better on paper than other horses in the Classic field (like Girolamo, Awesome Gem and Regal Ransom) didn't run on the Pro-Ride.

    Nick Zito reportedly prefers to avoid synthetic tracks with his horses, likening the surface to something you should "insulate your attic" with. And D. Wayne Lukas, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, "wanted no part" of the Pro-Ride at the Breeders' Cup with his G1-winning 2-year-old, Dublin (who went to Churchill and got beat in the listed Iroquois, instead.)

    "It's not a good racetrack," Lukas told the Chronicle. "It makes good horses average and average horses good. Artificial surfaces are just so unpredictable. You'll see some real reversals of form on it."

    And you'll see some monsters, like Zenyatta, although her lone lifetime race on dirt was also a winning one.

    Maybe skipping the Breeders' Cup costs Rachel Horse of the Year. But it was both a calculated risk and a statement at the same time: "Don't do this to us again."

    Back-to-back at the same synthetic track is bad for the Breeders' Cup.

  8. Simpy put, RA had the better year. Forget about surfaces for a minute and just compare the races, Rachel did more in more races.

  9. I enjoy your blog and the statements that you made, I feel very sad that we as race fans are in the middle of such a debate when this could have been settled on the track. In june before the running of the Mother Goose, in an article written by DRF, Mr. Jerry Moss comes out and says that they are coming east to run against Rachel, then Rachel went out and won the Mother Goose in Track record time. 1:46.33 is incredibly impressive, Zenyatta ran 20 mins later with a time of 1:48.15, for those of us that understand horse racing at that particular time, there is no way that anyone would have thought or possibly had any notion that Zenyatta could have beaten Rachel. As the year progressed Rachel was challenged more and more and more and more and this took its toll on this 3 year old filly. on the other coast, the 5 year old more mature and physically mature mare Zenyatta was beating up on the likes of Hot N' Dusty, and Anabaa's Creation, Champagne Eyes, Gambler's Justice, Taste's Sis, Briecat, Modification and Dawn after dawn. Of all of the horses that ran against Zenyatta in the first 4 races of the 2009 season, only 1 horse was a graded stakes winner in 09. Life is Sweet, sadly people look at the Classic as this incredibly competitive race, and when you look at the 0-43 for dirt horses over the proride during the B.C. for the last two years then with even a little knowledge of horse racing people could see the surface was not in any way fair. Zenyatta's fans really feel slighted due to the disrespect some show to her, but they can blame the connections for that, sadly after watching her win the Apple Blossom in my home town of Hot Springs Arkansas, I am thinking to myself that this horse could be one for the ages, and sadly they put her in a position by means of running her in insignificant races over and over again throughout her whole career, this was soley motivated to allow for her to stay undefeated, they got their undefeated and they got their big win in the Classic but sadly they will not get much respect in the future. I spoke with Mr. Lukas at Saratoga, and he plans to bring his big horse to Arkansas to run at Oaklawn Park, I am excited to see that and I totally agree that the synthetics cause great horse to look mediocre and mediocre horses to look great. Very sad.

  10. Dear Glenn Craven, this is a very well written discussion & I agree with you. Don't get me wrong, I like Zenyatta, but Rachel Alexandra beat the boys 3 times in the same year. I also agree it was a shame the Classic was back-to-back at the same synthetic track. Perhaps if it had been run at another track, we might have seen the 2 Best Race Horses of 2009 race against other.

  11. So, according to Jeanetta, Zenyatta and her unbeaten 14-0 record should be dismissed as substandard and unworthy because...wait for it...she had cotton balls in her ears to muffle sound at the Breeder's Cup.

    OMG, and, and, she also wore a Shadow Roll, too. HORRORS! She is not worthy. How awful!

    Honestly, I don't know what motivates people to trash talk a champion horse in order to pump up their favorite.

    I think I'd like to sum up how sad that is by paraphrasing Jeanetta's own quote from above: "Your comment discredits yourself as a knowledgable horse person and race fan, and just makes you come off as one of the crazy Rachel fanatics."

    I celebrate both Rachel and Zenyatta as amazing performers whose equal we probably won't see again in our lifetimes. Why can't you do the same?

  12. "Yes, Rachel got a weight break in the Woodward. Yes, Calvin Borel flogged her down the stretch. Yes, she barely won that race. ... But she won."

    But in all fairness, isn't that "barely won" argument the same one Rachel supporters (like Andy Beyer ) claim is a reason Zenyatta should NOT win HoY?

    Which ever horse wins, the thing that's going to stay with me long after the awards have been given out is how so many in the Rachel camp demanded one standard for THEIR horse and quite another for Zenyatta.

  13. Pardon, TV, but where have I invoked any double-standard?

    Rachel raced eight times in 2009, won them all, won an historic Preakness AND Woodward, beat males three times.

    Zenyatta raced five times, four against competition that was at least relatively marginal. (I think statistically less accomplished than the much-maligned Woodward field). ... Zen ran one huge race against a group that, I believe in hindsight particularly, was overrated.

    I won't make any defense of Andy Beyer, as his positions are entirely his own.

    But where's the double-standard in any of my arguments above?

    Held to the very same rigorous standard -- run often, run well, take your game on the road without losing your edge, beat everybody -- Rachel did more of that in 2009 than Zenyatta. Hands down, in my opinion.

  14. Great Post, it certainly got the comments flying!
    I agree, Rachel deserves Horse of the Year. She won as many Grade 1's (5) as Zenyatta had races this year, faced males 3 times and won, set two margin of victory records in two of the biggest 3 year old filly races in history, raced in 6 different states, over wet and dry tracks, set a stakes record in the Mother Goose Stakes, and she truly raced the entire year.
    From May to the beginning of November does not qualify as a year, Zenyatta is the horse of half a year. Obviously her connections are at fault for this and not the mare herself, I have no doubt she would have been able to enhance her reputation just as remarkably in the early part of the year as she did in the later if given the chance.
    Taking nothing away from Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra has blown her away in the list of accomplishments this year.

  15. You know the race I really wish Zenyatta had run? ... The 2009 Santa Anita Handicap, won by Einstein.

    No reason at all to think that she wouldn't have won that race, especially the way she ran in the Classic at the same distance over the same track. And there's no reason to believe she couldn't have been ready for it after winning the 2008 BC Ladies Classic (cough, Distaff, cough) a few months prior.

    I'd like to have seen that race. Not as much as Rachel vs. Zen, but that would've been a heck of a Big 'Cap. And a 6-for-6 Zenyatta with a Santa Anita Handicap and BC Classic as bookends to the season would make an even more compelling argument for herself, even without leaving SoCal.

    But, "ifs and buts," as they say ...

  16. Double standard? Why your "Yes, she barely won that race. ... But she won." comment.

    That's not a consideration you guys have been willing to give Zenyatta.

  17. "Who guys?"

    Whose waterboy do you think that I am? :-)

  18. First and foremost I'm excited to have a year where we have two great female athletes to debate over for horse of the year. Both are talented without question.

    As for a match race, I'm glad it never happened. I personally don't feel a 3 and 5 year old horse should be considered on the same level though I realize they generally are.

    Not running in the Breeders Cup was a lose-lose situation for Jess Jackson and I think he made the correct choice. He was deemed a coward for not running her but would have been viewed as a selfish ass had she run and been injured. He tried the BC at SA route before with Curlin and it didn't end well for him. Can't fault a man for living and learning, it's just good horse sense.

    You have to remember that the title is Horse of the YEAR.. and the bottom line is that RA has campaigned and won a tougher year. However, I think Zenyatta will win in part because she is retired. Just my thoughts.

    Christie Craven

  19. Hey, Christie. ... It's always good to meet another Craven. If you want to e-mail me sometime (there's a link under my full profile) it would be cool to learn more about where you're from and your interests in and opinions on racing.

  20. As to the deepest BC Classic field ever propoganda - um lol no. Just no. That would belong to either Alysheba or Ghostzapper, and Zenyatta isn't even in the conversation. That is not to say HER win wasn't impressive. But to say the FIELD was the greatest Classic field ever, as her connections suggested?

    To be honest, before all this desperate HOTY campaigning and PR-ing by Zenyatta's connections, I thought Jackson was kind of an ass and the Mosses were much classier. Now I see that their comments about not caring about HOTY were just dissembling, and these ridiculous two-faced attempts to sway voters are seriously embarassing. To send wine to the voters is one thing, to pretend your horse is retired (and have retirement parties and allow Lady's Secret's race to be renamed before your horse is actually retired) to get sentimental votes is just plain unclassy.

    I remember before Zenyatta was unretired, people were actually saying "oh RA can win it next year, give it to Zenyatta this time" which is presumably what the Mosses were hoping for.


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