Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Racing should ride Rachel vs. Zenyatta

The year ahead might be the best in recent history for horse racing fans. Potentially even a rejuvenation of the game in the eyes of the sports media and the general public.

We have a rivalry. Potentially more ardent, bitter and intriguing than it was two days ago.

Rachel Alexandra's crowning Monday night as the Eclipse Award winner for Horse of the Year has practically set ablaze the hair of some supporters of her chief competition for the award -- unbeaten mare Zenyatta.

One of the most incredible fillies of the last 50 years -- a filly who went 8-for-8 with five Grade 1 wins including three against males -- is being disparaged as undeserving of recognition as Horse of the Year.

Fairly knowledgeable horse people and race fans in a Yahoo discussion group I frequent have complained that the voting came down in Rachel's favor because of some unnamed "perks" voters allegedly receive. ... Don't ask me what those "perks" might be.

"RA being HOY is a joke, she doesn't deserve to stand in Zenyatta's shadow," another familiar contributor suggested. "She barely beat the males that Z destroyed in the Classic."

Wait ... what?

Exactly two horses were common opponents between Rachel's season and Zenyatta's scintillating Breeders' Cup Classic win: Summer Bird and Mine That Bird.

Rachel smashed Summer Bird by six lengths in the Haskell Invitational. Zenyatta beat him by three in the Classic.

Granted, Zenyatta trounced Mine That Bird in the Breeders' Cup, while Rachel barely held him off as he was closing fast in the Preakness way back in May. But nobody can argue a case for Mine That Bird getting better throughout 2009. Rachel beat the Kentucky Derby winner at the peak of his form, in a race that hadn't been won by a filly since Nellie Morse in 1924.

Still, the same Yahoo group member who made the (debunked) comparison insists, "RA is a very nice filly but not HOY in any year."

Even Zenyatta's owner, Jerry Moss, got involved a little bit, lamenting that Rachel Alexandra won despite running in mostly "restricted races" throughout 2009.

Well they weren't restricted to New York-breds, Jerry. Sure, Rachel received weight allowances, being a 3-year-old running against males and particularly against older horses in the Woodward. But those are the rules of racing; neither Rachel nor her connections write the rules, they just race under them.

Meanwhile, Zenyatta's 2009 schedule was about as "restricted" as one could get. Knowing that the Breeders' Cup would be run over synthetic at Santa Anita (again), Moss and trainer John Shirreffs essentially stayed home all year. That left Zenyatta -- an absolute synthetic-track monster -- looming dark and foreboding over the California circuit, where she was already 8-for-8 lifetime, and a dominating 8-for-8. Aside from stablemate Life Is Sweet (who went on to win the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic), there just wasn't much talent running against Z this year in her four starts prior to the Classic.

And the one time Zenyatta ventured outside California in 2009 -- for a scheduled start in the Louisville Distaff at Churchill Downs on Derby weekend, a race in which she was 4/5 on the morning line -- Shirreffs scratched her when rain soaked the track.

Regardless whether they've ever raced, which clearly they haven't, many Zenyatta supporters are absolutely convinced their mare would win any meeting of the pair, regardless.

"I did not want the two to meet because of their very different racing styles," wrote one contributor to the Yahoo group I frequent. That is, Rachel is a front-runner and Zen a closer. "But after Zenyatta's performance in the BC Classic ... I know that Zenyatta can and will beat Rachel ... and then the fans will just say, well of course, Zenyatta is older."

Anyone who has watched more than a few horse races should know that isn't such a sure bet. The outcome of any race depends on too many factors -- track conditions, distance, other horses in the field and how the race sets up -- to consider either runner a lock in a race between two dominant females.

If Rachel is relatively loose on the lead, she will be hard to pass -- even, I predict, at a 10-furlong distance that many of her detractors believe her connections are avoiding like the plague. The filly will fight.

And in a big group, with traffic problems or even merely moving over a traditional dirt track the likes of which she's rarely seen, Zenyatta might run into trouble she can't overcome, or simply not fire her best shot.

Anyone who is completely convinced that Zenyatta will beat Rachel should they meet this year should review her Preakness and take pause.

Mine That Bird, a devout closer who was then at the top of his game, could not reel her in even though she broke from the 13-hole (from which no prior Preakness winner had ever started) and did most of the work on the front end, pressed by a very fleet colt in Big Drama.

A number of observers, including retired jockey Jerry Bailey, have suggested with some evidence that Mine That Bird's chances in the Preakness were compromised by a bad ride from Mike Smith, who didn't give him the best trip, particularly not the shortest route through the inevitable traffic on the turn for home. ... That's the same Mike Smith who rides Zenyatta as she closes from the clouds.

And Rachel would relish rain on race-day, while Shirreffs would probably scratch Zenyatta or else have to run her even though the conditions would be advantage-Rachel.

To be sure, Rachel has her defenders, as well. My hand is raised. And a TVG network message board thread is titled "Moss is a pitiful loser" -- filled with Rachel and Zenyatta fans engaging in a sharp exchange. (Plus a few level heads.)

And it's beautiful.

Controversy spurs interest. And for once, a nationwide racing controversy doesn't involve cheating or drugs (though some Zen supporters praise John Shirreffs as a cleaner trainer than Rachel's handler Steve Asmussen) or broken-down horses being put to death.

It's a quarrel of epic proportions and a squabble that digs deep to the very roots of why mankind started racing horses against one another in the first place.

Whose horse is faster?

With Zenyatta confirmed to be in training rather than destined for an immediate trip to the breeding shed, a potentially stellar 2010 awaits.

I expect her to run a prep -- maybe the 9-furlong, Grade 2 Strub Stakes against males on Feb. 6. Then Zen would turn up next in the Santa Anita Handicap, where she'll almost certainly be sent off at a short price and probably run her lifetime record to 16-for-16 (assuming a prep win) with a stirring performance reminiscent of her Classic win, becoming in the process the first female to win that historic race.

Rachel, meanwhile, is still on the shelf after her own historic Woodward win. But (unless there's a physical issue of which we're unaware) she should become visible again on a training track fairly soon.

For the good of horse racing, these ladies should meet -- repeatedly, at different distances and venues -- during 2010.

Rachel will need to get back into training and have a prep or two before these arch-rivals-who-have-never-met, first meet. After all, Zenyatta appears to be sharp right now, today, and destined to race at least by the Big 'Cap in March if not before. I don't expect to see Rachel in a race at all until April, maybe at best.

But I hope that the summer and fall leading up the Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs in November will give us Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta going head-to-head two or three times. Preferably at least once against males, to hopefully make sure the field is of a good size and decent quality, with some speed to test Rachel and other closers to launch their bid with Zen.

With a long season of good luck, good form and good health for both females, the 2010 Breeders' Cup could be a "rubber match" of sorts, and the deciding factor in the Horse of the Year voting that the Rachel-less B.C. failed to be in 2009.

And for once -- with these two amazing females carrying horse racing's colors -- perhaps our game will be the talk of the sports media throughout the year, and not just from the first Saturday in May until the final strides of the Belmont Stakes a few short weeks later.


  1. Considering the almost total blackout of the HOTY award in the main stream media, I doubt that either Rachel or Zenyatta will do much to rehab horse racing in America on a long term basis.

    As far as the BC Classic goes, it would be somewhat disingenuous of the voting community to let that be the deciding factor in HOTY 2010 when they trashed it in 2009.

    I suspect, unless she really screws the pooch on dirt this year and/or is defeated by Rachel, Zenyatta has HOTY locked up as a sop for Moss keeping her in training regardless of what any other horse does or does not do.

    In that regard, we'll see a repeat of 209 where Rachel had the lock right after the Preakness.

    We're also assuming that both horses will be healthy come BC Classic time, something the odds are very much against unless they both are coddled this season.

  2. Yeah RA beat Summer Bird by 6 and Zenyatta beat him by 3, so what? Zenyatta is a closer and closers never win by wide margins.

    The Preakness had the worse bunch of 3 year olds (other then RA) ever. Check out the graded wins for the entire lot of them, nothing. The Woodward was only slightly better in class. Macho Again and Bullsbay(the same Bullsbay beaten by Life Is Sweet in the Hollywood Gold Cup) are 2cd string older males.

    RA's entire resume, in terms of quality horses, is beating Summer Bird on a slopy track with a bad trip.

    Jackson has done a masterfull job of promoting his horse and picking his spots.

    Team Zenyatta not so much. How many people know that Zenyatta carried the highest weight assigned in 40 years spoting the runer up 15 lbs? How many people know that Zenyatta set or equaled 4 TRACK records? How many people know that Zenyatta ran every quarter faster then the previous quarter in one race. How many people know that Zenyatta ran a FINAL 1/16 in 5.2 seconds? How many people know that Zenyatta is the only horse to every win two different Breeders Cup races? How many people know that Zenyatta is the highest earning North American female horse ever?

    Has anyone ever, in the entire history of the sport, seen a deep closer that could win more then 4 or 5 times in a row? Zenyatta has won 14 in a row with out ever losing.

    But hey, give RA horse of the year, she is obviouly a better race horse then Zenyatta. Fools.

  3. Someone else made the suggestion that Zenyatta beat Rachel's past opponents by more than did Rachel. I just pointed out that they were wrong. Rachel ran Summer Bird off his feet in the Haskell, plain and simple. He came closer to Zenyatta in the B.C. Classic. Read into that whatever you wish, or don't wish.

    I guess I'm not surprised, but your memory about the Preakness field is lacking. Rachel's 12 opponents included eight graded-stakes winners with 16 graded victories between them, including four G1 wins:

    -- Mine That Bird (Kentucky Derby-G1, Grey S.-G3)
    -- Musket Man (Illinois Derby-G2, Tampa Bay Derby-G3)
    -- Big Drama (Delta Jackpot S.-G3, DQed from 1st to 2nd in the Swale-G2 in what was a track-record time for 7f)
    -- Papa Clem (Arkansas Derby-G2, now a G2 winner at 4)
    -- The late Terrain (Arlington-Washington Futurity-G3)
    -- General Quarters (Blue Grass S.-G1, Sam F. Davis S.-G3)
    -- Friesan Fire (Louisiana Derby-G2, Lecomte S.-G3, Risen Star S.-G3).
    -- Pioneerof the Nile (Cash Call Futurity-G1, Santa Anita Derby-G1, Robert B. Lewis S.-G2, San Felipe S.-G2)

    I wish the Zenyatta camp and its supporters could try to make a better case for their own horse rather than trying to deride Rachel Alexandra for what should be UNDENIABLY a great season by a 3-year-old filly.

    On that note, and as for winning two different B.C. races, or being 14-for-14, I have a news flash for you: Horse of the Year is not a lifetime achievement award. If Jerry Moss and John Shirreffs wanted to make Zenyatta horse of the year, she needed to try and beat somebody other than stablemate Life Is Sweet in four relatively easy races prior to the big B.C. win. Go somewhere else. Beat somebody else. They could've taken a crack at Rachel on the East Coast, but chose to stay home and play in their own sandbox for the entirety of 2009.

    I don't own a share in either horse nor do I work for either camp. I don't have any "East Coast bias" just because that's where I live. I don't have anything to gain by choosing one over the other in this debate. And I'm a big fan of both females with no additonal emotional attachment to either.

    I just call 'em like I see 'em.

    Going 5-for-5 in one state with a single signature victory over primarily turf horses in an allegedly dirt race run on synthetic is hardly an air-tight bid for Horse of the Year.

    Going 8-for-8, all stakes, over seven tracks, in six states, with five G1 wins, three against males, is simply a more deserving resume as Horse of the Year.

  4. Good post. I'm glad Rachel deservedly won Horse of the Year, and while many of the debates Horse of the Year stirred up were thought provoking and interesting there are always some who will drag the others through the mud.
    Personally I am very excited to be able to witness both amazing horses run again and perhaps face each other. I'm with you on the "distance limitations" that people seem to think Rachel has. I beleive she can rise to the occasion and get 1 1/4 miles.


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