Monday, May 24, 2010

Horse of the Year Rachel's best, and best for Rachel

How do you define "better off?"

That's an important question in light of the results from my recent poll, in which more than two-thirds of respondents (27 out of 40) said they believed that Rachel Alexandra is not "better off, a year after being bought and campaigned by Jess Jackson and Steve Asmussen."

I presume most readers who took a stand against Jackson and Asmussen believe that Rachel is not as healthy and fit a horse now as she was last year, or perhaps as she might have been with different handling. Certainly she's beatable now -- defeated twice in a row in desperately close finishes during her first two starts in 2010. And she had proved unbeatable in 2009, going 8-for-8.

I'm going to come down on the side of the minority here. For her utmost impact on racing history, for her value, and for her long-term legacy, I think Rachel Alexandra benefited from Jess Jackson and Steve Asmussen.

What's certain in a situation like this is that nothing can be certain. Hindsight might be 20/20, but speculation (though I love engaging in it, too) usually isn't worth 20 cents.

There are, however, certain truisms of racing and horses. Not the least of these is that some horses are simply better (or at least more dominant among their peers) at age 2 or 3 than they ever will be after, while others are later-maturing.

And one axiom of life that's hard to ignore is this: You must strike while the iron is hot.

When Jackson's Stonestreet Stables acquired Rachel Alexandra after her scintillating, record-breaking victory in last year's Kentucky Oaks, there was little doubt he'd just bought the best 3-year-old filly in the country.

Bought had he bought the best horse?

That handy hindsight tells us probably not, since her unbeaten ways have not carried over into 2010, while Zenyatta continues to stand 17 hands tall at 16-0 lifetime. But by the end of last season, history shows, Jackson had bought the eventual Horse of the Year.

Following her crushing Oaks win, had Rachel stayed in the hands of her first trainer, Hal Wiggins, and her breeder, Dolphus Morrison (who doesn't believe in racing fillies against colts), she would have been pointed to the Black-Eyed Susan-G2 at Pimlico on Preakness Eve. Barring some freak incident or catastrophe, she'd have likely smashed a short field of sophomore fillies by the same sort of margin she'd posted in the Oaks. And while that win would have been another big step toward being champion 3-year-old filly, it would have done little toward earning her a Horse of the Year crown, and virtually nothing toward stamping her career as legendary.

Instead, Jackson and Asmussen entered her in the Preakness. There, Rachel did most of the work on the front end of a 9 1/2-furlong test, put away a talented speed horse in Big Drama (a 7-furlong record-setter) and still had the grit to hold off a gutsy Derby-showing Musket Man and the sharp and fast-closing Derby champ Mine That Bird to claim an historic win. She had beaten boys, she was the first filly since Nellie Morse in 1924 to win the Preakness, and now talk quickly shifted toward whether Rachel Alexandra could become Horse of the Year.

Jackson and Asmussen shrewdly backed off the throttle for Rachel's next start. They entered her at Belmont in the Mother Goose, which drew up predictably short after almost nobody thought it wise to enter their girl against Super Girl. She romped in the Mother Goose, setting stakes records for time and margin, but clearly expended much less effort than had she been asked to face colts and geldings again on the heels of her Preakness win.

Already 6-for-6 on the season with three Grade 1 wins, Rachel was positioned to at least stake a claim to Horse of the Year by collecting two more noteworthy victories. She gathered those in the Haskell Invitational -- where she all but ran Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird and speedy sprinter Munnings off their feet in the slop -- and in September's Woodward Stakes at Saratoga, becoming the first female ever to win that race against older males; a race run since 1954.

By the finish line of her Woodward win, Rachel had done enough -- as the Eclipse voting months later bore out -- to be named Horse of the Year, despite not running in the Breeders' Cup and not facing Zenyatta, who scored an historic win of her own on that championship weekend as the first female ever to win the Breeders' Cup Classic.

The campaign clearly took a lot out of Rachel. She was cooped up (a debatable choice versus true turnout) for months before starting back to work. And unlike her championship season of 2009, she's proved unable to muster the gumption to stave off any and all challengers, getting nipped at the wire in the New Orleans Ladies Stakes by 6-year-old Zardana and nosed out of the La Troienne-G2 at Churchill by Unrivaled Belle.

But is Rachel worse? Isn't it possible that on these dates -- remember, Rachel's first two starts since a lengthy layoff -- a very fit older mare and a rising 4-year-old who is more lightly raced and at the top of her form cycle, were just a little bit better?

And even if Rachel is not her former self, who's to say she would have been anyway, even with less aggressive handling?

John Shirreffs has done a masterful job with two-time champion older female Zenyatta. She didn't race at all as a juvenile, and Shirreffs thereafter brought the giant mare along slowly, allowing her to grow into her body and her talent. As a result, she is as brilliant at age 6, if not more so, than she was during her first championship season at age 4.

But there's no guarantee that a softer handling of Rachel Alexandra at age 3 would have resulted in a 4-year-old filly to rival Zenyatta at 4. A more conservative course for Rachel at 3 could have still resulted in a 3-year-old filly title, but hardly Horse of the Year, and she still might not be any better at age 4 than she's proven so far to be.

And let's face it: Unlike Jerry and Ann Moss, who have chosen to bring Zenyatta back at age 6 for another season of racing (for which we should be cascading them with roses), there's almost no chance that Jess Jackson has any interest in racing Rachel at age 5, let alone 6. She'll be in the breeding shed next late-February or early March, being covered by Jackson's two-time Horse of the Year Curlin. So what was better for Rachel's future value as a broodmare (and the prospective prices of her foals)? Two really good seasons and one "lesser" championship among fillies and mares?

I think -- for her value (a practical concern in a sport that is a business) and for her legacy -- Rachel Alexandra was better served by one full-throttle season in which she shook the racing world and made history almost every time she ran, with the well-earned reward of 2009 Horse of the Year.

It's a trainer's job to recognize how and when to get the most out of his horse. Nobody could have gotten more out of Rachel Alexandra in 2009 than did Steve Asmussen; she was Horse of the Year.

Did that leave her "short" in 2010? It's impossible to say with any certainty; we can only be guessing. So that's no more than a definite maybe.

But it's safe to say that if Rachel Alexandra had been handled more conservatively last year, she'd only have been the champion 3-year-old filly, not Horse of the Year.

And this year, she probably still wouldn't be able to beat Zenyatta.

9 comments:

  1. Good piece, the reasons why are debatable but what is obvious is that she's not the same horse. Where she would have found a way to win those stretch duals last year she came up short both times. I'm starting to wonder if her hearts still in it. She ran her ass off last year maybe she's ready to retire and have babies.

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  2. I have always been in Zenyatta's camp, but her running style is scary. It is conceivable that at some point Zen gets blocked and does not overcome the setback. Secretariat, Man O War, Swaps, Native Dancer all suffered defeats in championship seasons. It did not detract from their greatness.

    If Zen had race eight or 10 more times and maybe lost a few of those, would she be considered any less great? No. And on any given day Rachel, another great filly, could prevail. I still recall the day Stellar Jayne at long odds beat Ashado. I had a small bet on Jayne. But the relative ranking of those two were eventually determined by the sum total of their careers. One was a champion and the other not.

    Both Zen and Rachel are champions for the ages.

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  3. Well, you know this already, but I disagree. And it has nothing to do with the horse.

    (1) Let's look at the primary differences between a trainer like John Shirreffs and Steve Asmussen. Shirreffs gives Zenny individual attention (every day, it appears). He trains her. Not some assistant. Asmussen has thousands of starts each year at tracks all around North America, and has probably never met 90% of his horses. So Scott Blasi appears to be handling Rachel's day-to-day training, and guess what? It's not working out so well. How is Rachel better off going from Hal Wiggins's barn, where I have to assume he trainer her himself every day, to a barn of a trainer who isn't even around every day because he has hundreds of horses he's responsible for?

    (2) They didn't condition her properly for her first two races of 2010. That's evident in the results, a visual review of the races, and a review of her official workouts. She's only starting to round into form now (if the workouts are any indication). What were they doing for 7 months before her first race as a 4 year-old? Whatever it was, it didn't work. What did they do for the first two races? Whatever it was, it didn't work.

    Look, I'm an owner, and I know as well as anyone that sometimes a horse just doesn't "have it", and there's no explanation why. But other than gritty race selection, nothing Rachel Alexandra's new connections have done appears to have brought her to a better place than what Dolph Morrison and Hal Wiggins could have done. I concede the point that Morrison would never have let her run in the Preakness or the Haskell or at Saratoga vs. the boys. But Asmussen's employees -- and by extension, Asmussen himself -- haven't performed to the level expected of a super filly like Rachel Alexandra.

    So she's not better off, in my opinion.

    David H.

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  4. Thanks, David. I enjoy a well-reasoned rebuttal.

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  5. Frank LancelottiMay 24, 2010 at 1:00 PM

    The season is NOT over. I fully expect Rachael to back "full throttle" and defeat Zenyatta. Forget the Breeders Cup, aligned toward Zenyatta, artificial surface. What name "horses" has Zenyatta beaten on the dirt. The Apple Blossom, another give away. I really DO NOT expect Zenyatta in this years Breeders Cup. If she does show up SHE WILL BE BEATEN!! A great takes on all comers --- as the greats of the past. Her owner is a master of marketing, and that is exactly what he has done. Now, she may indeed be great BUT she will never be allowed to show it, or prove it because it will take away from her marketability. She has NEVER beaten a good horse on their surface (dirt or grass). Take Godikova!! Now, there is greatness --- Beating the BEST, the absolute BEST in Europe on their preferred footing, Grass. Zenyatta does NOT stack up to Lady's Secret, Two Lea, Bayakoa, Silver Spoon, Azeri, and many of the greats of the past, who beat the best of their times on equal footing. Who has Zenyatta beaten that would be considered the "Best Of The Times"? Who? Zenyatta is a product of marketing, as is many musical groups, entertainers, and movie stars. She has much to prove to be considered GREAT!!

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  6. Under Wiggins, Rachel ran slower in her races compared to her works, while under Asmussen she runs faster in her races compared to her works. I admire Wiggins, but I'd say Rachel is better off under Asmussen. Were it not for Jackson purchasing her after the KY Oaks, we'd not have seen her brilliance in the Preakness, Haskell, and Woodward.

    Zenyatta beating Rachel on dirt? The big mare has yet to show she can run twice in one season on dirt, let alone beat a horse the caliber of Rachel on dirt. Not sure what you mean by "still wouldn't be able to beat Zenyatta" as they have never met. Though technically Rachel has already beaten her in the voting booth, so the current tally is Rachel-1, Zenyatta-0. Come November, the tally will likely be Rachel-2, Zenyatta-0.

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  7. Considering Shirreffs took down Rachel with his "other Z-girl," Zardana -- certainly a lesser mare than Zenyatta -- my money is on the Big Z when and if she and Rachel ever meet. Unless somehow Rachel improves a good bit and Zenyatta's form slacks up between now and then.

    If Zenyatta indeed is pointed toward a repeat in the B.C. Classic (as some reporting has suggested) I think it's a safe bet Rachel won't be in THAT race. So they'll have to meet at some other time and place prior. And Jackson/Asmussen have shown no interest in that showdown taking place anytime soon.

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  8. It's amusing to see the Rachel backers still talking smack about a matchup between Rachel and Zenyatta when it's clear to any objective observer that Rachel has ducked facing Zenyatta twice - in this year's Apple Blossom and last year's BC Classic.

    Jess Jackson has been a master of media manipulation regarding a matchup between the two brilliant fillies - he talks the talk but doesn't walk the walk. When push comes to shove he's never going to let RA face Z in the starting gate. That's one race he knows he can't win. And he also knows that the value of Rachel's offspring will be higher with that question left unanswered than with a loss to Z.

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  9. I’m a big fan of both mares but Rachel Alexandra is my favorite. For pure loyalty I would go with Rachel Alexandra if they ever meet, but I believe Zenyatta has a huge edge at this point.

    I agree that Rachel Alexandra has been managed much better under Steve Asmussen’s care, although I don’t care for Jess Jackson sometimes he has returned two Horses of the Year which is an amazing feat in this day and age.

    I believe Rachel Alexandra will still come back as good as she was in 2009 this year or better. For a filly that talented and phenomenal to drop down to such a lower level this year makes no sense to me. She has shown a lot of fight in her two starts this year which says to me that she is not done running nor is she tired of it. If they would let her rate more off the pace like in her Oaks, Mother Goose and Haskell instead of letting her lead and dictate the pace I think she could rediscover her stunning turn of foot in the homestretch.

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