Horse racing needs this distaff rivalry

Jun 30, 2009 5:04 PM
Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein |

Zenyatta vs. Rachel like Ali vs. Frazier

All major sports have their special rivalries, which flavor their seasons.

Baseball has the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Tennis has Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Golf has Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. College football has Ohio State and Michigan. And now horse racing has two breathtaking beauties, Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta.

All of the rivalries except racing’s are based on long competition. When these two superstar females meet, it will be for the first time, and will be thoroughbred racing’s Race of the Year. Barring unforeseen mishaps, it also almost certainly will determine the Horse of the Year.

But not without controversy.

The logical place for the meeting is the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita in November. But Jess Jackson, who makes Kendell’s wine for a living, or did before Rachel Alexandra came along, does not like "the plastics" of Santa Anita’s synthetic Cushion track. He has said he will not race his filly there, and he sounds as if he means it.

Pressure, both peer and public, will weigh heavily on Jackson, because the two horses involved are two of the most exceptional to come down a homestretch in years.

Zenyatta is five years old, and unbeaten in 11 races. She won the $287,000 Vanity Handicap at Santa Anita last Saturday, scoring handily by 2¼ lengths and sending her career earnings to $2,414,500 for Jerry and Ann Moss, who own her.

Rachel Alexandra is only three, but is heralded by some as the greatest filly ever to look through a bridle. She became the first of her sex in 85 years to win the Preakness, second jewel of the Triple Crown, against colts, and had earlier won the Kentucky Oaks, the day before the Derby at Churchill Downs, by 20¼ lengths.

In winning last Saturday, 15 minutes before Zenyatta won 3,000 miles away, she faced only two rivals, in the Mother Goose stakes at Belmont, and humbled them by 19¼ lengths, five and three-quarters more than the immortal and ill-fated Ruffian sailed home by in the same race 34 years ago.

Both races last Saturday were at a mile and an eighth. For what comparisons are worth, with Zenyatta running on Santa Anita’s synthetic and Rachel Alexandra on Belmont’s dirt, the former won in 1:48.15, eased carrying 129 pounds, including jockey Mike Smith, while Rachel broke Belmont’s track record, which has stood for 14 years, running the distance in 1:46.33.

Calvin Borel, the impish jockey who rides Rachel Alexandra, again expressed amazement at her performance. "She’s unbelievable," he said, comparing her to Secretariat and Seattle Slew, and added after dismounting, "I’ve never been on one like that in my life. Believe me, she’s not normal."

The comparison with the two great studs is apt, for it is likely Rachel’s next assignment, like the Preakness, will again be against the boys.

It could be in the Delaware Handicap at Delaware Park July 19, or in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park in New Jersey Aug. 2, or the historic Travers at Saratoga in New York Aug. 29.

Both owners – Jackson and Moss – have expressed the wish to have their champions meet. Neither wants to duck the confrontation, both knowing what it can do for thoroughbred racing worldwide. Unless Jackson relents – not likely – it probably won’t be at Santa Anita, but Moss says Zenyatta, who never has left California, may do so later this year. Moss says he "would very much like to see" Zenyatta race Rachel Alexandra. Jackson calls the two superstars "perfectly matched…it should be a very interesting race," but clearly he thinks his filly is the better of the two.

"All I know is she is a champion if she keeps running the way she is," he says. "She’s going to be a filly for the ages. It’s incredible. How good she really might be we don’t know yet. She’s a freak. More importantly with her, she wants to win. She’s got an attitude. You see it in the great horses. It’s the eye of the eagle."

Jackson has pledged a percentage of Rachel Alexandra’s earnings to the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s Race for the Cure for breast cancer, and Belmont handed out pink bracelets and free admission to women attending last Saturday. A number came dressed in pink for the occasion. It’s a very good sign for horse racing when women take enough special interest in a filly to dress in her honor.

Going back to where we started, it also is rare when two super champions come along at the same time. Federer and Nadal are a case in point. They have revitalized tennis. Rocketing Rachel Alexandra and zooming Zenyatta can do the same for horse racing, but unfortunately it may be only once. We’ll pay to see this one.

Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Stan Bergstein