Rachel/Zenyatta debate unabated

December 01, 2009 5:10 PM
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Up for grabs is Horse of Year honors

On Jan. 18, 2010, at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, the world will hear the announcement it has been waiting for: Horse of the Year 2009. It will be either Rachel Alexandra, a 3-year-old filly, or Zenyatta, a 5-year-old mare.

For the first time since 2002, when Azeri reigned, and for only the third time since 1983, when All Along was honored, a female will rule. Lady’s Secret was queen of all she surveyed in 1986.

But in the last 40 years, no finalists have created a pre-voting firestorm of controversy as have Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, the former unbeaten in eight races this year, three victories coming against males, and the latter undefeated in a career of 14 starts, her grand finale a history-making triumph against one of the most accomplished fields in recent memory, in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 7.

With two victories of 20 lengths or thereabouts against her own sex, and conquests of males in the Preakness, Haskell and Woodward Stakes, prior to Zenyatta’s Classic victory, Rachel Alexandra was the runaway leader in the clubhouse for Horse of the Year. This despite the fact that majority owner Jess Jackson was on record early on that she would not participate in the Breeders’ Cup, citing his avowed aversion to his horses running on synthetic surfaces such as Pro-Ride at Santa Anita, site of this year’s event. Jackson kept his word. Rachel did not run.

It looked like Jackson made the right call until Zenyatta ran a race for the ages to win the Classic, coming from dead last in the mile and a quarter race to win by a length. Among those in her wake were Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, Belmont, Travers and Jockey Club Gold cup winner Summer Bird and European sensation Rip Van Winkle. A crowd of more than 58,000 at Santa Anita was enthralled by Zenyatta’s victory, most hailing it as a crowning and fitting achievement to anoint her Horse of the Year.

It was the greatest racing moment in recent memory, the most sensational since Secretariat’s 31-length win the Belmont Stakes in 1973.

Objectivity aside, the vote will come down to this: Rachel Alexandra’s unprecedented accomplishments in 2009 versus Zenyatta’s Race Heard ‘Round the World on Nov. 7. The daughter of Street Cry raced five times this year, but her previous wins before the Classic, all against her own sex and all on synthetic surfaces in Southern California, won’t muster much merit from constituents in the way of Horse of the Year consideration.

"Even though I’m based in Southern California, I think Rachel Alexandra is Horse of the Year, and Zenyatta is Horse of the Moment," said respected private clocker Toby Turrell, who has been in racing 40 years, and whose family has been in it for 70. "There’s no real way to cast the right vote, because they’re both great horses and both 100 percent deserving. But I think when it comes to the whole year, Rachel accomplished more overall.

"I’m maybe the first person in the world who saw Rachel Alexandra’s brilliance after she broke her maiden (June 13, 2008), because I was stabled at Churchill Downs at the time. I latched on to her from the time she crossed the wire in her maiden win until now, so I’m extremely biased.

"We tried to buy her four or five days after she broke her maiden. We had a group from Southern California, including Bob Baffert, but the price was around a million dollars, and just off one win, they didn’t want to do it."

This year’s schedules for Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta were clearly defined from the outset, and there was little or no deviation.

"Zenyatta was pointing to the Classic, whereas Rachel was heading for a break after the Woodward (on Sept. 5)," Turrell said. "Zenyatta was patiently handled and in all the right spots to lead up to a peak race. Rachel was at her best for the Kentucky Oaks (winning by 20 1/4 lengths on May 1) and stayed at a peak . . . If their plan was to gear her up to run again in 2010, they really couldn’t run (in the Classic), in my opinion, to have her in the right shape for next year. She needed to stop at the time she did. She’s three years old. It’s not like she’s an older horse."

That said, like everyone else, Turrell was caught up in the emotional maelstrom that engulfed Santa Anita after Zenyatta’s storybook Classic.

"I had the same tears that everybody else had," he said. "It was electrifying. Everywhere I looked, there were tears of joy and happiness."

That won’t be true come Jan. 18.

THE HOMESTRETCH

Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta will not share Horse of the Year honors. According to a Blood-Horse report, "Two of the three voting groups for Eclipse Awards have rejected a proposal to change this year’s voting procedures to allow for a vote for co-Horse of the Year … According to an e-mail from National Turf Writers Association president Tom Law, the entire nine-member NTWA board participated in a teleconference discussion and vote Nov. 13, eventually voting to maintain the current voting format … comprised of two representatives from each of the three presenters of the Eclipse Awards – the NTWA, Daily Racing Form, and National Thoroughbred Racing Association … With the NTWA and the NTRA both voting against the proposed change, the 2-1 vote means the format will remain unchanged."