Sunday, March 14, 2010

Now who's Horse of the Year?

As a student of the fine art of horseracing I have the inestimable honor of a vote in the annual Eclipse awards for excellence on the track. Of the many awards we get to vote on, Horse of the Year is often a measure of the excitement and contentiousness that followers of the great game get to indulge in. Last year's contest was unusual in that the finalists were both fillies, the 3-year-old Rachel Alexander and the 4-year-old Zenyatta. Both fillies were carefully handled throughout the season, both fillies beat males in open company, but there was never a true measure of their respective greatness because they never ran against each other.

Jess Jackson, the owner of Rachel Alexander and the Kendall-Jackson wines, ducked a confrontation and suggested a bogus alternative race that was never going to happen anyway. His stated reason was that he didn't want to run his horse on the artificial surface at Santa Anita, where the Breeders' Cup, the Super Bowl of horse racing, was conducted last year. So Rachel Alexander ended her year before the traditional fall championship season even began, winning he final stakes race at the Saratoga meet in New York over the summer. At that point I was in Rachel's camp. She had beaten males in a Triple Crown race, then beaten older males in a stakes race with a game performance in fast time.

But Zenyatta had never been passed by a single horse in an undefeated career. Only Personal Ensign had accomplished as much. Zenyatta would make a profound case for Horse of the Year by winning the Breeders Cup Distaff, finishing a distinguished undefeated career and retiring to a life as a broodmare. But owner Jerry Moss, the "M" in A&M records along with trumpeter Herb Alpert, put everything on the line. Instead of entering Zenyatta in the Distaff he put her in the Breeders Cup Classic against what is traditionally the best field of older horses in the world. Moss risked everything for a grand gesture that would prove his filly was the best, while Jess Jackson sat on the sidelines with his filly, who wasn't even entered in the Distaff. Horseracing is a gambler's game, and Moss went all in with his horse's reputation along with millions of dollars in purse money. It was a classic owner's bravura move, a gesture that harkened back to the days when horseracing earned its nickname as the Sport of Kings. And Jess Jackson was smiling in his chardonnay when Zenyatta entered the top of the stretch in the Classic hopelessly beaten, far behind some of the best horses in training.

Then greatness happened, the throat-catching moment when horses reveal themselves as true champions. Jockey Mike Smith moved Zenyatta into a clear path in the middle of the track and Zenyatta didn't need to be told when to do. The filly lengthened her stride and flew past the field with astonishing acceleration. She looked like Forego, like Kelso, like Silky Sullivan, like Seabuscuit, like Pegasus himself swooping past these mere mortals on her way to one of the most stirring victories anyone had ever witnessed. Don't tell me about Beyer figures or par times -- this was a championship performance if there ever was one. Before the gates opened I was in Rachel Alexandra's camp. When Zenyatta crossed the finish line I knew there was only one way I could go in the Horse of the Year voting.

When the votes were counted I was astonished that Rachel Alexandra won. Her owners ducked the confrontation and sat on the sidelines as every other championship was determined. There are many injustices in horseracing but this one will stick in my throat for a long time.

But the story was not over. Moss decided to keep racing his mare as a 5-year-old. This is really an unprecedented move in modern racing, where breeding has become the real moneymaker in the game. It's especially gutsy when you're talking about risking an undefeated career. Now Jackson could no longer put off the inevitable showdown. He continued to propose what were essentially match races before finally settling on the most advantageous terms he could broker, agreeing to have Rachel Alexandra face Zenyatta at Oaklawn Park in the April 9 Apple Blossom Invitational. Oaklawn is a speed-favoring track which suits Rachel's running style and is part of trainer Steve Asmussen's winter stronghold along with the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, where he prepared Rachel Alexandra for her 4-year-old campaign.

Both Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra made their seasonal debuts yesterday. Fair Grounds offered the perfect prep for their Horse of the Year, the New Orleans Ladies Stakes, which appeared on paper to be a cakewalk for Rachel. Zenyatta was scheduled to face a more accomplished field in the Santa Margarita Invitational at Santa Anita.

Zenyatta's trainer, John Shirreffs, decided to send another mare in his barn, Zardana, to run at Fair Grounds in order to size up where Rachel Alexandra stood in relation to Zenyatta. Shirreffs watched Zardana and Zenyatta train every morning and had a good idea of how they compared to each other. Seeing how close Zardana could get to Rachel at the finish of the New Orleans race would give Shirreffs an idea of what Zenyatta would have to do to beat her.

Rachel Alexandra moved easily under Calvin Borel as the race unfolded, tracking the lead down the backstretch and slowly taking over on the far turn. Jockey David Flores asked Zardana for run and she took aim at the leaders on the outside, then put a head in front of Rachel Alexandra turning for home. Borel asked Rachel for acceleration, showing her the whip at first, then cracking her a couple of good ones. Zardana edged away then ran on, holding Rachel at bay through a long stretch run with Borel whipping and driving away. The Horse of the Year was well beaten in her return by Zenyatta's stablemate.

Zenyatta's turn came half an hour later. Once again she merely jogged out of the gate and was still in last place turning for home. Smith had her in traffic this time and couldn't get her clear on the outside. He had to pull her up once in the the stretch, then check again as paths closed in front of her. Zenyatta seemed to sense Smith's hesitation and took over. This time she looked like Reggie Bush, ducking sideways to pass one horse, veering at an angle past another then pulling to the outside for a clear run to the lead inside the furlong pole. This kind of agility in a big horse is seldom witnessed.

When the dust cleared Zenyatta was still undefeated and Rachel Alexandra was the first "Horse of the Year" in a decade to lose its next race. A surly Asmussen remarked that if he didn't think she would win he wouldn't have run her, and Mr. Jackson is now hedging his bets about facing Zenyatta at Oaklawn.

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