01/16/2010 9:25PM

Better than HOTY


ARCADIA -- The wonderful news of Zenyatta's unretirement earlier today takes a lot of the steam out of Monday's looming Horse of the Year announcement, and that's only a good thing for racing. Instead of an apples-and-oranges popularity contest being the final word on Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, we can look forward to seeing them both on the racetrack again, and perhaps their paper rivalry can become a real one.


The way the news trickled out today was a publicist's nightmare -- no staged press conference, no gathered and breathless audience, no scripted announcement -- but it had its own charm and contributed to a palpable wave of giddiness you rarely see take hold of a racetrack.

I got to witness the scoop unfold. Just after the first race at Santa Anita, I was chatting with DRF's Brad Free near the paddock when trainer John Shirreffs caught his eye and summoned him over. As I cooled my heels, I saw Shireffs point Free over to Jerry and Ann Moss, who were standing nearby, and I watched them chat briefly before Brad took off for the press box. A few minutes later, the news flash was up on the drf.com website. A few minutes after that, Moss repeated the news in an interview on HRTV.

Only those patrons near television sets tuned to the station heard it, but over the next half hour you could almost see the buzz spreading throughout the track, and within an hour it had been announced over the public-address system and everyone knew. For the rest of the day, two months of interminable and polarizing bickering over which of these future Hall of Famers should be the 2009 Horse of the Year completely disappeared, and all that anyone wanted to talk about was where Zenyatta might make her season debut and when she and Rachel might finally lock horns.

Horses (even these two) being fragile, it still may not happen. While Zenyatta has been working half-miles and looking like she could race the day after tomorrow, Rachel has not resumed really serious training after a draining 2009 campaign. It's tempting to circle the first Saturday in April for the showdown of the new millenium in the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn -- a race that Zenyatta won in 2008 in her only career dirt start, and at a track that's both relatively close to Rachel's winter quarters in New Orleans and one she won at last year -- but you miight want to hold off booking your own passage to Hot Springs just yet.

While the Mosses showed no particular enthusiasm when asked about taking Zenyatta to Dubai for the World Cup a week earlier, that's not entirely out of the question. One at least has to consider running in the richest horse race in the history of the planet if you might be even-money to win the front end of a $10 million purse. Even sooner, there's a Santa Anita Handicap to ponder. And both camps might want to delay a showdown until later in the year than April, perhaps even until the fall.

The timing of the Zenyatta announcement at first seemed odd -- why not make it under the spotlight of the Eclipse dinner? -- but makes perfect sense the more you think about it. The Mosses would have been second-guessed for their motives if they had made it after either a victory or defeat at the ballot box. Much better to say you're going to keep running her regardless of how it turns out.

It still will be interesting to see which name is pulled from the envelope at 10:30 ET Monday, an announcement that will be televised live on ESPN News and HRTV as well as part of TVG's coverage of the entire Eclipse Awards ceremony. But instead of half the voters and rooters and participants walking away with the bitter taste of a final verdict on a rivalry between horses who never met, I think the reaction will be more along the lines of -- yeah, whatever, but this story isn't over.