11/09/2009 4:43AM

End Game


ZBC 1 

Before the storm -- Zenyatta last Saturday, on the way to the office.

A half century ago, the exploits of older horses were held in higher regard than they are today. They were the glamour division. Today the emphasis has flipped, and the reputation of Rachel Alexandra is derived not only from her outsized ability, but also from the opportunities she had to display those abilities on a widely exposed stage.

That's why last Saturday was so satisfying for those of us who have followed Zenyatta's career at close range. Finally, a sizeable audience got to discover what the big deal was all about. No amount of assurances could have prepared media and fans for what she did, even though it was in perfect sync with what she had accomplished so many times before. Of the 28 handicappers and reporters polled by USA Today, five picked Zenyatta. Of the 29 Daily Racing Form handicappers, reporters and editors required to make a Classic selection, five picked Zenyatta. I asked our two cats and two dogs. Only the chihuahua picked Zenyatta.

The game has seen the Zenyatta-Rachel Alexandra scenario before, when a great older horse co-exists with a 3-year-old of comparable stature. Affirmed and Spectacular Bid were the towering stars of 1979. Buckpasser was still feared when Damascus roamed the 1967 landscape, while Kelso and Carry Back made 1961 a season to remember.

The difference, obviously, is that matters pertaining to who was Horse of the Year were settled on the racetrack. Kelso handled Carry Back and Damascus dusted Buckpasser in momentous versions of the Woodward. Affirmed defeated Spectacular Bid in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. All questions were answered.

By contrast, the parallel lives led by Rachel and Zenyatta have encouraged as many frustrations as satisfactions. It is, quite literally, impossible to know if one horse can beat another until they meet. This is why betting is both offered and encouraged. It is also a fact of life that year-end honors are often settled by woefully subjective means, which is what the 230 or so Eclipse Award voters will be faced with when it comes time to choose a 2009 Horse of the Year. There will be only questions--like this one from Bill Finley on ESPN.com--and no answers. Only opinions:

"Winning the Classic is a huge deal and a Classic win outweighs any single victory turned in by Rachel Alexandra this year. Yet, does one Classic win mean more than combined wins in the Preakness, Haskell and Woodward? No." 

Or yes, depending upon how much weight you give races restricted to a certain age group.

The ensuing debate could be reminiscent of the year of Tom Fool and Native Dancer. That was 1953, so don't feel bad if recollections are hazy. The 4-year-old Tom Fool went 10-for-10, racing from January to October. Nine of the 10 took place in New York and included the Met Mile, the Suburban, the Carter and the Brooklyn in a span of 50 days. His last four races were betless exhibitions against a total of six opponents. The 3-year-old Native Dancer raced from April to August and won nine of 10, losing only the Kentucky Derby. The closest they came to running against each other was on April 25 at Jamaica, when Tom Fool won an overnight handicap in his season debut and Native Dancer took the Wood Memorial by 4 1/2 lengths in the next race on the card. When the dust settled, Tom Fool was the overwhelming choice for Horse of the Year.

The following year, despite running only three times (and winning all three), Native Dancer was named 1954 Horse of the Year. Granted, the 3-year-olds weren't much. High Gun was voted best of a democratic bunch. But it was almost as if Native Dancer needed only to show his kind gray face a few times, just for appearances, because it was unthinkable that a horse of such quality and widespread popularity could end his career with out being called Horse of the Year. Any year.

As they stood screaming and waving at Santa Anita last Saturday afternoon, while the big mare trotted back to the winner's circle, I kept thinking about an exchange from the movie "Tombstone" between Texas Jack Vermillion and Turkey Creek Jack Johnson, after Wyatt Earp had gone unscathed through a hail of bullets from Curly Bill Brocious and the deadly Cowboys:

“You ever see anything like that before?”

“Hell, I ain’t never even heard of anything like that.”

Chances are we won't see anything like Zenyatta's Breeders' Cup Classic again for a long, long time...unless, that is, the 4-year-old version of Rachel Alexandra does it in next year's Classic at Churchill Downs to cap a Horse of the Year season of her very own.