11/09/2009 5:43AM

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.

hialeah More than 1 year ago
So let's see: Zenyatta ran the year's best race and Rachel put together a resume. Is that about it? Years from now they will still be watching the 09 BC Classic. I loved Rachel's Woodward against the Junior Varsity but the will anyone really be running to watch her best race - the Preakness? Split the award if you must, but if you are really honest about it you just have to say Z never got beat on the track.
David More than 1 year ago
C, See my responses below; they are written below your comments: a) There is no irony. Each year, the decision is made on different contenders with different PPs. Why should there be a static process? See my response below: It is always helpful if the selection process is consistent and not perceived as being arbitrary or slanted. I referred to last year’s horse of the year results to show how in one year voters apparently used certain criteria. Given Zenyatta’s decisive Breeders Cup Classic victory, which was viewed before a global audience, I think whether they use last year’s criteria or new ones should not make any difference in the HOY outcome this year. However, some of the East Coast horse pundits appeared to preordain Alexandra with HOY, even before the Breeder’s Cup Championship races were held. Zenyatta’s Classic win put to rest all their questions; she has raised the bar for all that will follow. Her record-breaking performance has also reverberated across the globe. Most of the skeptics have come from a handful of East Coast writers, including a few at the DRF, NTRA. If you peel away the highly biased and out-of-left-field comments and focus on the way the top horses performed on the track this year, there should be no doubt that Zenyatta beat the highest level of competitors. She remains undefeated against Grade I and Grade II horses. One of the positives about the post-Breeders Cup discussion is at least it appears that we are now moving past the anti-synthetic surface chatter, in great part, thanks to Zenyatta’s dominating performance. (b) You forget that Curlin won the Dubai World Cup. Nevertheless, I agree that Zenyatta was equally, if not more, deserving last year. See my response: In last year’s Dubai World Cup, Curlin beat Asiatic Boy, Well-Armed, and A.P. Arrow, in that order. Zenyatta trounced better quality horses in the Breeders Cup Classic, which had the most competitive horses to run in one race this year in the U.S. -- a few divisional champs in their own right, proven horses from Europe, and a number of Grade I older horses. According to the World Thoroughbred rankings just published, Zenyatta is the highest ranked horse -- male or female -- in the U.S. She is rated below Sea the Stars and right after Rip Van Winkle (who she beat in the Classic). Zenyatta is ranked above Rachel Alexandra, Gio Ponti, Summer Bird, Quality Road, and Mine That Bird. (c) Is there any real doubt Rachel would've won, say, the Oaks or Mother Goose if they were 1 1/4? See response below: Alexandra demonstrated that she can carry her speed at least up to the 1 1/8 distance, especially when she is running on speed favoring and/or sloppy dirt tracks, as she did on the sloppy track at Monmouth (earning her highest Beyer). In the Woodward on a dry dirt track, which is also at the 1 1/8 distance and the one race in which she ran against older males, Alexandra needed to be whipped 21 times to beat, by a rapidly diminishing head, Macho Again. She did not put away by 20 lengths the older runners in the Woodward as she did against the three-year-old fillies. If she runs in the Classic next year on the dirt track -- her handlers’ preferred surface -- that will give us a better idea of how she will handle the 1 ¼ classic distance. (d) Jackson didn't own Rachel during the Kentucky Derby. I'm not saying he would've entered it either, although I'm not entirely sure about that. See my response below: Jackson owned Rachel Alexandra when the decision was made to not run her in this year’s Breeders Cup Classic. It will be interesting to see if that decision will be rewarded by the HOY voters. (e) Much of your argument is focusing on last year's races. HoY is about 2009 only. As someone else said, it's not a lifetime achievement award. See my response below: I agree that Zenyatta should win HOY based on her performances this year. Zenyatta's performance this year is superior to Curlin’s last year. Even if you do not use last year as a reference point, Zenyatta's record on the track, culminating in her Breeders Cup Classic victory, surpassed the achievements of any other horse that has raced in the U. S. this year. Many have called her Breeders Classic one of the top 10 victories in racing history and the singular greatest accomplishment in Breeders Cup history. I mentioned the past performances of Zenyatta, Alexandra, and the others because they were printed in Illman’s blog. Comparing their records, it is clear that Zenyatta is right at the top with Lady’s Secret, All Along, Azeri. All of these runners have shown excellence and consistency beyond one year, another hallmark of the greatest thoroughbreds. With her victories this year, Zenyatta broke several long-held records, not just against the three-year olds that Alexandra beat, but also against the most competitive horses to run this year. She is now the top female money earner in history. Her handlers did not take the easy path to protect her unbeaten record, running Zenyatta in the Classic. Zenyatta’s outstanding performance this year should be acknowledged with the horse of the year Eclipse Award.
Jay H More than 1 year ago
Leon -- One minor note regarding your thorough and impassioned comment: it could be argued that three races the 3-year-old Busher won in 1945 against males would have been Grade 1 races in their day--the Arlington Handicap, Washington Park Handicap and the Hollywood Derby.
Dave Smith More than 1 year ago
If there ever were a time for intervention it is now, why, because it is clear there will be no fairness in the result. The one thing which is guaranteed is one of these champions will get their first loss of the year. One group of fans will be left feeling discounted. Fan voting is an interesting and fun idea. But fan voting is going to solve the issue of co-champions. If there has to be a zero sum match up. The NTRA should hold an open vote (convention) where the voters would be able to discuss, debate, convince and deliver the NTRA co-champions of 2009. Dave from NJ
SpartanTom More than 1 year ago
An interesting exercise for those who are exercised about the upcoming HOY vote: Assume that RA comes to the BC and runs in the Distaff (sorry, Ladies Classic), Zenyatta runs in the Classic, does RA beat Life is Sweet? Given the way the race would be run, and the fact that it would be on a synthetic surface, it would not have been surprising if RA lost to Life is Sweet. Food for thought, comments welcome.
Gary Lynn More than 1 year ago
Dick Powell's Brisnet 'Classic' comments: That extra furlong between 9 and 10 seems to seperate many pretenders from contenders. On Saturday, it confirmed greatness...If she was ever going to get beaten, it was at the shorter distances. If she ran 10 furlongs 14 times, she would be 14-14 as well. But it would have been easier."
Gary Lynn More than 1 year ago
Steve..IF "when they hit the strect...start to burn," THEY DO, perhaps maybe just not fit enough or prone to such injury anyway? All dirt horses that raced are hind-end hurtin' today? Leg Up! Good points Jason, David, Jay H. And just what are people's opinion on Eclipse 'slop' horse of '08?
Gary Lynn More than 1 year ago
Jeff M. More than 1 year ago
Jay - great stuff, as always. I'm really torn on this as I think a very compelling case can be made for both Z and RA with regard to HOY honors. I lean toward RA despite her absence on Breeder's Cup day. In earlier comments on this thread, the debate has been framed as a campaign in the case of RA versus a race in the case of Z. I believe that to be the best way to appraise each for HOY. In the final analysis, the gift these two magnificent animals gave us is this very debate. How exciting is it that in one single year two such terrific horses thrilled us as they have. I loved watching them both and in some strange way, I'm almost relieved that they didn't meet as I worry something bad may have happened. Horses like those two meeting up would be somewhat like two locomotives colliding head-on. Just thankful for what they did for the sport this year and that both finished healthy and safe.
tom d More than 1 year ago
Some facts to consider: Rachel judiciuosly skipped the longer distanced races (Belmont, Travers) because her connections rightfully were concerned that she didn't quite have the stamina to hold on. We will never know if she could. I was at the Woodward and the way she pressed a grueling pace and still hung on against a tough closer, at a mile and an eighth was awesome. Zenyata has shown that she can get the distance, and run well on dirt, but conversely, East Coast dirt horses have proven again and again that they do not perform well on Santa Anita's plastic. Zenyata's victory in the Classic was awesome. Both camps managed their horse with the best interests of the horse at heart. Who cares which horse wins the award? Since both are female, it means little to their breeding value. The real head to head matchup will have to come through their offspring.