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The Pollyanna View
Racehorses rarely fire their best shot first time back from a four- to six-month layoff, and to my eyes none of the three champions who made their season debuts last Saturday did so in either victory (Zenyatta, Lookin at Lucky) or defeat (Rachel Alexandra.) While Rachel's loss scuttled a potential showdown with Zenyatta in the Apple Blossom April 9, I'm going to risk sounding like Pollyanna and take the view that it just might work out better for the rest of the racing season that there may be even better days ahead for all three horses.
Let's start with Lookin at Lucky, who got a little overlooked amid the distaffers. In some ways he faced the toughest task of the three as the only one to have shipped away from his winter quarters to try not only a new track but also a new surface. It was a complete guess as to whether he'd be able to transfer his good synthetic-track form to dirt, but did he ever, overcoming a rough mid-race check to regather himself and prevail in a long stretch drive when he had every right to flatten out. He ran a career-best 97 Beyer, which might seem to contradict that "not firing his very best shot" stuff, but you have to think he will only move forward off his first race since Dec. 19 and with some experience on dirt.
Zenyatta just keeps rolling along with such dominance and reliability that it's almost amazing to think she was going to be retired just seven weeks ago. She didn't have to keep racing to prove something and she doesn't owe anyone anything, but she just keeps making history every time she runs and will only burnish her place in racing's pantheon by continuing to race and adding some dirt triumphs outside of California to her resume. While the Santa Margarita had that patented Zenyatta look to it -- drop back, get into gear, do just as much as you have to and win by a little with complete authority -- her modest running time against unaccomplished rivals suggested that this too was just a first step back with more and better ahead.
As for Rachel Alexandra, she didn't look like quite the filly she was last year but her effort was hardly that of a sour or washed-up horse. At the top of the stretch I thought Zardana was going to slingshot past her and win by daylight, but Rachel fought back pretty nicely for a filly who hadn't been to the races in seven months to lose by less than a length. (If Zardana hadn't been entered and Rachel had won by the 11 1/2-length margin she had over third--place Unforgotten at the finish, it probably would have been off to the Apple Blossom, possibly as the favorite, off what might be being hailed as a brilliant return.)
Let's also not forget that maybe Zardana, who keeps being knocked as a second- or third-stringer in the John Sherriffs armada of fillies, might just be a better horse on dirt than her previous American turf and synthetic form suggests: She hadn't been on dirt since her first three career starts in Brazil three years ago, but she won those three races by a combined 39 lengths:
What I don't understand about the majority of reaction to Saturday's races is the continuing desire to cast whatever happens with Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta this year as an ongoing referendum on last year's Horse of the Year voting. It was an excruciating call between the two of them that could have gone either way, and I can't imagine that those who voted for Rachel Alexandra did so because they thought she would necessarily win a hypothetical race against Zenyatta or was more likely to win her season debut the following year. I still think it's a shame they couldn't split the award, but it's way past time to change the calendar to 2010 and try to enjoy whatever they do this season.
--I wasn't in California, Lousiana or Arkansas for any of the champions' debuts but at Tampa Bay Downs for the biggest day of that track's meet and what is always an entertaining day of racing at very likeable venue. I still can't believe Odysseus got up to win the feature in a commendable effort for his fourth career start, but he's still going to have to step it up another notch to become a serious factor in the classics.
Tampa may dry and drain as quickly as any dirt track I've ever seen. The track was a sea of slop on Friday and it was hard to imagine it would be fast by Saturday but it was. The turf course, on the other hand, was officially labelled "good" but was closer to yielding: The G3 Hillsborough was run over six full seconds off the course record and scratched down to a field of six, with top names Mushka and Lady Shakespeare among the six program scratches. Also, Musket Man was scratched from the five-furlong Tampa Turf Dash, not that anyone understood why he was entered in a five-furlong grass race in the first place.
Between the stakes scratches (2-year-old filly champ She Be Wild was also withdrawn, from the Florida Oaks) and the competition from the stars racing at Fair Grounds, Oaklawn and Santa Anita, I would have taken the under on Tampa's having a bang-up day of business, and I would have lost: Total handle for the 12-race card was $10.8 million, up from $9.1 million in 2009 and $10.2 million in 2008. It probably helped that Aqueduct cancelled its Saturday card, but it was still a strong showing.
-- I went down a day early in hopes of some beach time, but the rain took care of that until it finally let up Friday night -- just in time for a visit to Derby Lane in St. Petersburg, where greyhounds have been racing since 1925 and monkeys dressed in silks and sequins once rode the dogs. Like most of the greyhound tracks still operating, "alternative gaming" now rules the roost, in this case a brand new poker room that had twice as many patrons as the hound races. Still, there aren't many pleasanter ways to pass a Florida evening than in the company of gryehounds and bettors, and I showed a $4 profit for the evening despite betting only on dogs who look like my housemates Popeye and Dondo.
Getting home from Tampa turned into an ordeal when I arrived at the airport Sunday morning just in time to hear that my flight to JFK had been cancelled and there were no seats to New York until Tuesday. There are far worse places than Tampa to be marooned for a couple of days but I had to get back so I grabbed the last seat on a flight to Boston, rented a car and drove back Sunday night.
Just before they shut the doors on the full flight from Tampa to Boston, a JetBlue agent stepped into the plane. It seems that the passenger I'd nosed out of the last seat really needed to get to Boston and had a proposition. Even though, the agent announced, she knew that a Boston-bound flight was probably a Red Sox stronghold, would anyone give up his seat for Mariano Rivera, the Yankees' ace reliever, who was offering four prime seats to any Yankees-Red Sox game this year in exchange? There was practically a stampede of passengers trying to be the first to exit, and I flew back across the aisle from the greatest closer in baseball -- and maybe aviation too.
Unfortunately my comments were severly TRUMPED by the DRF filtering body. It spoke to the Rachel Alexandra apologists who believe crossing state lines to capture the the Martha Washington or a triumphant performance in the Mother Goose vs. 2 other 3 year old females somehow warrant special considerations. She was handled with kid gloves and her HOY argument was severly diminished when Mine That Bird was confirmed to be a fraud. Keep on apologizing and hopefully you'll never have to witness RA getting GINGER PUNCHED over the dirt main track.
van_sant, Thanks for the link to the Tamba Bay Derby photo. Odysseus had his head forward and the nose was on the line first and in a lower position than of the other horse. Part of the illusion, for viewers, may be that Odysseus has a longer body and his rear was behind. Phot is saved. Odysseus will have my attention on Derby Day.
Let us all remember also, running in the same state, on the same surface, which is alien to the utmost majority, of all race tracks in this country, while going undefeated, & having only 1 big race during the entire year, will be TRUMPED, each & every time 4 the hallowed HOY award. The horse which demonstrates a thorough ONE YEAR hard campaign, will prevail & the voting will match as such. Witness, 2008 & 2009. Rachel Alexandra has indeed met the criteria. Please let this be a warning to future contenders...
Yes, 2009 is over, but its lessons are to be learned now. And rehashing facts to teach those lessons is not living in, nor whining about, the past, it is preparing for the future. Let us never again confuse winning a weak edition of a race with a great name and history, with actually proving greatness by defeating the best older competition in training... Let's be wise enough to recognize and comprehend the concept of restricted company, no matter how visually impressive a performance may be. And, with the possible exception of a Triple Crown winner, let's insist that any future HOY candidate have beaten at least one top notch older horse, before we favor them over an undefeated champion winner of a BC Classic for HOY.
I think last week's results would make one think about the Trainer title more than the Horse of the Year vote. Either way its a done deal and we're a quarter of the way through 2010 so it is time to move on, I agree.
Kram, "I guess you have never seen the Haskell from last August. I would suggest you go back and watch the replay. RA was three wide outside of Munnings and Summer Bird in 1:09 and change through 6f before drawing off to a 6 length win..." Thanks for even considering my post, Kram. Most commenters here are futilely stressing over HOY, without engaging the central questions. What factors contributed to Rachel's performance Saturday? And what factors account for the wildly gyrating figures of horses? I submit that every race that is not fixed is governed by the same immutable laws...degree of effort before the stretch and position on the straights and turns, with other factors viewed in light of those two subtle aspects. The possibility of delicious overlays emerge when a horse's potential trip will likely be significantly different than what she encountered in her better performances. I don't bother with fractional times, except in a general sense. I've repeatedly seen a horse roused and urged furiously who records a 6f quarter in :23. A week later, the same horse is lightly restrained, even with a narrow lead, and earns a :22-2 fraction, track variants and all. I think the answer has something to do with a horse's stride when going from "neutral" to a sudden burst, and that a quarter is too long to gauge what happened for roughly an 1/8th of a mile during the early pace. Anyway, addressing your issue, I was specifically referring to Rachel's 1 1/16 races. The Haskell was at a mile and an eighth. And notice RA's subtle stalking for a significant length of the backstretch when Summer Bird attacked Munnings (her two main rivals), doing Rachel's job for her. Look at the three jockey's hands. Saturday's race was not earthshakingly different, but importantly different nonetheless.
Daniel, I look at pace much the same way you do. Fractions do not tell the whole story and I also pay attention to riders' hands. As for the Haskell though, I'm not sure what you're getting at here. You make it sound as if racing is a team sport and RA was the weak link of the Summer Bird/RA team because Summer Bird was also near the pace. He was no closer to the pace than RA was and wasn't particularly hard-ridden early. Munnings and Summer Bird were simply left in the dust. Once RA accelerated, they had no answer, but it wasn't because RA benefitted from a hard duel between the two. She was just too good for them that day.
The HOY debate should rage on...I had the privilege of watching RA race twice in 2009 at Mth and Sar and she was brilliant in both efforts. She definitely made a strong case for horse of the year... but she was clearly trumped in 2009 by Zenyatta.
Daniel_fink [asked]: "What factors contributed to Rachel's performance Saturday?"" This isn't very difficult: Rachel Alexandra was finally exposed for her "body of" extraordinarily weak competition during the whole of 2009... It is almost criminal to equate the names of the once-great events which comprised Rachel Alexandra's "series of 2009 stunts" with the actually-worthy fields which contested those races in years past. In brief, Rachel Alexandra ran to her true ability last week. Her true ability when not flattered by a slow pace, a wet track, a three-horse field and terrible competition...
Derby Lane...dwindling patrons? I was just there a couple of Wednesdays ago for the matinee and the place was packed... There was nothing excruciating about the call between RA and Z for last year's HOTY award. Awards are meant for winners; Z won, RA sat on the bench, through no fault of her own I must add but because of her owner....