06/29/2009 4:20PM

Two for the Show


Like any political campaign matching two candidates of substance, the debate over the relative merits of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta has transcended the mere curiosity about which one is faster. Their arm's length rivalry has sparked debate about racing surfaces, regional prejudice, cross-generational competition, and the hard held opinions of the people in their corners.

Is this fun or what?

Jess Jackson, Rachel's man, does not like synthetic tracks. This makes him a champion of horseplayers whose handicapping has been skewed by the new stuff, and of owners and trainers who have not been swayed by the promises of engineered surfaces.

John Shirreffs, who trains Zenyatta, is every bit as skeptical about synthetics. (Zenyatta is 10-0 on synthetic.) As far as Shirreffs is concerned, dirt, when properly maintained, works just fine. This probably says more about Shirreffs' horsemanship and the quality of the horses he is given to train than anything else. But when asked, Shirreffs will volunteer a list issues he must confront with synthetic surfaces that he did not face with tracks of sandy loam.

   Rachel     Z-butt 2    Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta

Everyone one wants to play Don King in promoting this match. But the race I want to see before Rachel and Zenyatta is Rachel Alexandra against Mine That Bird. Forget about the Mama Goose for a moment and recall the last time she was truly tested. The scrappy little gelding was getting to her with every stride at the end of the Preakness. That day they were both very good and trying very hard. He was unlucky, she was a length better.

If Rachel were to win the Haskell and then beat Mine That Bird in the Travers, she would not need to go to California for the Breeders' Cup anyway. It would be no surprise if she was immediately bred, or bronzed, or probably both. In the face of a younger rival with such a record, Zenyatta would need to remain unbeaten, beat males in the Breeders' Cup Classic, and maybe even win the Nobel Peace Prize to have a fighting chance at Horse of the Year.

Since Jackson must be taken at his word that the Breeders' Cup is out, Belmont Park becomes the best possible site for a summit meeting, and a traditional event like the Beldame Stakes stands ready and willing. Before that happens, though, Shirreffs will need assurances that New York's pre-race quarantine process is fair to all competitors.

"It's supposed to be, but it's not," Shirreffs said. "For instance, when I was there with Giacomo, we were in an L-shaped shedow of stalls. Afleet Alex was in the corner of the L, where it was very quiet and calm. Giacomo was at the end, with ESPN cameras and people set up right in front of him. Horses who race regularly in New York I would think would have an advantage over horses shipping in, since they have had a chance to get use to the pre-race procedures. Stables who run a lot of horses have an advantage, too. Then can create their own little shedrow in the detention barn. And just the concept interferes with a horse's routine. Sometimes you're waking them up six hours before a race to just move to another stall."

Horseplayers endorse the New York detention barn because it gives them a sense that the integrity of the race is being protected. Still, there is no way to measure the effect such a long, race-day quarantine in unfamiliar surroundings can have on how a horse will perform (both Big Brown and Mine That Bird were upset for at least part of their Belmont Stakes quarantines). In some ways it can be considered an extension of the race experience itself, but without the public scrutiny of the saddling enclosure, the walking ring or the post parade.

If Jackson holds firm on the Breeders' Cup and Shirreffs gets to veto New York, that leaves precious few possibilities for a Zenyatta-Rachel Alexandra showdown. My vote would go to Santa Rosa, in Northern California, a beautiful one-mile dirt oval located just down the road from Jackson's wine country estate. The weather there in mid-September is golden. You could sell out the well-kept little grandstand for $1,000 a seat, minimum. If the place was good enough for Black Ruby...

Churchill Downs, though, would be a natural. Both camps have rich history with the place--the Mosses of Zenyatta have won both the Oaks and the Derby, and Rachel dismantled the Oaks. It is not exactly neutral ground from Zenyatta's angle, but at least she was prepared to run there in May had the weather cooperated. All Churchill's people would need to do is buy a day from Turfway Park in mid-September and open the gates. Build this and everyone will come.