06/29/2009 5:20PM

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.

charlie More than 1 year ago
Rachel is a very good filly but I think all these accolades is overrated. She is still racing against restricted 3 year olds. People seems to forget that MTB won the Derby, Placed in the Preakness and Showed at the Belmont. That in itself is a great campaign. Travers for Rachel? Unlikely. I don't even think Jess would put her up against Quality Road.
Reinier More than 1 year ago
A true champion horse handles a detention barn...
Bill T. More than 1 year ago
One flaw in your and Shireffs' reasoning: Afleet Alex was not a N.Y. horse and aside from the Belmont never raced in N.Y. as a 3 year old. When he raced there at 2, he shipped in(w/ the exception of the Saratoga meet.)The same applies to Rachel Alexandra.These are not New York horses so why muddy the waters w/ that line of reasoning?
george Quinn More than 1 year ago
Why would you evem write this article after the Zenyatta camp commited to the Hirsch Jacobs on August 9? Move on to something else! George in Tampa
Walt More than 1 year ago
George: I know the connections of Zenyatta committed to the Hirsch. This is where there needs to be a commissioner who can "strongly suggest" to the connections in such a situation that you have to sometimes go outside your comfort zone if it is in the best interests of the sport to do so. In this case, I would have her racing that weekend, but against males in the Whitney at Saratoga, detention barn or not on August 8, doing so to appease casual fans who want to see her face males and attract attention to the sport from the mainstream media by doing so.
Walt More than 1 year ago
Arcstats: Philly Park is probably one track that could throw together a $3 million race now with the slot money they get, and the way slot money in Pennsylvania is distributed for horse racing (all of the tracks divide 12% of slots revenue between them for purses as I recall), Philly could get away with staging such.
TurfRuler More than 1 year ago
Union-Tribune writer, Hank Wesch, couldn’t disagree more, with Jess Jackson's unequivocal decision that super filly Rachel Alexandra will not race in the Breeders' Cup because of his dislike of synthetic surfaces like the one at the Arcadia track. He asks…”But how much plastic is there, exactly, in Del Mar's Poly Track racing surface?” “None at our track,” says Del Mar Thoroughbred Club Vice President Craig Fravel. “That's just a term they've come up with to be derogatory. There are some (plastic) elements at other synthetic tracks, but ours is 85 percent the same silicon sand it always was with the balance being basically rubberized material and carpet fibers mixed with wax.” Am I wrong to think that wax is similar to plastic and rubber material? If I say I’m going to the wax museum, would I be wrong to say the entire statues look like plastic or rubber exhibits. Jess Jackson also says and I agree “The fans always hypothetically project, and the media helps them, create illusions of potential competition.” If Rachel Alexandra or Zenyatta race it will not be a dead heat and dead heats are not necessarily first place positions. I remember picking Sulamani in the Breeders Cup to run third, the dead heat was Falbrav and High Chaparral whom I had on my ticket, if only Sulamani had run third. Yea, Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta are racing all time great runners but they can and will lose if they continue to run, expecially against each other.
Wayne80 More than 1 year ago
Sean is 100% correct, this whole debacle is the BC's fault. They were so concerned with justifying the ridiculous "World Championship" label and attracting the Euros that they forgot their main purpose, to define AMERICAN champions. The NYRA situation was a convenient excuse, just spin to justify their agenda. They have already stated they will not do so, but NYRA or another enterprising track should create an American Championship Day on dirt the week before or after the BC. Maybe Sunland Park would give it a go since their goal is to become the capital of dirt racing west of the Mississippi? Get Kendall-Jackson Wineries to sponsor the event and sell it to a network that will actually promote the thing. All the dirt stars will be there, including those not nominated to the BC like Einstein.
Ian Lozada More than 1 year ago
Moss said that they were open to racing against Rachel after the Breeders Cup. Churchill closes 3 weeks afterwards, which is probably too soon, Aqueduct would be in their inner track meet, and synth is out. Doesn't this have Fair Grounds written all over it?
Walt More than 1 year ago
Yuwipi: I think because they have raced on synthetics in Europe a lot longer than we have (almost 20 years I believe), they would not overreact like they did when George Washington broke down over a very sloppy main track at Monmouth two years ago. I think it was because it was a sloppy track more than anything that upset the Euros. Again, that to me was a serious overreaction, but one that I think spurred the move to have the BC on synthetics (and for the record, GW should never have been in the '07 Classic in the first place, he showed he was not that good on dirt a year earlier as I recall).