05/27/2009 11:00PM

Can't count on showdowns


NEW YORK - Will she or won't she? The question applies to both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta.

Will Rachel Alexandra try to become the first filly to win two-thirds of a Triple Crown by running in the Belmont Stakes Saturday?

Will Zenyatta step outside of her division or her California home base as she attempts to extend her 10-for-10 record?

And will they ever meet?

The quick respective answers appear to be maybe, probably not and probably not. This of course is disappointing, and would mark the second straight year in which every racing fan's dream showdown - Curlin vs. Big Brown last year, Rachel vs. Zenyatta this year - is unlikely to take place.

Fans are understandably looking for someone to blame, but they're pointing their fingers in the wrong direction by questioning the boldness or sportsmanship of the filly's or mare's owners.

It's a risky business to tell people where they should run their horses. Everyone gets to have an opinion, which keeps things fun and interesting, but ultimately only the owners get a vote. And this year those votes aren't being cast in an attempt to manipulate the horses' commercial value: Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta will be bred, and their foals likely will be raced, by their current owners. Their earnings and trophies are far less important factors in plotting their campaigns than if they were stallion prospects.

Both camps have already demonstrated that they are trying to do right by their horses and their places in history. Jerry and Ann Moss have been exemplary owners not only with Zenyatta, who is racing as a 5-year-old, but also in keeping Giacomo and Tiago in training as older horses. Jess Jackson kept Curlin in training last year, ran him in the Breeders' Cup Classic against his better judgment in an attempt to help the event, and boldly entered Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness.

While it may seem unexciting that Zenyatta will race up to the Breeders' Cup by running in the same California races she did last year, she did ship east last spring to beat the division's reigning champion, Ginger Punch, in the Apple Blossom. They tried to begin her 2009 campaign at Churchill Downs until the track came up sloppy.

Now that Zenyatta is 10 for 10, the comparisons to Personal Ensign, who retired with a 13-for-13 record 21 years ago, are inevitable. Personal Ensign was based in New York, and left home only twice: to win the Molly Pitcher at Monmouth as a 3-year-old, and then to conclude her career in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, which was run at Churchill Downs in 1988.

If the Breeders' Cup were being run at Churchill or at Belmont this year, Zenyatta would leave home for that too, and we would all be counting down to a showdown that day with Rachel Alexandra. Instead, the Cup is being run at Santa Anita for a second straight year, and that is the real problem.

Jackson has had about enough of being a good sport to accommodate the highly questionable decision to run the Cup on a synthetic track even once, much less twice in a row.

"I don't want to race on plastic at all," Jackson told the Louisville Courier-Journal last week. "I shouldn't have run Curlin, and I'm not going to run her - unless she has no other frontier to conquer. If she runs at all on the plastic, it will be because she's so damn good she can beat the boys in the Classic, not the Ladies' Classic."

Until the Breeders' Cup came along in 1984, racing's big fall showdowns occurred by default at Belmont Park. Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta would have been pointing for races such as the Maskette and Beldame. The Breeders' Cup was designed to preserve and also to nationalize these championship matchups, but it almost lost the support of the Eastern racing establishment when it was unfairly held in California three of its first four years - at Hollywood in 1984 and 1987 and at Santa Anita in 1986. Forty Niner and Personal Ensign herself were withheld from the 1987 Cup, and the races were run in California again only once in the next nine years.

The natural rivalry between the two coasts has been taken to unnatural heights by the introduction of synthetic tracks in California, which has led me to question a longstanding opinion of my own. I used to think that moving the Breeders' Cup around the country was an essential part of its charm, but now I wonder if the idea of a permanent, neutral host site isn't worth revisiting.

The obvious choice would be Churchill Downs. It's the fairest compromise: spiritually if not technically a midpoint between the coasts, just about equally inconvenient for everyone, and provides suitable courses for the dirt and grass racing that define American racing and its great horses. And after all, no one complains that the Kentucky Derby is run there every year.