12/24/2009 12:00AM

Casting a reluctant vote for . . .


NEW YORK - The choice between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta as America's Horse of the Year for 2009 is a joyless and ultimately maddening one.

Racing's cheerleaders say the debate itself is good for the sport, keeping discussion of the racing season alive during its December doldrums and stirring passions among casual fans. That might be true if this were merely a difficult choice between two horses with comparable campaigns whose paths had crossed at least once during the season.

Instead, voters must make an apples-or-oranges decision between two horses whose lack of common ground is itself an indictment of the chaotic state of American championship racing. The well-intentioned but premature introduction of synthetic surfaces, and the radical decision to contest two straight Breeders' Cups over them, has made a mess of the sport's supposed year-end championships and deprived the sport of a showdown that should have taken place on the racetrack instead of a ballot box.

It is the best and worst of racing at the same time. Rachel Alexandra's and Zenyatta's undefeated seasons and historic achievements are the stuff of greatness, and merely having both future Hall of Famers competing in the same season was a privilege and a treat. The fact that they never met, and that we must now honor one at the expense of the other because of highly questionable decisions by racing's supposed stewards, is a snapshot of a sport in disarray.

I thought it would have been appropriate to give voters the option of honoring them both, not only because they both deserve it but also to acknowledge the uniqueness of this season. This turned out to be an unpopular proposal with the leadership of two of the three organizations whose members cast votes (the National Turf Writers Association and the National Thoroughbred Racing associations) along with Daily Racing Form. So there can only be two winners in the highly unlikely case of a statistical dead heat at the polls, and any voter who attempts to split his ballot will be disqualified. It is tempting to cast such a vote, or to abstain, in protest, but that ultimately accomplishes nothing. So instead my plan is to grumble all the way until the Jan. 4 deadline and then somewhat reluctantly vote for Rachel Alexandra on the simple premise that in a season when both of them did extraordinary and magnificent things, Rachel did more of them.

There's no disputing that Zenyatta is one of the best fillies or mares in the sport's recent history, that her career record of 14 for 14 is a tremendous achievement, or that she beat the most accomplished field assembled this year winning the country's richest race, the Breeders' Cup Classic. That's why I find it almost excruciating not to honor her. It's a resume that would make her the Horse of the Year in almost any other season.

Unfortunately for her, she did it in the same season that Rachel Alexandra did five spectacular things, and while no one of them may be as definitive as winning the Classic, the weight of all five carries the day:

She won the Kentucky Oaks by 20 1/4 lengths, the largest margin of victory in at least 93 years; was the first filly to win the Preakness in 84 years; won the Mother Goose by 19 1/4 lengths, the biggest margin in that race's 52-year-history; became only the second filly to win the Haskell in 41 years; and was the first 3-year-old filly ever to beat older males in the Woodward Stakes.

We will never know who was the "better" racehorse, so we can only say which one did more. Rachel Alexandra won more races, in more places, set more time and margin records, beat more stakes winners and Grade 1 winners, and triumphed over males three times as opposed to one.

So that's how I'm voting, but not how I'm rooting: I'm still holding out hope that the voting does miraculously end in a dead heat and that Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta both earn a trophy that would have been theirs alone most years. A tie would also put a big fat asterisk on the current state of a game that can no longer get its biggest stars into the same starting gate or decide what sort of a race should crown its champions.