01/18/2010 1:00AM

Distance is the difference


Unconcerned about the results and not wishing to be excessively harsh on those well intentioned but misguided handicappers who voted for Rachel Alexandra as America's Horse of the Year, nonetheless it's important to admonish them publicly one and all, as they voted for the wrong horse for the wrong reasons. Surely the standard to be raised on high for the Horse of the Year crown must be the ability to beat open and authentic Grade 1 handicap horses at the classic distance, which in North America means at 1 1/4 miles, and preferably more than once. However brilliant, performances at the middle distances do not apply.

Although she did so only once, Zenyatta did so convincingly, in the year's definitive Grade 1 test, overtaking arguably the leading handicap horse in the land, and with a pulsating final quarter mile of 22 and change. Zenyatta was in this opinion 2009's Horse of the Year.

Triple Crown winners possibly excepted, 3-year-old colts or fillies that wish to be so recognized do not qualify by beating either their own age in the Kentucky Derby or ranking handicap horses at distances shorter than the classic distance. Three-year-old fillies do not qualify either by beating their own sex at the 1 1/4 miles. They must beat leading handicap males at the classic distance - no exceptions.

It's the distance, stupid!

The brilliant Rachel Alexandra never performed at the classic distance and no one watching her survive by a diminishing head against the good but unexceptional Macho Again in the nine-furlong Grade 1 Woodward Stakes at Saratoga should have been misled. Whether handicappers agree with the assessment of pace expert Tom Brohamer that the filly would have lost the Woodward "in another stride or two," we long have known how performances at a middle distance correlate poorly with performances at the classic distance. Perhaps the most befuddling circumstances of the sport, the distance phenomenon has repeated itself almost annually, as so many of the leading 3-year-olds that impress so persuasively at nine furlongs on the way to Louisville proceed to fade, often to the rear half of the field, in the Kentucky Derby.

None of this is meant to insinuate Rachel Alexandra cannot defeat leading handicap horses at the 1 1/4 miles, although she has yet to do so, and it looked highly unlikely she would have won the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic, or for that matter finished in the money. Prior to her performance, many believed the same about Zenyatta.

Rachel Alexandra emerged as a tired winner of the Woodward, the culmination of a tremendous 3-year-old season that seemingly had arrived at its logical conclusion. No doubt legions of unsentimental handicappers would have lined up eagerly to wager against the popular filly had she attempted to win the BC Classic, anticipating the putative payoffs from the trifecta and superfecta pools.

The not-to-be-overlooked irony for the voters swayed to Rachel by her performance in the Woodward is that the important New York stakes once upon a forgotten time was run at the classic distance, and should be still. In those more glorious days the Woodward stood as a definitive test of speed and stamina in combination, but no longer. The subsequent Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup at 1 1/2 miles was the ultimate test of speed and stamina for 3-and-up horses seeking year-end honors, but now it is run at the shorter 1 1/4 miles, and no longer qualifies as the ultimate test it long had been.

Instead of the slow-moving marathons currently carded on occasion at major tracks - ostensibly as incentives for horsemen to breed for greater stamina - the industry would be smart to restore the Woodward to its traditional 1 1/4 miles and the Jockey Club Gold Cup to its traditional 1 1/2 miles. The turn-back to the classic distance of the BC Classic would not interfere with the truly brilliant horses - whether 3 or older, male or female - capable of carrying high speed across the 10 to 12 furlongs. The same might be done to other traditional stakes that have had their distances shortened for nearsighted reasons. The incentive to breed for greater stamina would be supported better than by the carding of the silly marathons that appeal to no one but the trainers of plodding horses.

In this unfortunate context, last Saturday's Grade 2 San Fernando Stakes at Santa Anita, limited to 4-year-olds, has been run since 1998 at the undistinguished 1 1/16 miles, instead of nine furlongs. On Feb. 6, the Grade 2 Strub Stakes, once Santa Anita's definitive test for 4-year-olds at the classic distance, is run at the less-meaningful nine furlongs. In more pragmatic terms, the San Fernando Stakes used to demonstrate which of the new 4-year-olds could run the swiftest in graded company, while the Strub Stakes demonstrated which of them might be truly important horses.

Now the two graded stakes tell handicappers only which of the 4-year-olds at Santa Anita will be fast enough to win middle-distance Grade 2 stakes. The winner of the Strub Stakes in former times was almost always a legitimate threat to win the subsequent 1 1/4-mile Santa Anita Handicap. Now handicappers will be left to ponder what the Strub winner might do at the classic distance. It's the same reason why Rachel Alexandra left too much to ponder to warrant a Horse of the Year celebration.

Once upon a time in the mid-80s, the Hall of Fame horseman D. Wayne Lukas suggested that perhaps the Kentucky Derby should be reduced in distance to nine furlongs. At the time Lukas had started some 18 3-year-olds in the Derby and just one of them had finished as high as third. The trainer had been absorbing the hard lessons of Thoroughbred class that separates the horses that win at middle distances from the far fewer that can win at the classic distance.

Alternatively, the great horsemen inevitably recognized that career triumphs that distinguished them occurred at the classic distances. I once asked Laz Barrera which race he had most wanted to win. Without hesitation, Laz answered, "The San Juan Capistrano," at the time a Grade 1 turf marathon at 1 3/4 miles that begins down Santa Anita's unique European-style downhill turf course, and the greatest grass race ever run in North America. Several talented horsemen had expressed the same desire. Laz won the race one year later with Lemhi Gold for Aaron Jones. Now the San Juan Capistrano is a local race with smaller, cheaper fields and a Grade 2 rating. It's a melancholy thought.

During prime time, Charlie Whittingham never considered any horse more than "nice" until the animal could win a Grade 1 event at the classic distance, or farther. Woody Stephens admired the Kentucky Derby, all right, but he worshipped the

1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes, which he took five years in succession. None of those fabulous horsemen, and many like them, I trust, would have preferred Rachel Alexandra against Zenyatta as Horse of the Year in 2009.

So, too, the argument that the 3-year-old filly's season of magnificent exploits countermands the sensational run of Zenyatta in the BC Classic against the leading handicap horses across 10 furlongs, which it does not. Zenyatta's 2009 campaign was long enough and certainly good enough for all to admire. The precedent extends as far back as 1978 but it recalls the brilliant Triple Crown champion Seattle Slew, who at 4 had delivered an abbreviated campaign that included a loss in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Early in that 1978 season, the Whittingham-trained 5-year-old Exceller, a turf star, had won a Grade 3 stakes on the Santa Anita dirt after the rains had washed it off the grass. Subsequently, Exceller would win six consecutive Grade 1 stakes, on dirt and turf, from January to November, defeating the best horses on both surfaces, including a stellar field that included the Great White Tornado, Vigors, on the dirt at 10 furlongs in the Grade 1 Hollywood Park Gold Cup.

Whittingham, who rarely traveled, thought Exceller deserved a shot at Horse of the Year. He knew the voters would hand the title to Seattle Slew, unless Exceller could beat the Triple Crown hero in his own backyard. He shipped Exceller to New York, and following a layoff from late July prepped him in the Woodward, then run in mid-September at Belmont Park at the 1 1/4 miles. Charlie announced the objective was the Jockey Club Gold Cup and that he expected Exceller to be short in the Woodward. Exceller ran forwardly and chased Seattle Slew, who won, all the way.

Three weeks later in the Belmont slop, in one of the greatest races of the modern era, Exceller as usual dropped far back early. After a mile, he was practically distanced. In the grandstand far above, owner Bunker Hunt had lost hope. Suddenly, from the half-mile pole to the top of the stretch, Exceller dispensed a tremendous run. By the eighth pole he had gained a remarkable 22 lengths and had caught Seattle Slew, who had fought a blazing pace that included the 3-year-old Affirmed and had drawn clear following fractions of 45.20, 1:09.40, and a mile time of 1:35.40. In the official chart Exceller led Slew at the eighth pole by a half-length.

From there the two superstars fought doggedly to the wire. Exceller won by a nose. The 5-year-old had run the final quarter mile of the definitive 12-furlong event in 24 flat, while Seattle Slew had finished in 25.40. Bunker Hunt would call it the greatest race he had ever seen. Exceller had won the six consecutive Grade 1's on dirt and grass, at the classic distance and beyond, and had defeated Seattle Slew in the year's ultimate test.

The voters gave the Eclipse for handicap male and the Horse of the Year title to Seattle Slew. Despite four Grade 1's, Exceller did not receive even the Eclipse as grass champion, which inexplicably went to the good but undeserving 3-year-old Mac Diarmida. So much for the full run of the season.

But that was long ago, and it's instructive to remember the calm and rather dismissive reaction of Whittingham. Charlie wondered aloud what those people - the voters - could be thinking, but he let it go at that. Amen.