08/18/2009 11:00PM

Dream races not all magical

Barbara D. Livingston
Paul Randall, a handler for Fasig-Tipton auctioneers, had the name of his favorite filly tattooed on him.

DEL MAR, Calif. - Did you know that the first Marlboro Cup in 1973 was originally designed as a match race between stablemates Secretariat and Riva Ridge? Of course you did.

Ah, but did you know that the 1975 match race between Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure first left the drawing board as a three-way among classic-winning colts, and the filly was not invited?

Yes, we remember that one, too, along with all the other arbitrarily arranged showdowns featuring headline horses of the moment, down through the years . . . .

Like the off-again, on-again Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race that finally unfolded with great drama under the guise of the 1938 Pimlico Special.

Or the international showdown between Epsom Derby winner Papyrus and Kentucky Derby winner Zev at Belmont Park in October of 1923, when the American colt beat the English colt by five lengths on a muddy track.

Or the Hollywood Park debacle of 1974, when California star Miss Musket bolted shortly after the start, turning the match into a one-horse parade for the New York filly Triple Crown winner Chris Evert.

Horse racing, like boxing, is a sport without seasons or schedules. This is part of racing's enduring charms, the idea that on any given day, somewhere in North America there can be found Thoroughbreds and jockeys in a starting gate, ready to perform for the pleasure of parimutuel customers.

For those who wish horse racing were the NFL, this reality has been eternally frustrating. They long for the structure of mandatory participation in must-see events. But not even the Triple Crown fills the bill, while the Breeders' Cup, with its trappings of a climactic fall classic (it's even held right around the World Series), has come close to being a command performance for the best of the breed.

Still, there have been honorable contrarians who felt the timing of the Breeders' Cup was not right - as was the case with Mace and Samantha Siegel and their emerging 2-year-old Declan's Moon - or were unhappy with the terms of participation - such as John Amerman with the supplementary fee required to run older star Lido Palace - or simply decided their horses had done enough, which is probably why Will Farish's leading Horse of the Year candidate Mineshaft stayed home in 2003.

This year, the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita has been suffering for months from Jess Jackson's so-far unequivocal stance that Rachel Alexandra will under no circumstances participate because of the synthetic racing surface. He never said those exact words - under no circumstances - but he has repeated the vow so often that it sure sounds as if the 2009 Breeders' Cup is dead to him, and with it any chance of meeting Horse of the Year rival Zenyatta in a bona fide championship setting.

This has left an open field for racetrack impresarios to run with the Rachel-Zenyatta ball. James McIngvale was first off the mark with his $2 million match race offer at Sam Houston, which sounded pretty exotic, kind of like Ali and Foreman going to Zaire. The Zenyatta camp, led by owner Jerry Moss and trainer John Shirreffs, was quick to say no thanks.

Churchill Downs continues to hold out hope that its Clark Handicap in late November might draw Les Girls. But the race comes on the heels of the Breeders' Cup. Can you say anticlimax?

These are big horses, Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, who write history every time they appear. They deserve the biggest stage. The Breeders' Cup would have been the right place at the right time, and their showdown in the Ladies' Classic would have been the most significant race ever run on a Friday.

Now Belmont Park has taken the initiative, with the nine-furlong Beldame Stakes on Saturday, Oct. 3, as the target venue. This is a good thing, rather than a match race, since match races tend to prove nothing.

Journalist and racing historian Bill Nack covered both the birth of the Marlboro Cup, with Secretariat the key, and the death of Ruffian as a result of her match with Foolish Pleasure. As a young Chicagoan, he also witnessed the 1955 match between Swaps and Nashua at Washington Park.

"What's fun about horse racing is tactics - horses going to the lead, coming from out of it," Nack said. "A match race is just everybody going as fast as you can from the get-go. I found that out to my dismay when Swaps ran against Nashua, after Nashua had worked five-eighths of a mile in 56 and change at Oklahoma, of all places, on a track a foot deep. It was one of the greatest workouts in the history of Saratoga."

Nashua, who chased Swaps in the Kentucky Derby, went straight to the lead and won easily.

"I found it very unsatisfying," Nack said. "And, of course, the other match race was tragic."

It has been 34 years since the Ruffian match, which is not quite long enough for New York racing to recover from the trauma. Presenting Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta in the context of an established event like the Beldame will allow the two mares to do what each does best. Hal Handel, the New York Racing Association's vice-president and chief operating officer, said that the wheels are turning and that Jackson and Moss could have something to consider by the end of the week.

"It would be a magical thing to do," Handel said. "I just hope for the game it happens. The good news is, both sets of owners are big-picture people, and I think if it's a good looking proposal they'll give it a fair thought. That's all you can ask."