01/17/2010 12:00AM

Great Eclipse debate to be settled

Barbara D. Livingston
Monday night the Horse of the Year will be revealed to be either Rachel Alexandra (left) or Zenyatta.

For two months, the great debate has been whether Rachel Alexandra or Zenyatta will be Horse of the Year. The winner - along with all other champions of 2009 - will be revealed Monday night at the 39th annual Eclipse Awards dinner at the Four Seasons Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. But don't expect the debate to end, because a significant portion of the racing community is bound to be disappointed in the outcome.

No Horse of the Year announcement has been as widely discussed and anticipated since John Henry beat Slew O'Gold in a squeaker for the 1984 Horse of the Year. There are many parallels to that vote: a horse based in the East versus a horse based in the West; a horse who ran in the Breeders' Cup versus a horse who did not run in the Breeders' Cup; and an Eclipse dinner held in Southern California.

That time, the black-tie dinner was at the Century Plaza Hotel, and a ballroom filled to capacity erupted when Ted Bassett opened the envelope and merely said, "Like fine wine."

The Eclipse Awards are being televised live by TVG, beginning at 4 p.m. Pacific. The first award is expected to be presented shortly after 5 p.m., with Horse of the Year being announced about 7:15 p.m Pacific. HRTV, courtesy of TVG, will also show the Horse of the Year announcement live. And MSG+ will show the final hour of TVG's telecast on a tape-delayed basis beginning at 11:30 p.m. Eastern.

While the passionate defenders of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta have been lobbing verbal hand grenades at one another in recent weeks, more rational people have sat back and admired the campaigns of both animals and wrestled with a difficult choice. Both had unbeaten campaigns in 2009 and stepped out of their respective divisions for unprecedented victories against males. Yet the only place they ever met was in the ballot box.

A total of 232 voters from the National Turf Writers Association, Daily Racing Form, and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association - whose bloc includes racing secretaries and members of Equibase - returned ballots. The only way both horses could be Horse of the Year is in the extremely unlikely event that an equal number of voters went for each.

Steve Asmussen, who took over as Rachel Alexandra's trainer after her victory in the Kentucky Oaks, and John Shirreffs, the trainer of Zenyatta, are two of the three finalists for champion trainer, along with Bob Baffert.

Another compelling showdown is for champion jockey, where Garrett Gomez and Julien Leparoux are perceived as being co-favorites over Ramon Dominguez.

Jerry and Ann Moss, the owners of Zenyatta, are finalists for champion owner along with Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin Racing and the Juddmonte Farms of Saudi Arabia's Prince Khalid Abdullah.

Juddmonte also is a finalist for champion breeder along with Dolphus Morrison, who bred Rachel Alexandra, and Frank Stronach's Adena Springs operation.

Four horses are up for Eclipse Awards in two categories. Gio Ponti is a finalist for both champion male turf horse and champion older male and has a good chance in both categories. Kodiak Kowboy faces off with Gio Ponti for champion older male and is considered the favorite to be named champion sprinter.

Music Note is a finalist for champion female sprinter and champion older female, but she is a decided underdog in both divisions. Ventura is a finalist for Eclipse Awards for both female sprinter and female turf horse.