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Jackson strikes the right note
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - The 2009 campaigns of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, both great in their own right, were difficult to compare, and led to, at times, bizarrely heated debates between their wild-eyed supporters. On Monday night here at the Eclipse Awards presentation at the Four Seasons Beverly Wilshire Hotel, it was Jess Jackson, who owns Rachel Alexandra along with Harold McCormick, who sounded the most reasonable note about the two when he accepted the first trophy of the evening for Rachel Alexandra, for champion 3-year-old filly.
"They have made records that will last through history and will be judged on their own merit, not against each other," Jackson said.
It was a good recovery for a long, ponderous acceptance speech that hit a rocky shelf about halfway through. Jackson looked over at his wife, Barbara Banke, and said, "Let me introduce my mother, I mean my wife." The crowd gasped and giggled.
"That might be Freudian," Jackson said over the din.
Jackson overlooked jockey Calvin Borel when he accepted Rachel Alexandra's Eclipse Award for champion 3-year-old filly, but he made amends by profusely thanking the rider when given a second chance after Rachel Alexandra was named Horse of the Year. Jackson also thanked Dolphus Morrison, who bred Rachel Alexandra and owned her in partnership until Jackson bought her privately. But he never mentioned Hal Wiggins, who trained Rachel Alexandra for exactly half of her eight starts in 2009 until she was purchased privately and transferred to Steve Asmussen.
Asmussen gets emotional
Asmussen also failed to mention Wiggins, but the only opportunity Asmussen had to make a speech was after being named champion trainer for the second straight year, and he focused his remarks on his top assistants, Scott Blasi and Darren Fleming.
Asmussen's voice cracked when he said that his assistants deserved the award in 2008. "But I had been looking at my brother's for 20 years," Asmussen said, referring to the Eclipse Award won by his older brother, Cash, the champion apprentice jockey of 1979, "so I kept it."
But he then took the award he received on Monday, walked over to Blasi, and handed it to him.
Jones's work goes unrecognized
Another oversight occurred when Kodiak Kowboy was named champion sprinter.
Tom Ludt of Vinery Stables accepted the award and, among others, thanked Asmussen, who took over as Kodiak Kowboy's trainer late in the year and won both the Vosburgh and Cigar Mile with him.
But Larry Jones, who trained Kodiak Kowboy to a Grade 1 sprint win in the Carter, was not mentioned. Jones retired last year.
Kodiak Kowboy came full circle to Asmussen, who initially trained Kodiak Kowboy as a 2-year-old before Kodiak Kowboy was sent to Jones.
Sting offers his congratulations
There was no surprise that Zenyatta was announced as the champion older mare. But officials of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association surprised Zenyatta's owners, Jerry and Ann Moss, and the audience by arranging for taped congratulatory remarks from Sting, the lead singer of the rock band The Police, which was represented by Jerry Moss's A&M Records. Zenyatta is named for The Police album Zenyatta Mondatta, and the Mosses' Kentucky Derby winner, Giacomo, is named for Sting's son.
"There's a constant reminder that without him," Jerry Moss said, referring to Sting, "there wouldn't be this," he said, holding the Eclipse Award trophy.
Frankel remembered at event
The evening opened with a tribute to the late Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel. A video of Frankel played while Jay Hovdey, the executive columnist for Daily Racing Form, made brief, moving remarks.
Several Eclipse winners also referenced Frankel, including Moss and Dr. John Chandler, manager of champion breeder Juddmonte Farms, for whom Frankel trained.
Moss said he admired Frankel's "artistry, honesty, and bluntness, always his bluntness."
Rice settling in as Eclipse host
In just his second year as host of the Eclipse Awards, Kenny Rice, best known as part of NBC's Kentucky Derby and Preakness coverage, has settled into the role comfortably, striking the right balance of witty one-liners along with a skillful ability to move things along.
Rice had been informed that Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles, would be in attendance, and remarked as such early in the evening. He asked the mayor to stand. But no one stood.
Later, after Villaraigosa finally arrived, Rice introduced him. After the mayor stood, Rice looked at him and said, "Traffic?"
Being as the awards took place in the hotbed of the entertainment industry, Rice was ready with topical remarks.
Rice at the start of the evening said Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta were like the "Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston of the equine set."
"And much like those two, they've never met," he said.
After the media awards were presented, Rice said, "This just in, Conan O'Brien, Late Night, Los Alamitos, on TVG."
Later, as the Horse of the Year decision neared, Rice said, "I just got this text. 'If the fight's only between two women, I really don't care. Tiger Woods.' "
Handicapping champ provides laughs
John Conte, who won last year's National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas, was honored as the Handicapper of the Year. His speech left the crowd cheering wildly.
"I'm just a plain guy from Brooklyn," Conte said. "I went to NYU - New York Unemployed. My friends went to Penn State. I went to state pen. When I go to the teller, they give me a ticket that's already ripped up."
Durkin adds more humor to event
Tom Durkin, also part of NBC's racing crew and the racecaller at New York Racing Association tracks, told everyone to check the exits before he presented champion 3-year-old filly.
"Because if I don't say Rachel Alexandra when I open this envelope, there's going to be a riot," Durkin said.
Durkin, when introducing video highlights of Rachel Alexandra's campaign, said he was trying to think of a word to describe how Rachel Alexandra dominated the division.
"Dominatrix did come to mind" - pause - "but that's just me," he said. "Now lets take off our handcuffs and look at this G-rated series of races."
Peers show admiration for Shirreffs
The work that trainer John Shirreffs has done with Zenyatta was praised by his colleagues, like trainers Kathy Walsh and Jack Van Berg, at Hollywood Park on Tuesday morning.
"She didn't race until the end of her 3-year-old year," Van Berg said. "If anyone else had had her, she'd have been ruined as a 2-year-old."