01/19/2010 12:00AM

No escape from news of the day


ARCADIA, Calif. - At the Eclipse Awards Dinner on Monday night in Beverly Hills, racing fan and congressman Dennis Cardoza, a Democrat of central California, welcomed the audience to the otherwise benign climate of his home state, saying, "For those of you who aren't here tonight, and watching across America, it rained so hard here today that they canceled the races at Santa Anita."

Over in the Santa Anita Park corner of the room, track president Ron Charles began banging his head on the table, or at least thought about it, after having the ugly reality of the failure of Santa Anita's "all-weather" racing surface to properly drain after sustaining steady showers over the previous 24 hours rubbed in his face. By a politician. For a laugh.

In his defense, Cardoza had no clue as to the grim tale behind the cancellation - that Santa Anita's synthetic-track experiment was about to come to a bitter end - and rallied with a reminder that the inconvenience of a little downpour in Southern California meant a bonanza of crop health back home in the north and that the price of hay might fall accordingly.

So, other than that, Mr. Charles, how did you like the play?

"Yeah, it wasn't that bad," Charles said the next day as another storm rolled into town. "I won 10 bucks from a guy who bet me Zenyatta was going to win."

So he had that going for him, which was nice, even though it was borderline heresy for a Californian to stray from the side of the home mare. Charles was only being realistic - about both the Horse of the Year vote and the fate of his racetrack - and not even Zenyatta's Jerry Moss would complain in the face of Santa Anita's forced return to a traditional dirt surface.

It was Moss, as a California Horse Racing commissioner, who was the lone holdout when he abstained from voting on the ruling of 2007 that mandated synthetic surfaces at California tracks. And it was Moss who watched the reputation of Zenyatta suffer in some quarters for two solid seasons as she raced unbeaten and almost exclusively on California synthetics, in deference to the Santa Anita site of back-to-back Breeders' Cup.

The 130-99 vote victory of Rachel Alexandra over her arm's length rival in Horse of the Year ballotting proved to be the only truly dramatic outcome of the evening. Even the jockeys' race, which figured to be a close one between Garrett Gomez and Julien Leparoux, was lopsided, with the young Frenchman lengths in front, 122-46.

"I was sitting with Julien, watching him wring his napkin all night long," said Danielle Hodsdon, rider of champion steeplechaser Mixed Up. "He was hoping they'd make the announcement early, but he had to wait until almost the end."

Amazing how the nerves work. Leparoux didn't seem the least bit flustered sneaking champion She Be Wild through on the inside to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, or getting Informed Decision off like a shot in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, thereby assuring a victory and a championship.

George Strawbridge, Informed Decision's owner, took great pains to praise Leparoux's horsemenship in accepting the Eclipse Award and then underlined precisely why his filly was able to have such a grand 4-year-old campaign, going back to the moment, in May of her 3-year-old season, when trainer Jonathan Sheppard detected heat in a knee.

"Rather than calling the vet," Strawbridge recalled, "rather than injecting, rather than using painkillers, he let nature take its course with a four-month leave of absence."

The behind-the-scenes welfare of these champion Thoroughbreds seems to get much more attention at the Eclipse Dinner level these days than ever before. Both Moss and Jess Jackson, Rachel Alexandra's owner, took great pains to thank their stable caretakers, all the way down the line. In a similar vein, a Special Eclipse Award went to Monique Koehler on Monday night for her work in establishing the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation.

"I believed when we started the foundation that we were the good news of racing," Koehler said. "I'm one of 191,405,000 people in the United States that love animals enough to have animals at home and spend $54 billion a year on our pets. The racehorse is no less deserving."

The dark twist is that synthetic tracks were supposed to be part of a holistic approach to the overall welfare of the racehorse. Now that Santa Anita is about to end its courtship with the technology, any subsequent dirt track will undergo an intense amount of scrutiny.

As much as Jerry Moss favors a return to dirt for California's tracks, it won't make any difference in Zenyatta's 2010 campaign. Taking the owner at his word, it sounds like trainer John Shirreffs will be fitting her with a homing device that locks in on a single target.

"Zenyatta's never lost," Moss told TVG in the immediate aftermath of the Horse of the Year announcement. "She's perfect. Nobody's beaten her on the racetrack. So they beat her by proxy as far as I'm concerned.

"We're gonna be available," Moss added. "They're available. When they enter, we'll see what they're entering and we'll be alongside them in the gate. That's all there is to it. I don't think it will take a lot of conversation or preparation. John will tell us when she's ready. When she's ready, we'll look for a race that's right for her. Hopefully, Rachel will show up. If she doesn't, we'll look at what Rachel is doing and see if it's about time we met."