08/27/2010 2:28PM

No matter what, Rachel Alexandra's 2009 is set in stone


SARATOGA SPRINGS – Rachel Alexandra, America’s reigning Horse of the Year, finally returns to Grade 1 company in Sunday’s Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga, nearly a year after the dramatic victory here in the Woodward earned her that title − and launched unrealistic expectations she has failed to meet.

The Woodward was Rachel Alexandra’s final start in an eight-race campaign that was the most ambitious and historic by a 3-year-old filly in at least half a century. After three easy victories in Arkansas and Louisiana, she won the Kentucky Oaks by a record 20 1/4 lengths; beat males, including the Derby winner, in the Preakness; won the Mother Goose by a record 19 1/4 lengths; beat males, including the Belmont winner, in the Haskell; and then became the first filly of any age to beat older males in the Woodward. It was such a deep and unprecedented quintet of achievements that it trumped what would have been a successful Horse of the Year campaign in many other seasons by Zenyatta, the undefeated winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

That selection, by a 130-99 tally among the Eclipse Award voters, ignited unrelenting and frequently ugly arguments about their respective merits that continue to this day. The arguments largely missed the point. The decision was not about who might win a hypothetical matchup, but over who had waged the more impressive campaign throughout the year. Awarding the honor to both would have been the best solution, but voters and industry officials opposed the idea. In a very tough call, Rachel Alexandra’s longer and more adventuresome season was preferred by 57 percent of the voters.

Everyone wanted to see them square off this year, but a lot of the demand and expectation for such a showdown was for the wrong reason. There was bloodlust for some sort of a do-over on Horse of the Year, but even if Zenyatta had thrashed Rachel in April’s Apple Blossom at Oaklawn, a race Rachel pulled out of three weeks before it was run, it wouldn’t have changed the Eclipse result or the minds of most voters about who had a better 2009.

When Rachel Alexandra lost her season debut and then was withdrawn from the Apple Blossom, she and Zenyatta retreated to their corners for what have been jaw-droppingly conservative campaigns for a Horse of the Year and a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner. The filly and the mare who made history for their triumphs against males have run only against fillies and mares. Zenyatta has at least run in Grade 1 races, albeit only ones she has won before; Rachel Alexandra has run in two Grade 2 events and two ungraded races that were arranged to attract her.

While those campaigns have been second-guessed by virtually every racing fan, including this one, it was unfair to expect these two distaffers were going to dominate global racing in 2010 just because they were the stars of a highly unusual 2009 season. There was a dearth of male talent among both the 3-year-olds and the older males, and the Classic was unfortunately contested on a soon-to-be-discarded Pro-Ride track that kept Rachel Alexandra and other dirt horses out of the race and may have hampered those dirt runners who tried it.

That is no knock at all on the magnificent, 18-for-18 Zenyatta, but the Classic victory did not mean she was going to waltz through a 6-year-old campaign against the nation’s best horses in races such as the Donn, the Stephen Foster, and the Whitney. Of course, if she actually runs in this year’s Classic on dirt and beats Blame, Lookin At Lucky, and Quality Road, she will deserve and receive the title her fans think she should have gotten last year.

Sunday, Rachel Alexandra meets a tougher rival than either one of them has faced this year in Life at Ten, a winner of six straight, including all four of her starts this season. Yet Rachel will be heavily favored, not only because she’s Rachel but also because she is simply faster on paper: Life at Ten has run one triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure in her career; Rachel Alexandra has run 12 of those in a row.

It’s unclear whether Rachel Alexandra will even run in this year’s Classic, in which she’d probably be no better than fifth choice if it were run today. Even if she never wins again, though, no one can take away the splendor of her 3-year-old campaign, which was more than enough to earn her a plaque across the street in the Racing Hall of Fame. If she and Zenyatta are retired at the end of this year, as expected, the biggest cinch in racing is that they will both be inducted five years from now, the first time they are eligible. Isn’t that enough?