01/19/2010 1:00AM

One race ends, the next to be seen

Illustration by Christopher A. Donofry
Rachel Alexandra, crowned Horse of the Year on Monday evening, is training at Fair Grounds, but her return to racing is not imminent.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - Now that a faux race has been completed, perhaps an actual race between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta can be arranged. Fans certainly want it. The owners of both horses seem to want it. But when, or if, it will happen is a constantly moving target. Both must stay healthy, both must come back at the top of their game, and both must end up at the same track in the same race. Nothing is guaranteed, as those who as recently as two years ago hoped to see Big Brown face Curlin can well attest.

Rachel Alexandra, who was named the 2009 Horse of the Year here on Monday night at the 39th annual Eclipse Awards dinner at the Four Seasons Beverly Wilshire Hotel, has not had a workout since her demanding victory in the Woodward Stakes more than four months ago at Saratoga. She is currently training at Fair Grounds with trainer Steve Asmussen, but her return to the races is not imminent. Her majority owner, Jess Jackson, on Monday night said Rachel Alexandra's training had been compromised by the wet weather in New Orleans this winter.

Unlike 2009, when Rachel Alexandra ran early and often the first part of the year and then bypassed the Breeders' Cup, her 2010 campaign likely will be focused on the Breeders' Cup, which will be held this year at Churchill Downs, where Rachel Alexandra romped in the Kentucky Oaks last year.

Zenyatta, by contrast, has stayed in regular training at Hollywood Park with trainer John Shirreffs, even during her brief retirement, and could be cranked up for a race seemingly at a moment's notice. Her first intended target is not until March 13, the Santa Margarita Handicap at Santa Anita. She is then expected to go to Oaklawn Park for the April 3 Apple Blossom Handicap, which she won two years ago. But anyone believing that will be the first opportunity for Rachel Alexandra to meet Zenyatta may be disappointed. It is hard to imagine Rachel Alexandra being ready to race by then, let alone believe it would be in her best interest to come off a seven-month layoff to face a finely honed Zenyatta.

"It couldn't be arranged that they would meet last year," Jackson said after the dinner. "We're hoping that each horse, taking its course, may win their way to an ultimate match, and maybe we can work toward that."

Jerry Moss, who owns Zenyatta with his wife, Ann, said, "Someday we'll meet, and we'll decide at that time who is the best. Frankly I wouldn't trade with anybody. I'm looking forward to the encounter."

In their only race so far, Rachel Alexandra received 130 first-place votes (56.8 percent) to 99 (43.2 percent) for Zenyatta from the 232 voters who returned ballots. Three voters abstained or did not vote.

"Either horse, either filly, deserved this award," Jackson said. "Together Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta won nine Grade I races. Together they conquered four of the best groups of males that were running last year. If you think about their achievements individually or collectively, there has never been another year like this for fillies."

All three voting blocs went for Rachel Alexandra. The National Turf Writers Association preferred Rachel Alexandra by 71 votes to 51. Daily Racing Form went for Rachel Alexandra by a 31-23 margin. And the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which includes racing secretaries and members of Equibase, had Rachel Alexandra by 28-25.

"Zenyatta's never lost," Moss said. "She's perfect. Nobody's beaten her on the racetrack. So they beat her by proxy as far as I'm concerned. This doesn't take away anything from the just enormous job done by John. I can't say enough about what he and his barn have done. I obviously congratulate Mr. Jackson and Mrs. Jackson. They have a great horse."

Indeed, Rachel Alexandra's overall campaign swung more voters. She won the Kentucky Oaks by more than 20 lengths, defeated males in the Preakness, Haskell, and Woodward, and won the Mother Goose by more than 19 lengths. She won all eight of her starts last year, four for trainer Hal Wiggins, four for Asmussen after Jackson purchased her privately.

"We're blessed to have her and have her meet the challenges we kept giving her," Jackson said.

Jackson and Asmussen were winning the Horse of the Year title for the third straight year, following Curlin in 2007-08. Jackson received the gold Horse of the Year trophy from Alex Waldrop, the president and chief executive officer of the NTRA, who referenced both horses racing this year when he said, "Happily the stories are far from over."