11/10/2009 12:00AM

Only one can be the champ

Email
Barbara D. Livingston
Zenyatta won all five of her starts this year, including the Classic with jockey Mike Smith (above). Rachel Alexandra was 8 for 8 this year.

ARCADIA, Calif. - It's all over but the debating.

Zenyatta's victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic on Saturday at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting has reignited the debate over the 2009 Horse of the Year between her and Rachel Alexandra, who had an equally brilliant year.

Zenyatta, 5, won all five of her starts this year, once against older males, and showed up for the sport's year-end championship event, in which she beat a star-studded field to complete a perfect career.

Rachel Alexandra, 3, won all eight of her starts this year, three times against males, once against older horses, but was kept out of the sport's year-end championship event and a chance to settle the debate on the racetrack.

The truly sensible, rational outcome would be for Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta to share the award. But the odds of that happening are statistically daunting, because the Eclipse Award ballot that will be sent to media members and racing officials next month does not allow for votes to be split in any category. Even if a voter would feel awful for slighting a horse he deemed a deserving champion, he would not be able to vote for both for Horse of the Year. Pick one or abstain. That's the choice.

The only way they can end up in a tie is if the number of voters who choose Rachel Alexandra for Horse of the Year is equal to the number who choose Zenyatta.

One thing is for sure - the Eclipse Awards dinner that will be held Jan. 18 in Beverly Hills, Calif., might be the most anticipated since January 1985, when the 1984 Horse of the Year vote came down to John Henry vs. Slew O' Gold.

If balloting were held Saturday night, Zenyatta would have won. Such was the understandable outpouring of emotion for what she had just accomplished. But with weeks until voters put pen to paper, there is time to soberly reflect on the magnificent accomplishments of both.

"I'm not taking anything away from that other filly," Jerry Moss, the co-owner of Zenyatta, said Saturday night, referring to Rachel Alexandra. "As I've always said, she ran a tremendous campaign, and they deserve a lot of credit. It's a tough one."

It's one of the few tough calls in flat racing left for Eclipse Award voters. Most of the divisional championships were decided following the 26th Breeders' Cup. Only a fool would deny Zenyatta (older filly or mare) or Rachel Alexandra (3-year-old filly) unanimous victories in their respective divisions. Zenyatta's form was flattered when stablemate Life Is Sweet won the BC Ladies' Classic on Friday, beating the likes of Careless Jewel and Music Note.

Summer Bird, who finished fourth in the BC Classic, nailed down the Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male for a year that saw him win the Belmont, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Gio Ponti, who finished second in the Classic, accomplished more than any other turf horse in this country this year and also put himself squarely in position to be named champion older male, a division that lacked a leader all year. His main rival for champion turf horse might be Conduit, who won the BC Turf in his lone North American start for the second straight year.

Like Conduit, Goldikova scored a repeat victory in a Breeders' Cup race when she took the Mile on turf. That should be enough to get her an Eclipse Award as champion female turf horse, since Midday, a less-heralded European invader, beat America's leading candidates the previous day in the Filly and Mare Turf.

Informed Decision, who won the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, locked up an Eclipse Award for champion female sprinter.

Male sprinter is far trickier. The upset win by Dancing in Silks in the BC Sprint certainly gives him a shot; he knocked off top candidates Zensational and Gayego in the process. But dirt specialists such as Fabulous Strike and Vineyard Haven, who skipped the Breeders' Cup, also will garner support. So, too, will grass specialist California Flag, who won the BC Turf Sprint.

Champion 2-year-old filly is another tough choice. She Be Wild's victory in the BC Juvenile Fillies could be enough to vault her past the speedy Hot Dixie Chick, who was kept out of the Breeders' Cup. One raced exclusively on synthetic surfaces, the other strictly on dirt. She Be Wild won around two turns, Hot Dixie Chick never ventured beyond a sprint.

Lookin at Lucky dropped a narrow decision in the BC Juvenile after a wide trip, but with improbable longshot Vale of York winning the race, the overall record of Lookin at Lucky makes him the front-runner for an Eclipse Award, especially with D' Funnybone running so poorly. The other viable candidate is Florida sensation Jackson Bend, who was kept out of the Breeders' Cup.

On the human side, the three Breeders' Cup wins for jockey Julien Leparoux gave him 10 Grade 1 wins for the year and vaulted him into first place for purse earnings this year. No rider had a better Breeders' Cup.

John Shirreffs will never have the purse earnings of trainers such as Steve Asmussen - who took over as Rachel Alexandra's trainer after the Kentucky Oaks - and Todd Pletcher, since Shirreffs trains a far smaller string of horses. But his two Breeders' Cup wins, with Zenyatta and Life Is Sweet, should make Shirreffs a strong candidate for the Eclipse Award as champion trainer.

Champion owner might very well mirror the debate for Horse of the Year. Both Jess Jackson, the majority owner of Rachel Alexandra, and Jerry and Ann Moss, who own Zenyatta, showed sportsmanship by putting their horses in challenging spots that stirred great emotion and elevated the sport when they prevailed.