06/24/2009 11:00PM

Plenty of blame to share for lack of matchup


NEW YORK - Jess Jackson's announcement Wednesday that Rachel Alexandra will not run in the Breeders' Cup this year touched off a flurry of impassioned debate from disappointed fans who were salivating over a showdown between the two current stars of American racing.

It looks as if they'll be running on different coasts not only this Saturday - Rachel Alexandra in the Mother Goose at Belmont and Zenyatta in the Vanity Handicap at Hollywood - but for the rest of the year. Zenyatta is scheduled to race two or three more times against females in California before concluding her career in the Breeders' Cup, while Rachel Alexandra will point for summer races against 3-year-olds, fall races in the East, and return to racing as a 4-year-old next year.

Almost all of the reaction to this separation of paths hews to one of two viewpoints: Either Jackson is wrong to shun what is supposed to be racing's championship event, or Zenyatta's owners are wrong for keeping their undefeated mare in California for the rest of the year. The third most popular perspective is disbelief that a meeting won't somehow be arranged - either through a road trip east by Zenyatta, or a change of heart on Jackson's part about running at Santa Anita.

The latter seems highly unlikely. John Shirreffs, Zenyatta's trainer, was willing to run her at Churchill Downs on Oaks Day until the track came up sloppy but now sees no reason to leave California since that's where the Breeders' Cup is again this year. Jackson could not have been clearer that he will never race Rachel Alexandra on a synthetic racing surface, and said so at least three different times during the Wednesday media teleconference.

If you think their camps are just ducking each other, consider the following if you're looking for someone to blame: If the 2009 Breeders' Cup were being held at Churchill Downs or Belmont Park, there is no question that both of them would be headed there. That, rather than the boldness or flexibility of either owner, is the real issue in this disappointing situation and the lasting lesson that should emerge from it.

The Breeders' Cup board made the unprecedented decision to run the races at Santa Anita two years in a row. The official version is that there were "media synergies" and "efficiencies" in back-to-back runnings at Santa Anita. Another version, according to sources in the organization, is that a pro-synthetic faction wanted to legitimize synthetic racing by holding championship dirt races on the new tracks for two straight years.

As recently as this spring, according to the sources, it was proposed at a board meeting that the races be permanently located at a track with a synthetic surface. Fortunately, that proposal was quickly rejected.

Regardless of what you think of synthetic tracks - whether they are a well-meaning idea that needs a longer trial, or a mistake that will eventually go the way of Astroturf - it is clear that their hurried introduction has complicated American racing. Instead of providing a virtually identical version to dirt, they have given rise to a kind of hybrid racing in which it is difficult to distinguish good from great horses or compare their achievements to the great horses of the past. Injecting that uncertainty into the Breeders' Cup has, at least for two years, undermined the event's purpose of providing a definitive year-end championship event.

Last year, Jackson was pressured into running Curlin on a synthetic track in the Classic. He now regrets the decision and supports a return to dirt racing in those venues that have installed "plastic," as he likes to call it.

"I'm hoping that we'll have some dirt tracks in California," he said Wednesday of his home state. "Maybe Pomona will replace Hollywood. Maybe we can get some dirt tracks up north . . . Alameda County might replace Bay Meadows. If we do that, I hope they stay to dirt because we do need to race in California. California racing needs its stars as well."

In the short term, Jackson may be regarded by his critics as a spoilsport for keeping Rachel Alexandra out of this year's Breeders' Cup. If, however, his decision prompts a more thoughtful debate about the place of synthetic tracks at the highest level of racing, he will have improved rather than spoiled the sport in the long run.