08/09/2016 4:37PM

Rachel Alexandra vs. Zenyatta: The debate rages on


Chocolate or vanilla? Ford or Chevy? Mantle or Mays? The Beatles or the Stones? These are topics that can be debated for hours, and of course there is no right or wrong answer; it’s mostly just a matter of personal preference. For horse racing fans in recent years, there’s a topic that has joined that list: Who was better, Rachel Alexandra or Zenyatta?

Both will be inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., together Friday, a fitting dénouement for two great racehorses whose careers will seemingly always be linked, collectively winning 32 races, 28 stakes races, 26 graded stakes races, and 18 Grade 1 races.

Rachel vs. Zenyatta was a topic of conversation throughout the entire 2009 season, which saw each of them go undefeated. Rachel went won all eight of her races, five Grade 1 stakes, highlighted by a jaw-dropping 20-length win in the Kentucky Oaks, followed by three wins against males, including the Grade 1 Woodward at Saratoga. Zenyatta answered by winning all five of her races, all graded stakes, including four Grade 1 stakes culminating in a win over males in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

However, the debate reached a fevered pitch after Rachel narrowly beat Zenyatta in the Eclipse Awards voting for 2009 Horse of the Year. Sure, there were attempts to get them to meet on the racetrack, but because they never faced each other, proponents of one over the other have to use other means to state their case.

How you answer the Rachel/Zenyatta question hints at your preferences as a horse racing fan, cutting to the core of your own personal criteria for greatness. Do you value blistering early speed that can be carried over the classic distance or an exciting, furious late kick? Consistent, measured performance carried over a span of three calendar years or eight brilliant races at seven different racetracks in a span of just more than six months?

Ultimately, there is no right answer to the argument. Or rather, there are two right answers. After all, both were great racehorses, equally deserving of being enshrined together as first-ballot Hall of Famers. And both of them would very likely have still entered the Hall of Fame together had they raced exclusively against their own sex, but by beating males, both entered the short list of greatest racemares of all time.

Yeah, but who did they beat?

Let’s take a closer look at the fields of males that each of them beat, and since you do see some horses continue to be entered in graded stakes well past their peak efforts, let’s pay particular attention to how those horses fared after they lost to Rachel and Zenyatta.

In winning the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic and running second in 2010, Zenyatta finished in front of 21 different horses. Four of those (Lookin At Lucky, Summer Bird, Colonel John, and Quality Road) never raced again, but 12 went on to win stakes races after losing to Zenyatta, and 10 of those were graded or group stakes winners. Those runners tallied 25 graded or group stakes wins after their loss to Zenyatta, including seven different horses who combined for 12 Grade or Group 1 wins.

Based on what the field did after the race, the victory in the 2009 Classic was made that much more impressive. Two of the eleven – Summer Bird and Colonel John – never raced again, but six went on to achieve Grade or Group 1 success, including runner-up Gio Ponti, who proceeded to capture three Grade 1 stakes on turf, and third-place finisher Twice Over who later earned three Group 1 victories in the United Kingdom.

Rachel Alexandra beat 24 different horses (and Papa Clem twice) in winning the Preakness, Haskell, and Woodward stakes in 2009. Only Pioneerof the Nile did not race again, so the fields she beat included 11 horses that would later win stakes races and seven that would win graded stakes. They notched 14 graded stakes wins after their loss to Rachel, including four different horses who would later win six Grade 1 stakes combined. While her victories in the Preakness and Woodward may get more attention, the Haskell field may have been the toughest she faced. Runner-up Summer Bird later won both the Grade 1 Travers Stakes and the Jockey Club Gold Cup (before running fourth to Zenyatta in the 2009 BC Classic), third-place finisher Munnings later won the Grade 2 Gulfstream Sprint Challenge and placed in three Grade 1 stakes, Papa Clem shook off his two losses to Rachel and won the Grade 2 San Fernando, and Duke of Mischief won four more graded stakes, including the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap.

For as great a performance as Rachel Alexandra’s Woodward Stakes was, that field may have been the weakest one of the bunch, at least in terms of how the horses performed after losing to Rachel. All seven of the horses raced at least one race after the Woodward; six went winless. Runner-up Macho Again was out of the money in all four of his subsequent races; Macho Again went 6-0-1-0, with his lone in-the-money finish coming in an off-the-turf listed stakes race at Delaware Park; Asiatic Boy, It’s a Bird, Past the Point, and Da’ Tara went winless in 11 starts combined. Cool Coal Man was the only one who would see winner’s circle again, winning twice in nine starts, once in a listed stakes race at Monmouth Park and in an optional claimer at Gulfstream.

Rachel vs. Zenyatta, by the numbers

At a glance look at how the males beaten by Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta fared after.

Rachel Alexandra




Horses beaten



Horses to race again



Win a race



Win a stakes race



Win a Graded or Group stakes



Win a Grade or Group 1


Lifetime Past Performances

What the PPs would look like for a fictional race in April 2011 at Oaklawn Park (a track where both were 2 for 2) at 1 1/8 miles (a distance where both were undefeated in six starts). Click the images to view in a new window.

Regardless of how you answer the question, all racing fans can agree: Both are extremely deserving and welcome additions to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

Marcus Semona 6 months ago
Rachel was better for one year, Zenyatta had a better career 
Laura State Spoelstra 6 months ago
First of all, let me say that both these ladies deserve to be in the Hall of Fame.  For me, what separates them is the fact that Rachel Alexandra had a fabulous five months.  She was an early-maturing January foal who excelled at 8-9 furlongs.  By the end of her campaign, her peers were starting to catch up to her and her race in the Woodward against B-level older males gutted her.  Before and after her streak she was a good horse but not necessarily great. But for those five months she was a monster and earned her way to the Hall.  Second-best season ever for a three-year-old filly - IMO  only Busher had a better one in that shortened season of 1945.

Zenyatta, on the other hand, took a little longer to get to the track but when she did she excelled for 35 months.  She never "needed the race" even after a long layoff (the seven months between the 2008 Distaff and 2009 Milady); never needed the perfect pace scenario even though she was a deep closer, and only once did she not get herself out of traffic issues - the 2010 Classic when Quality Road quit right in front of her - costing her two or three lengths - on the far turn after she put herself so far back until she got used to the kickback.  Even then, she only came up about four inches short to a horse running on HIS favorite track.  Four inches from perfection.  I extrapolated out her final mile time in that Classic and came up with 1:34 and change. Wow.  Zenyatta also carried 129 pounds twice, and 128 and 127 in other races. In 2010, in the course of eight months Zenyatta ran six times on five tracks over four surfaces (dirt, poly, pro-ride and tapeta and yes the three all-weather tracks are that different) in three states crossing the country twice. All Grade I races. Blind Luck was shipped across the country to give weight to Havre de Grace instead of staying home and getting several pounds from Zenyatta and several of the west coast's top males said that if she entered the Pacific Classic they would ship elsewhere, That says something: No one wanted to face her.

As far as them not meeting on the track, well, Rachel only ran in one race that Zenyatta was eligible for - the Woodward.  But Rachel was entered there late and it was originally thought she would go in the Travers instead.  The 9 furlongs of the Woodward suited her far better than the 10 of the Travers did, so it was a better call for her.  There was no time to ship Zenyatta to Saratoga by the time that decision was made.  If I recall correctly, Rachel's next race was to have been the Beldame and, again IIRC, John Shirreffs has said that plans had been made to ship Zenyatta to Belmont to contest the Beldame, but when Rachel didn't go, those plans were cancelled. Zenyatta was not a good shipper and the Classic was at Santa Anita, so they kept her home at Hollywood rather than send her across the country for a race that wouldn't have settled anything. And we all know what happened with the 2010 Apple Blossom. Had they ever met?  IMO in a field of five or more and at 8-1/2 to nine furlongs Rachel Alexandra would have had a chance, but Zenyatta would have given her all she could handle and I think would have caught her.  Nine and a half or ten furlongs? No contest - Zenyatta would have blown by her with her ears pricked.

So, in my opinion both these mares belong in the Hall of Fame, but for very different reasons: one spectacular season vs a long, sensational career.

Finally, remember this:  great horses make good horses look ordinary. Zenyatta is a great horse.

Bill Keating 6 months ago
I think that when people look back at Zenyatta's PPs twenty years from now, they are not going to be nearly as impressed as you seem to think. Seventeen of her twenty races were in Southern California on artificial surfaces. Artificial surfaces turned out to be a short-lived fad. How do you compare Zenyatta to all the other champions who raced on dirt? Shirreffs did her no favor by keeping her imprisoned in California. I'm not saying that Rachel was better. This will never be known since to the shame of the connections of both they never faced each other even once. And if you think that Zenyatta would have easily defeated Rachel in a match race, or a race with a short field of four, then you don't know your racing history. As in all races, including the Breeder's Cup Classic last year, the horse with the speed who takes an uncontested lead and sets the slow pace has a huge advantage. 
Keith Valentine 6 months ago
"Sure, there were attempts to get them to meet on the racetrack, but because they never faced each other, proponents of one over the other have to use other means to state their case."
Ahh yes it was all set for them to meet in the Apple Bloosom at Oaklawn, but RA no showed...case closed.

TEDK215 6 months ago
my most memorable races Ive seen with these great horses is when Zen almost beat Blame and when Rachel crushed the boys in the slop in the Haskell bar none! they were truly great females!
Ann Maree 6 months ago
Have to wonder why you didn't add up the records of each of the horses that Rachel and Zenyatta beat prior to running against the two mares. A project I guess I can easily undertake myself using Equibase. But just wondering why you didn't do this, as it would indicate the quality of the fields at the time each mare ran and beat each of those horses. My contention is these two mares have nothing else to prove, they each were unique, their running styles totally different, one had the best sophomore year of any mare in modern history; the other had many records over 3+ years and in addition had probably the most impact to the sport in modern times.
Shawn Carter 6 months ago
Here's a intresting fact, both Zen and Rachel started the 2010 season with races in March. Zen wins a grade 1 carrying 127 lbs. Rachel looses a ungraded race to Zens stablemate. And its not like Rachel hadn't won at the Fairgrounds or Oaklawn park for that matter so she had the home court advantage. The catch was Steve A. deep down inside wanted no parts of zen.
Ted Kane 6 months ago
I don't know how this is still a debate.  Zenyatta beat much better horses than Rachel Alexndraever faced, and the lone horse to ever beat her is better than any of the six that beat Rachel Alexandra.  She was a fine filly, and deserving inductee, but Zenyatta was in another class.  People knocked her beating California fillies and mares, but they ended up being a strong bunch--if you look at Tough Tiz's Sis, when she went to New York and away from Zenyatta, who beat her multiple times, she won a Grade I at Belmont.  Likewise, her stablemate Life is Sweet could never pass her, but once Zenyatta opted for the Classic, guess who won the Distaff?  Gio Ponti was a better racehorse than anybody RA faced.  And don't let her slow starts fool you, Zenyatta was fast!  She held the track record at Del Mar for 1 1/6th.  It wasn't like she needed those races to fall apart, she just turned on the afterburners down the stretch.
Bill Keating 6 months ago
You neglect the fact that, as I read her past performances, Zenyatta raced at only five different race tracks, with 17 of her 20 lifetime races at the three Southern California all equipped with artificial surface tracks. It was clear from the Breeder's Cup races held at Santa Anita when it had an artificial surface that the horses differed in their ability on artificial versus dirt almost to the same degree as they differ on dirt versus turf.

As artificial just turned out to be a brief fad, future generations looking at Zenyatta's record will wonder if she was a champion dirt horse or a champion "artificial horse."

Rachel ran at nine different tracks from Louisiana to Baltimore to Saratoga. Sherriff did Zenyatta no favor by locking her up in Southern California. 

This is not an argument in favor of Rachel, it is an argument against trying to decide a champion based on secondary evidence instead of direct competition.
Bill Keating 6 months ago
I'm not going to get into any debate about which was the best based on comparing the grading of the races, the quality of the horses beaten and the speed of the race. 

With racing desperately seeking more fans, it's about time they realized the simple solution: keep star horses in training and run them against each other. When American Pharoah shipped to Saratoga for the Travers, 15,000 fans turned out just to watch him work out.

With the mares having healthy 19 and 20 race careers, there is no excuse for the two of them never meeting on the track. Racing used to know this. Damascus and John Nerud's star*, Bet Twice and Alysheba, Affirmed and Alydar, Affirmed and Seattle Slew, Easy Goer and Sunday Silence.faced off against each other multiple times.

*if I type in the name of the Nerud horse, my comment goes into moderation oblivion

Steven Simonovic 6 months ago
Zenyattas stablemate beat RA. Nuff said. 
Mark 6 months ago
America is a Dirt Track Country. On Rachel's very best day...and Zenyata;s very best day.  Rachel Wins.