01/18/2010 12:00AM

Rivalry is history in the making


NEW YORK - Now that the popular parlor game of "Will Zenyatta race again this year?" has come to a happy conclusion with the revelation Saturday that this great mare will do just that, we can all turn our attention to the next big question: Where and when will Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra finally meet?

Surely, racing officials at tracks with dirt surfaces - it must be dirt because of the stated disdain for synthetic tracks by Rachel Alexandra's owner, Jess Jackson - probably spent the rest of this past weekend feverishly going over their 2010 budgets trying to free up enough purse money to attract a clash between Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra. But barring Prairie Meadows discovering it has the seven figures on its books needed to lure these two to the Iowa Distaff, the first suitable race that comes to mind is the Apple Blossom Handicap on April 3 at Oaklawn Park.

The Apple Blossom makes sense because both Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra have already won over Oaklawn's dirt track. It's a surface that neither camp can take issue with. The date of the race is far enough in the future to allow both horses to reach racing shape at their own tempos and still have a seasonal debut of their own choosing that would serve as a prep.

Zenyatta's trainer, John Shirreffs, hinted over the weekend that the Apple Blossom could follow a prep in the March 13 Santa Margarita at Santa Anita.

"We'd like to go back to Oaklawn," he said.

All I know is, I wouldn't envy Pat Pope, the racing secretary at Oaklawn, if the Apple Blossom proves to be the spot for the first meeting between the two. The Apple Blossom is a handicap race, meaning the weight assignments would be Pope's responsibility. Who would you make topweight?

Another suitable possibility could be the La Troienne Stakes at Churchill Downs on April 30, Kentucky Oaks Day. Certainly, Rachel Alexandra's people would have no trouble with Churchill, because she won the Kentucky Oaks there last year by the length of the stretch. And don't forget, Zenyatta was going to make her 2009 debut in this race when it was known as the Louisville Distaff but was scratched because of an off track. Still, the fact that Zenyatta was in Kentucky and was going to run at Churchill until weather intervened suggests that her connections have no issues with that track's dirt surface.

In the end, it doesn't really matter where or when Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra meet. The important thing, thanks to the sporting decision to race Zenyatta again this year, is that it does happen. While the unprecedented battle between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta for 2009 Horse of the Year was one of the most interesting developments the sport has seen in recent years, it still lacked a critical component, and that was a real racetrack rivalry. And if Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra consummate a racetrack rivalry this year, it would probably be racing's biggest one since Sunday Silence and Easy Goer.

The funny thing is, Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta could meet once, three times, or 20 times (okay, that won't happen), and it still might not settle anything in the eyes of their respective fans. If the Sunday Silence-Easy Goer rivalry - and racing's great rivalry before that, Affirmed versus Alydar - taught us anything, it is that it's not over even when it is over.

To this day, more than 20 years after the fact, you won't have any trouble finding people who believe that Easy Goer was a better racehorse than Sunday Silence, even though Sunday Silence won 3 of their 4 meetings. I know this, because I am one of them. And I can tell you that Easy Goer hating the greasy track when he lost the Kentucky Derby is a very real to us, as is anger toward Pat Day's decision to give Easy Goer a breather on the far turn in the Breeder's Cup Classic (Seriously. A breather? In that race?), which Easy Goer lost by a diminishing neck. Despite simple math that says Sunday Silence was indeed better, Easy Goer fans point to his eight-length romp in the Belmont Stakes as the most definitive and decisive performance in this four-race rivalry.

That's okay. The Affirmed-Alydar rivalry began 33 years ago, and there are still those around who are certain that Alydar, like Wile E. Coyote against the Road Runner, would have got him next time. That thinking probably goes back to when these horses were 2-year-olds. Affirmed won 4 of 6 meetings over Alydar at 2, but his victories were usually narrow. When Alydar beat Affirmed at 2, however, they were by clear-cut margins in going-away fashion. The fact that Alydar always had trouble changing leads played a part, too, because it by definition suggested that he had a bit more to show. But after Affirmed grimly denied Alydar in the Preakness (of course, he also turned him back in the Kentucky Derby in their first meeting at 3), it dawned on me that by this stage in the rivalry, these two could go around the track 20 times and Affirmed was just not going to let Alydar beat him. That proved to be the case in the Belmont Stakes, and it would have been the case in the Travers. But Affirmed, who finished first by almost two lengths, was disqualified and placed second for impeding Alydar down the backstretch in an unsatisfying end to this great rivalry.

There is one other thing that racing's last two truly great rivalries taught us. The horses who won the most in those rivalries were also the horses with the better early speed. Affirmed and Sunday Silence were in front of Alydar and Easy Goer in the early stages of all their meetings. We hope it comes to pass that we will have the opportunity to see if that will prove to be a tactical edge for Rachel Alexandra.