12/23/2009 1:00AM

Showdown: Rachel or Zenyatta?

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Jay Hovdey: Zenyatta

So it's come to this. The final weekend of the 2009 season, a year rubbed raw with excitement and emotion, and all that's left is for two guys at keyboards to once more boil down the essential elements of the most important issue hanging over this grand and baffling sport:

Will NYRA ever get its slots?

No? But I thought . . . you can't mean that other deal, the Horse of the Year tug-o-war, with the entire racing nation divided into Wine Regions and States of Zen? Well, here's a news flash, folks. It's over. The voting began Dec. 16 - online no less - and there is no doubt the 268 kingmakers with access to an e-ballot were poised that very night to punch in their choice.

In other words, the result is already locked down tight, secure in digital handcuffs until the evening of Jan. 18, when the cork is popped on the envelope at the Eclipse Awards dinner in Los Angeles (okay, Beverly Hills, but you've got to drive through L.A. to get there). The baby on the way is either a filly or a mare, and it doesn't matter a whit anymore what anybody thinks, or how you've decorated the stall.

That leaves the rest of this space free to wander aimlessly among the weeds, keeping in mind that the privilege of voting for a Horse of the Year is either a somber responsibility with vast historical repercussions, or a hoot and a holler and good, clean fun. I've always preferred to vote with my gut, but even this low-rent anarchist clings to a few self-imposed rules.

For instance, these things I discard out of hand even when faced with a difficult choice between two worthy candidates:

Grades of races (don't get me started). Horse of the Year candidates usually run in the best races available. Splitting hairs over onesies and twosies is like chucking a gift just because you don't like the wrapper.

Final times and/or speed figures. I know most of the guys who make up these figures (the telegenic Mr. R. Moss among them). They're smart, dedicated people who are trying their best to bring order to chaos. Chaos is still winning.

Number of racetracks over which they compete. Geography, really? I thought that prejudice died with Ack Ack's all-California campaign to win the first Horse of the Year vote in 1971. Besides, shipping these days is a snap. Don't be impressed. Horsemen have it down to a fine science.

Zenyatta "traveled" farther going back and forth to Louisville in May than Rachel Alexandra did hop-scotching all those tiny little Eastern colonies during the Jess Jackson half of her campaign. Yes, Zenyatta scratched at Churchill (If she'd run and won, would there still be a debate? Probably.) But the fact remains that it is 93 miles from Inglewood to Del Mar and 190 miles from Saratoga Springs to Oceanport. In my book, that couple of extra hours on the van is hardly a tiebreaker.

I sometimes award extra points if a horse has handled a variety of surfaces, but I can't in good conscience penalize a horse who has not. Last time I checked, the weather always lies, and you go to war with the track you're given.

If matters haven't been settled on the course, I tend to give older horses the edge over 3-year-olds, and I've tried to vote this way - Saint Liam over Afleet Alex, Ghostzapper over Smarty Jones, Tiznow over Point Given, Perrault over Conquistador Cielo.

Older horses must face the best horses from several different foal crops. Whether the best are any good is always a matter of luck. A horse cannot be penalized for the perceived quality of the fields that show up for what are supposed to be the best races. At the same time, a top 3-year-old can run up an impressive record in flashy, media-driven events against his or her contemporaries - by definition, restricted races - before venturing outside the shelter of their immediate comfort zones.

By these standards, I could only compare the relative merits of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta on the basis of the Woodward - a rare and brave display of grit under pressure - and the Breeders' Cup Classic, which was probably the best performance by an American mare since Black Maria beat Chance Shot and Whiskery in the 1928 Whitney (obscure historical reference used only for effect). Anyway, the Classic was a pretty good race, and, based on the 13 other scraps of evidence Zenyatta left lying around, I don't think it was a fluke.

Finally, I have a weakness for reigning champions who return for another season to put their reputations on the line. This is something that should be encouraged and rewarded as often as possible. No, Zenyatta should not be given specific credit in the 2009 Horse of the Year contest for any of the races she won in 2008. At the same time, I'm not sure how to ignore that she reached the end of her career unbeaten in 14 starts. So I don't. Besides, there were too many old-timers who said she was the greatest mare they'd ever seen. And they saw Bug Brush.

The movie crop from 1941 included such all-time favorites as "The Maltese Falcon," "Sergeant York," "Suspicion," and "Here Comes Mr. Jordan," but the real argument over the Oscar for Best Picture came down to either "How Green Was My Valley," a familiar, sentimental paean to life in a Welsh coal-mining town, or "Citizen Kane," a daring, thinly veiled evisceration of the powerful media mogul William Randolph Hearst and his culture of excess.

The sentimental movie won, reflecting a 1941 snapshot of popular tastes and traditional audience values. But years later, when it came time to reflect upon the greatest works over a century of moving picture history, the American Film Institute chose "Citizen Kane" as the greatest American movie ever made.

Zenyatta is my "Citizen Kane."

Randy Moss: Rachel Alexandra

Performance of the Year? I'd go with Zenyatta's ears-waving victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic, against not only males but the best overall field assembled in the U.S. this year.

The appreciation by the Santa Anita faithful of Zenyatta's Classic heroics qualifies hands down as Moment of the Year. She had the crowd at hello. Many of those who lost money betting against her were cheering afterward like teens at a Justin Bieber concert.

Personality of the Year would go to Zenyatta, by a daylight margin over Calvin Borel. Her look-at-me struts and prances would make Deion Sanders proud, and, like Prime Time, she delivered when the chips were down.

In the category of Lifetime Achievement by a Horse, Zenyatta also takes home the golden carrot. We don't see 14-for-14 very often at the top level of any sport, and especially this one.

But Horse of the Year?

It might sound like pretzel logic, but that should belong to Rachel Alexandra.

Zenyatta's brilliance and appeal can be fully appreciated while Rachel Alexandra's 2009 campaign is judged to be superior in depth of accomplishment, which is what this Horse of the Year race should be about.

By now, it should be unnecessary to recite Rachel Alexandra's accomplishments, yet there is a need, because Zenyatta is freshest on the mind, and the ink has faded ever so slightly on Rachel's exploits.

So ruminate on her past performances, consult YouTube if you must, but fully digest the 20-length Kentucky Oaks victory in the most dynamic performance in that classic's long history; the achievement 15 days later of becoming the first girl to win the Preakness in more than three-quarters of a century; the Mother Goose romp of historic proportions as a warmup to her Haskell spanking of Summer Bird, who flattered her further, as if a supermodel would need to be described as beautiful, by winning the Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup to practically clinch his own Eclipse Award. The cherry on the sundae was becoming the first female of any age to win the Woodward, where the opposition wasn't world-class, but she threw down the gauntlet at the break and simply refused to lose to her male elders.

And then, owner Jess Jackson pulled the plug.

An argument can be made that Jackson should have sent Rachel to the Classic as a sporting gesture. But the synthetic surface of the Breeders' Cup greatly influences that debate. Jackson played the sportsmanship card a year ago with Curlin and regretted overruling his advisors when he saw first-hand that synthetics are a completely different ballgame than dirt, especially New York dirt.

Jackson would deserve scorn if he bypassed a dirt Breeders' Cup in similar circumstances, but the rest of the year he repeatedly raised the ante like a riverboat gambler. Faulting him for folding on a synthetic hand in which Zenyatta held the aces seems unfair.

In fact, his decision was justified in hindsight by another Pro-Ride championship weekend in which dirt horses swung and missed badly. He truly knew when to hold 'em, and when to fold 'em.

From the beginning of the year, when Rachel Alexandra ran triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures in laughers at Fair Grounds at Oaklawn, it was evident to those who follow the game religiously she was something special. On ESPN Radio, we said before the Oaks the country's best 3-year-old was running Friday and not Saturday, and before the Preakness that Rachel Alexandra and Ruffian were history's two best female racehorses on dirt. I'd rank Rachel ahead of Ruffian now, but I also believed then and stubbornly still do that the decision to run her in the Preakness on short rest rather than wait for the Belmont Stakes was a needless gamble with her long-term future.

However, Jackson's gamble paid off, and his penchant for dramatic reaches also enabled Rachel to realize her potential, which could become the difference in a close Horse of the Year vote.

It is an unavoidable fact Zenyatta's case isn't helped by her conservative home campaign at the same time Rachel Alexandra was hitting the road in search of the next big thing. It's also a fact, in my opinion, at least, that the females Zenyatta outran in Southern California are better than advertised - note Life Is Sweet in the Ladies Classic - and that she routinely overcame pace and tactical disadvantages, underestimated by many Rachel supporters, that would have buried other horses. Furthermore, it is a safe assumption Zenyatta would have beaten Rachel Alexandra in the Classic (looking at results that day, it actually wouldn't have been surprising if Rachel had finished off the board), whereas it is probable but less certain Rachel Alexandra would have outrun Zenyatta on dirt, given Zenyatta's Rachel-like win in the 2008 Apple Blossom over Oaklawn's sandy loam.

Obviously, this isn't a slam dunk. Both are eminently deserving, but we aren't talking Performance of the Year, Moment of the Year, or Personality of the Year.

This is Horse of the Year. The whole year counts. The only fair measuring stick is the comparative beefiness of their resumes.

And based on that, it's gotta be Rachel.