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Two special ladies shared the limelight
As April turned to May, the attention of the racing world turned as it always does to Churchill Downs. In the barn area, the horses who would soon become the focal points of the year were stabled just a few hundred yards from one another. It was as close as they would get that week, but over the next several months, their lives would be intertwined as the sport embarked on one of its most compelling seasons.
Zenyatta arrived at Churchill Downs from California. She was scheduled to make her first start of the year and her first since capturing the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic. But wet weather kept her in the barn on the Kentucky Oaks undercard; she was scratched. She more than made up for that over the next six months, completing her perfect 14-race career with a singularly spectacular performance in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Rachel Alexandra kept her date in the Kentucky Oaks and turned in an effortless, breathtaking run that changed her career. After winning by 20 1/4 lengths, she was purchased privately by a partnership headed by Jess Jackson, who with trainer Steve Asmussen mapped out one of the most ambitious and memorable campaigns for a 3-year-old filly, including successful races against males in the Preakness, Haskell, and Woodward. Like Zenyatta, she never lost all year.
Mine That Bird came to Churchill Downs as a late, understandably overlooked entry in the Kentucky Derby after a disappointing final prep at Sunland Park. He arrived from New Mexico in a van driven by his trainer, who hobbled around on crutches because of a badly broken leg and whose reputation was so unheralded that most initial references to him were by the name he uses in the official program, Bennie, rather than his preferred nickname, Chip. Only a handful of visitors came to his barn to see the trainer with the big, black cowboy hat and his plain bay-colored gelding. But on Derby Day, Mine That Bird rallied from last to first with a daring, rail-skimming charge. That, combined with the raw, emotional celebration by his jockey, Calvin Borel, seemed to touch hearts across the nation and led Sports Illustrated to put Mine That Bird on its cover. And as for Chip Woolley? "They know me now," he told NBC's Kenny Rice before dashing off on his crutches to reach the Derby winner.
That weekend, the fuse was lit for 2009. Rachel Alexandra and Mine That Bird met two weeks later in the Preakness, and Rachel beat him and 11 other males. She went on to win the Mother Goose by nearly 20 lengths, then completed her year with a runaway victory in the Haskell - beating Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird - and a tenacious, thrilling victory over seven older males in the Woodward. A Breeders' Cup start was never a consideration for Jackson, who was still upset over Curlin's loss in the previous year's BC Classic at Santa Anita and who pointedly labeled the track's synthetic Pro-Ride surface as "plastic."
Zenyatta returned to California and won the Milady, Vanity, Clement Hirsch, and Lady's Secret, much like the previous year. But then her owners, Jerry and Ann Moss, and her trainer, John Shirreffs, decided to risk her unbeaten record for a chance to make history, and both they, and anyone at Santa Anita that afternoon for the Breeders' Cup Classic, were richly rewarded by witnessing something they will never forget. The stands might still be shaking, the roar still reverberating off the San Gabriel Mountains. Among those horses whom Zenyatta vanquished that day was Mine That Bird.
As Mine That Bird found out in both the Preakness and the BC Classic, this was the year of the Fantastic Filly and the Magnificent Mare. Led by Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, the sport was treated to unprecedented moments. Rachel Alexandra won by a record margin in the Kentucky Oaks, became the first filly to win the Preakness in 85 years, and was the first 3-year-old filly to win the Woodward. Zenyatta won more races at the top level of competition without tasting defeat than any horse since Personal Ensign 21 years earlier, and she was the first female to win the BC Classic. Yet there was one, glaring omission. Not once did the two leading candidates for the 2009 Horse of the Year face one another in a race. Their only showdown will be decided in the ballot box by Eclipse Award voters.
Both are unquestionably headed to the Hall of Fame, which this year welcomed another Kentucky Oaks winner, Silverbulletday, along with the horses Ben Nevis II and Tiznow, jockey Eddie Maple, and trainers Bob Baffert and Janet Elliott.
Asmussen was far from being a one-horse wonder. He passed his previous single-season wins record of 622 on Dec. 6, marking the third time in the last six years that he has set a training record. Jockey Russell Baze continued his sustained excellence, winning 400 races for the 13th time in his Hall of Fame career.
The Triple Crown races, which are run on dirt, and all 14 Breeders' Cup races, of which the main track races were run on Santa Anita's synthetic Pro-Ride surface for the second straight year, were conducted without the awful sight of a horse being injured on national television. After the still-raw memories of Barbaro, Eight Belles, and Pine Island, it was comforting to see the post-race discussions about the winners and not the medical teams.
But there was pain. Two of the all-time greats of their respective professions, former Daily Racing Form executive columnist Joe Hirsch and Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel, both died, as did Derby-winning jockeys Ira Hanford and Milo Valenzuela. Jockeys Rene Douglas and Michael Straight were paralyzed in separate accidents just weeks apart at Arlington Park. Jockey Mark Pace was killed in an accident at Blue Ribbon Downs, and racing subsequently was shut down at that Oklahoma track because of economic reasons. Prominent horse owner Ernie Paragallo was brought up on animal abuse charges in New York after horses on a farm he owned were found in appalling condition.
The challenging economic environment led to widespread business declines. Tracks and sales companies struggled, with many posting double-digit dips from the previous year. Tracks such as Del Mar, Hollywood Park, and even Churchill Downs cut dates. Flooding in Louisville wreaked havoc at the Kentucky Derby Museum, which had to close temporarily. I Want Revenge, the Derby favorite after his win in the Wood Memorial, was scratched the morning of the Derby, and within weeks his two owning partners, David Lanzman and IEAH Stables, were lobbing verbal hand grenades at one another.
Yet there were glimmers of hope, most notably in Keeneland's posting an 8.7 percent increase in handle at its fall meet, the successful blending of gaming and racing at Woodbine, and the reopening of long-dormant Hialeah. It was only for Quarter Horse racing, but one can surely long for more.
After all, isn't that the essence of the sport, to want more, to seek perfection? This year, in Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, we saw it.
Here is a summary of each division in 2009.
The towering Zenyatta cast a long shadow, particularly in her own barn. She beat stablemate Life Is Sweet three times, but when Zenyatta was put in the BC Classic, Life Is Sweet was able to capture the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic. That's how much Zenyatta stood out over this group. While her win the BC Classic was her most memorable race, Zenyatta won four other times during the year, including carrying 129 pounds in the Vanity, and bailing out her jockey, Mike Smith, when he gave her an overconfident ride in the Clement Hirsch at Del Mar. At the top of the stretch, it looked like Zenyatta had far too much to do. Then she shifted into overdrive and flew down the center of the track. On the East Coast, Seattle Smooth won all three of her starts, including the Ogden Phipps, before going to the sidelines, at which point Icon Project came to the fore. Icon Project was a 13 1/2-length winner of the Personal Ensign, but she suffered a career-ending injury before she had a chance to race again. Music Note and Seventh Street combined for four Grade 1 wins, three in the blue colors of Godolphin Racing, which had spectacular success in the summer and fall under the direction of trainer Saeed bin Suroor's North American assistant, Rick Mettee.
Rachel Alexandra won all eight of her starts at seven different racetracks, ranging in distances from one mile to 1 3/16 miles, on fast and sloppy tracks, three times against males. She was favored in every race, and went off at odds of 1-2 or less seven times. Her highest price, 9-5, was in the Preakness. She received Beyer Speed Figures of 108 or better in her last five races. So dominant was Rachel Alexandra that horses who were crushed by her would come back and win, like Gabby's Golden Gal in the Acorn, Flashing in the Test, and Summer Bird in the Travers. By avoiding Rachel Alexandra, Careless Jewel won five straight races, including the Alabama, before folding like origami in the BC Ladies' Classic.
Bird was the word. Mine That Bird won the biggest race of the year, but within weeks, it was another son of Birdstone, Summer Bird, who had taken over the division's lead. Summer Bird only began racing in March, yet in his fifth start won the Belmont and went on to take the Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup for trainer Tim Ice. In those latter two races, Summer Bird beat Quality Road, who was the East's best Derby prospect early in the year, when he won the Fountain of Youth Stakes and Florida Derby. Quarter cracks kept him out of the Triple Crown, yet when he returned in the summer, having been transferred by owner Ed Evans from trainer Jimmy Jerkens to Todd Pletcher, Quality Road set a 6 1/2-furlong track record at Saratoga. Pioneerof the Nile was the best in the West, winning the Santa Anita Derby before finishing second in the Kentucky Derby, but he was retired after running poorly in the Preakness.
No one stood out in a division whose weakness was exposed in the fall, when the best in this category lost to 3-year-old Summer Bird in the Jockey Club Gold, the filly Rachel Alexandra in the Woodward, and the mare Zenyatta in the BC Classic. The most consistent might have been Gio Ponti, who finished second in the BC Classic after an outstanding campaign on turf, and Kodiak Kowboy, a sprinter who stretched out to take the Cigar Mile. Among the highlights of this group was the 14-length victory by Well Armed in the Dubai World Cup, and Bribon's rally in the Met Mile. California provided a microcosm of this division, with the state's three biggest annual races (Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic) going to three different horses (Einstein, Rail Trip, and Richard's Kid, respectively).
Lookin at Lucky swept the three major races in Southern California - the Del Mar Futurity, Norfolk Stakes, and CashCall Futurity - during a campaign in which he won five times in six starts. His lone loss came when he finished an unlucky second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile to the European invader Vale of York. Remsen winner Buddy's Saint, Kentucky Jockey Club winner Super Saver, Florida sensation Jackson Bend, and Noble's Promise, who won the Breeders' Futurity and ran well in the BC Juvenile and the CashCall Futurity, were other division standouts who each looked as though they could develop into top 3-year-olds, too.
Two fillies who began the year in maiden-claiming races developed into division leaders. She Be Wild won the biggest race, capturing the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies for her fourth win in five starts. Blind Luck, who like She Be Wild was risked for a tag first time out, finished third in the BC Juvenile Fillies, but won major races (the Oak Leaf and Hollywood Starlet) both before and after that narrow loss. Hot Dixie Chick used her blinding speed to win the Schuylerville and Spinaway at Saratoga. But since she is owned by Jess Jackson's wife, Barbara Banke, there was no shot at getting her on Pro-Ride in the Breeders' Cup.
Male turf horse
Gio Ponti won four consecutive Grade 1 races this year - the Kilroe Mile, Manhattan, Man o' War, and Arlington Million, ranging from a mile to 1 3/8 miles - marking the third straight year he had been among the leaders of his division. When Gio Ponti was kept at 1 1/4 miles for the BC Classic instead of going in the Breeders' Cup Turf, that made it easier for Conduit to win the BC Turf for the second straight year. Presious Passion, second in the BC Turf, won races such as the Clement Hirsch and the United Nations with his daring, dynamic early dashes. Einstein once again won the Turf Classic at Churchill Downs. Champs Elysees gave Frankel the final Grade 1 win of his career in the Canadian International, and Fluke gave Frankel's longtime assistant Humberto Ascanio his first Grade 1 win in the Citation. Midships, another Frankel trainee, won three straight stakes in California, including the Whittingham. Take the Points took the Secretariat and Jamaica, but was walloped by the vastly improved The Usual Q.T. in the Hollywood Derby.
Female turf horse
Goldikova returned to Santa Anita to again beat the boys and capture the Breeders' Cup Mile for the second straight year, a result likely to bring her an Eclipse Award after missing out last year. If so, Goldikova will deny the versatile Ventura, who closed her magnificent career with a victory in the Matriarch after beating boys in the Woodbine Mile. If Ventura loses again this year after failing to win an Eclipse Award last year despite her victory in the 2008 Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, she will go down as the best horse this decade to not win an Eclipse Award. Forever Together, last year's champion in this division, was a step slower this year, but did win the Diana. She finished third in the BC Filly and Mare Turf to Midday, who was celebrated in Britain because she gave popular trainer Henry Cecil his first Breeders' Cup win. Magical Fantasy ruled all year in California, where she won four straight graded stakes, including three Grade 1 races, but she could only finish fifth in the BC Filly and Mare Turf.
Who was best? That largely depended on the surface. The Breeders' Cup Sprint went to 25-1 shot Dancing in Silks, who closed the year with three straight victories on synthetic surfaces. In the Breeders' Cup, he knocked off the reigning division leader Zensational, who had won three straight Grade 1 stakes on synthetic surfaces in California. On turf, California Flag shined brightest, leading from start to finish in the BC Turf Sprint. And on dirt, Fabulous Strike (Vanderbilt), Kodiak Kowboy (Carter, Vosburgh), Pyro (Forego), Quality Road (track record in Amsterdam), and Vineyard Haven, who won the De Francis Dash, stood out.
There might not have been a better rivalry this year than between Informed Decision and Ventura, both of whom towered over this group. It was Informed Decision who proved best, beating Ventura in both their head-to-head meetings, including the BC Filly and Mare Sprint. Informed Decision won two other Grade 1 races, and was 6 for 7 on the year.
No one had a more star-crossed year than Mixed Up, who combined several brilliant efforts with a pair of stinkers in late summer. "What a debacle," trainer Jonathan Sheppard said after Mixed Up was beaten by 50 lengths in the New York Turf Writers Handicap in August. When it mattered most, though, Mixed Up came through. In his final start of the year, Mixed Up won the Colonial Cup against the division's other leading contenders. It was his fourth win of the year, and his second in a Grade 1 race.
If Mixed Up wins an Eclipse Award, and Informed Decision prevails, as expected, for champion female sprinter, that would give Sheppard two champions this year, one on the flat, one on the jumps. In a year of unprecedented accomplishments, that ranks right up there with the feats of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta.