12/16/2009 12:00AM

Vote comes down to campaign vs. the big race


PHILADELPHIA - There is no getting away from the ballots. They are coming. A choice will have to be made.

Whatever the result, the debate has been fascinating, especially because there is no absolutely right answer.

That hasn't stopped the passionate from picking sides. The arguments are familiar by now.

I have tried to listen to most of it. You never know when you might hear something that you might not have considered.

Finally, it dawned on me that I have heard most of the arguments before. In fact, it was just five years ago when we were having a similar Horse of the Year debate.

One horse had a brilliant multi-race campaign. The other horse started after the first one had finished and pointed for a specific year-end race.

Back then, it was Smarty Jones or Ghostzapper.

Today, of course, it is Rachel Alexandra or Zenyatta.

In 2004, the voters went overwhelmingly for Ghostzapper after the horse ended a four-race "campaign" with a tour de force in the Breeders' Cup Classic when he earned a 124 Beyer Speed Figure, which came after a 114 in the Woodward, a 128 in the Iselin, and a 120 in the Tom Fool. From a strictly figure standpoint, there was really nothing like it.

Naturally, I voted for Smarty Jones. At least one very smart man I knew told me the vote made sense. That would have been Bobby Frankel, Ghostzapper's trainer.

Frankel appreciated the difference in what he did by picking spots all year with one ultimate goal and what John Servis had to do with Smarty Jones by running in that early January race at Aqueduct and those three Arkansas preps in six weeks before the three Triple Crown races in five weeks.

Smarty Jones, of course, lost the Belmont Stakes after winning those first six races. If the colt had been a length and an inch better in New York, there would have been no debate in 2004.

That year, I went with the campaign over a brilliant horse brought to peak form for the biggest race.

The voters went the other way.

I think the voters are going to go with the campaign in 2009.

Rachel began in February and ended in September. Everybody knows the deal by now - seven tracks in six states, fast, slop, boys, older boys, record margins, the Preakness 15 days after the Kentucky Oaks, Churchill, Pimlico, Belmont Park, Sarartoga. Eight starts. Eight wins.

It was a Smarty-like campaign without the loss and without running in all three Triple Crown races or ever running three races in five weeks or six races in 14 weeks. It also was taking on the opposite sex three times and traveling from New Orleans to Saratoga Springs.

Zenytatta raced in May, June, August, October, and November. You may have heard she did not leave Southern California and raced on the synthetic tracks they have there.

By winning the most important race we run in this country, trainer John Shirreffs was ready with his best Frankel/Whittingham impression. He had the wonderful mare ready to run the best race of her life in the biggest race of her life.

I was at Pimlico to see Rachel's Preakness and at Monmouth to see her Haskell. I was impressed in every way.

I was seated in the Santa Anita grandstand for Zenyatta's Breeders' Cup Classic. I had other action in the race, serious action, but I could not take my eyes off her. I watched her from the start, just like Trevor Denman.

My section rose away from the eighth pole, so I could see the move when it started. I could feel it when Zenyatta came by me. And, like everybody in that grandstand, I knew she was going to win when she was still sixth with 200 yards to go.

This was not like the Preakness or Haskell. This really felt like once in a lifetime. It was the sound of the voices rising, the hope giving way to the anticipation, and, finally, the belief into the reality.

This was the moment of 2009.

But in the cold light of the voting booth, how do you decide between a brilliant, unprecedented campaign by a 3-year-old filly versus a solid five-race year with an absolute crescendo of a finish by an unbeaten 5-year-old mare against the best field assembled all year.

Any argument is a reasonable argument. And I would hope this is decided on positives, rather than negatives.

I don't care that Rachel did not race in the Classic. In fact, I think she was all in after the Woodward and any more racing likely would have been counterproductive. And if Jess Jackson had never made his "plastic" statement and had just been able to say she's had a long year after the Woodward and would not race again until 2010, she would be a lock for Horse of the Year.

I also don't care that Zenyatta did not race on dirt or outside Southern California. What the Classic proved was what I suspected but could not quite believe: Zenyatta was probably going to pass every horse in front of her every time.

My guess, and it's just a guess, is that Zenyatta would have passed Rachel in the 2009 Classic, if the filly had run that day.

I also think Rachel's superior speed and great stride likely would have beaten Zenyatta on any dirt surface at nine furlongs.

None of it can be proven, of course. We all have our theories.

I went with the campaign in 2004. I am going to stay consistent and go with the campaign in 2009.

And I don't feel good about it.

Not because Rachel Alexandra doesn't deserve Horse of the Year. She does. But it is impossible for me to say Zenyatta doesn't deserve it. She does, too.