12/28/2009 12:00AM

Who had better season? An easy call


WASHINGTON - A confrontation between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta would have generated more attention and excitement than any horse race in years. But because the two great females didn't face each other on the track, their fans are now pouring their passions into the debate over which one deserves to be the Horse of the Year.

With balloting for the Eclipse Awards under way, some voters wish that they were allowed to designate joint champions. But many people on each side of the debate believe that there is only one rightful winner, and they are vociferous in their opinions. Usually, the key question in such debates is the most basic one: Who was the better horse? Who would have won in a head-to-head showdown? I would normally answer this question by judging which horse ran faster.

But the traditional measurements are irrelevant because America's two best Thoroughbreds excelled on different surfaces. Rachel Alexandra made her reputation on dirt, while Zenyatta raced on California's synthetic tracks. If they had faced each other on dirt, the winner probably would have been Rachel Alexandra; on a synthetic track, Zenyatta. So voters must decide which filly had the better 2009 season. There should be no real debate on this question: Rachel Alexandra did.

Her campaign was, in my opinion, the best ever by a U.S.-based filly. The other great fillies of the modern era - such as Ruffian, Personal Ensign, Lady's Secret, and Azeri - made their reputations by dominating members of their own sex but didn't dominate males. Rachel Alexandra challenged males in three Grade 1 stakes - the Preakness, the Haskell Invitational, and the Woodward - and won them all. She trounced Summer Bird, the best male 3-year-old, by six lengths. Overall, she won her eight starts by a combined total of 65 lengths. Zenyatta made five starts, all in her home base of California, and won them by a combined margin of 6 3/4 lengths. She scored four wins against soft filly-and-mare competition before she ended her career by winning the Breeders' Cup Classic, becoming the first member of her sex to capture America's richest race. Her claim to the Horse of the Year title rests almost entirely on that performance. (The Eclipse Awards honor the best performers in a given year; they are not lifetime achievement awards, so Zenyatta's illustrious 2008 season and her 14-for-14 career record are not part of the debate.)

Zenyatta's admirers describe her Classic win in extravagant terms. Greg Avioli, president of the Breeders" Cup, called it "arguably the greatest performance in the 26-year history of the event." This is something of an overstatement. The male synthetic-track specialists behind Zenyatta were an undistinguished group. (Second-rate horses had won the two big California stakes that led up to the Cup.) Moreover, Zenyatta's eye-catching last-to-first rally was not an extraordinary feat on a synthetic track that generally favors runners with such a style.

Nevertheless, it was a commendable and historic performance, and fans can reasonably debate whether Zenyatta's Classic victory was enough to trump Rachel's ambitious campaign and her three Grade 1 victories over males. However, many of Zenyatta's supporters frame a different argument: Zenyatta deserves the title because she won the sport's definitive championship event while her rival ducked it. Ray Paulick, the respected editor of the online Paulick Report, supported his choice by declaring: "Zenyatta showed up and turned in a performance for the ages. Rachel Alexandra remained in her stall, resting on her own historic achievements earlier in the year."

It is unfair to accuse owner Jess Jackson of ducking anything. He sought out the toughest possible challenges for Rachel Alexandra, but he drew the line at running her over "plastic," his contemptuous description of the Pro-Ride surface at Santa Anita.

Zenyatta's owner, trainer, and fans argue that participants in the Breeders' Cup have to accept the conditions at the track that hosts the event. If the 2009 Cup had been contested over a dirt track, Zenyatta would have been there.

In Thoroughbred racing, nobody decrees the races that decide championships. Races take on championship significance when owners and trainers recognize their importance and support them. The Classic is a premier event because running 1 1/4 miles on dirt is regarded as the definitive test of American Thoroughbreds. If the Breeders' Cup organization changed the distance to two miles, nobody would recognize it as a legitimate championship race.

When the Breeders' Cup chose Santa Anita as its host track for both 2008 and 2009, the organization - and much of the racing community - thought the Pro-Ride surface would be a fair test that would allow the best horses to win. This expectation was wrong. (And Jackson was proved right to have had qualms about running his horses there.) In those two Breeders' Cups, a total of 43 horses ran on the Pro-Ride after making their previous start on dirt. All 43 lost. Horses who were high-class stakes winners on dirt but had no proven form on synthetic surfaces were frequently trounced. There was no correlation between excellence on dirt and excellence on the synthetic track.

The large majority of U.S. horses are bred for dirt and compete principally on dirt in a nation whose racing history has been made on dirt. It is absurd to describe a race as a true championship test when America's best dirt runners have little chance to win. Under these conditions, neither Zenyatta's win nor Rachel Alexandra's absence should keep Rachel from being recognized as the best horse of 2009.

(c) 2009, The Washington Post