11/09/2009 12:00AM

Zenyatta or Rachel: Close call

Barbara D. Livingston
Zenyatta (left) makes her case for Horse of the Year by powering past Gio Ponti to win the Breeders' Cup Classic on Saturday.¦

ARCADIA, Calif. - The news stories have been printed, and the blog items have been posted. All that remains are a few lasting impressions of the 2009 Breeders' Cup at Oak Tree at Santa Anita:

Zenyatta was so special winning the Classic, showing a rare level of ability that might have surprised even her most ardent admirers. She did something I thought was impossible. I thought there was no way anything could happen in this Breeders' Cup to shake my conviction that Rachel Alexandra should be Horse of the Year. But now, I am conflicted.

Even counting Zenyatta's Classic win, Rachel Alexandra had the better overall campaign. Rachel Alexandra's victories over 3-year-old males in the Preakness and Haskell and over older males in the Woodward should carry at least the same weight as Zenyatta's score over males in the Classic. While Zenyatta did win four other stakes this year, none was anywhere near as meaningful or as impressive as, for just one example, Rachel Alexandra's domination of the Kentucky Oaks.

However, for all Rachel Alexandra accomplished this year, she never beat a field anywhere near as strong as the one Zenyatta blew past in the Breeders' Cup. And the race Zenyatta won was the Classic, the most influential race in America on Horse of the Year matters.

We are in unprecedented territory here, with two females battling it out for Horse of the Year. But it's fitting, since this has very much been the year of the female. Before Zenyatta did her thing, the star of this Breeders' Cup was, for my money, Goldikova. Goldikova was awesome winning last year's Mile, and she was awesome again Saturday winning the Mile with her breathtaking acceleration - one of a record six European winners in this Cup.

When the two-day Cup format was introduced two years ago at Monmouth Park, I liked it. I thought it made for a special racing weekend. But I've changed my mind. The problem - one that other people seem to share - is that after getting up for the big day on Friday, it's very difficult, if not impossible, to carry the same enthusiasm into Saturday. Oh, you still get fired up for Saturday, but just not as much. And that takes something away from Saturday, which is unfortunate because it's the bigger, more important day.

Here's hoping that the Cup will consider going back to one day by eliminating the niche races that are questionable as true Breeders' Cup events. If you axe the Marathon, the Turf Sprint, and the two Juvenile Turf races, you would be left with 10 outstanding Breeders' Cup races that could be run on one stellar card, including two newer events in the Dirt Mile and Filly and Mare Sprint that are worthy of being legitimate Cup events.

Moreover, eliminating the Marathon, the Turf Sprint, and the two Juvenile Turf races would make for a savings in purses of $3.5 million. That's significant for a Breeders' Cup organization that is reportedly up against a budget crunch. It could save another $1 million by cutting the purse of the Classic from $5 million to $4 million and feel no effect at all. Not a single horse in training would be withheld from the Classic because the purse was only $4 million. Besides, the Breeders' Cup should accept that it simply cannot compete in purses with the Dubai World Cup, which next year will see its purse increase from $6 million to $10 million.

* Lookin at Lucky showed me tons more in his near-miss in Saturday's Juvenile after a very costly, very wide trip than he did in his previous four wins combined. That said, this has not been a strong group of 2-year-old males this year.

* The rule in big events like the Breeders' Cup that allows for horses with common ownership to race as uncoupled betting interests is not necessarily wrong, because horses in major races are almost always trying to win. But the rule has a glaring weakness, as illustrated in Friday's Filly and Mare Turf. Juddmonte Farms had two horses in the race, Midday and Visit. Midday, off her European Group 1-winning form, was a strong win threat. Visit, who had not won since moving to the U. S. nine starts ago, far less so.

It turned out Visit didn't seem to be a candidate for the win at all because she appeared to be used as a rabbit for Midday. Visit did her job. The three opponents who were closest to her early pace wound up finishing last, next to last, and third from last. Visit's early work set the table for Midday's successful late run.

By definition, the role of a pacemaker, like Visit in this instance, doesn't include winning. Now, I understand the betting public must take some responsibility for the wagers they make. But it wasn't like Visit was 100-1. She was only 11-1, meaning a lot of money was wagered on a horse whose principal purpose in the race seemed to be not to win, but to help her barnmate. And don't blame Juddmonte. It simply made best use of its resources, and it doesn't make the rules.

* It wouldn't surprise me if the next Breeders' Cup run on a synthetic racing surface doesn't attract a single New York dirt horse. Why should it? Just like last year, horses who last started on New York dirt were shut out in this year's Cup races on Pro-Ride, going 0 for 13 this time.