Commentary

Chasing the dream matchup

Updated: September 11, 2009, 7:31 PM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

There are plenty of reasons to want to see Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta race, but that the showdown might turn out to be some sort of electrifying, nose-to-nose battle on the racetrack is not one of them. As the season has progressed, it has become increasingly apparent that Rachel Alexandra is the vastly superior horse. She would bury Zenyatta in a race that would be no contest.

Never was that more apparent than during the first nine days of August. Rachel Alexandra destroyed some very good male horses, including a Belmont Stakes winner, in the Haskell. She won by six lengths and earned a Beyer figure of 116. It was arguably the best performance ever by a female racehorse.

Seven days later, Zenyatta was life and death to win the Clement Hirsch at Del Mar. Winning by a head, she earned a Beyer figure of 99. The horse she beat, Anabaas Creation, has won one of her last 13 starts and was coming off a fifth-place finish in an allowance race. It's true that Zenyatta had to make up a lot of ground while chasing a slow pace, but she always has to make up ground against slow paces. Usually, she blows by her rivals in the stretch. That sort of big kick was noticeably absent this time.

Perhaps Zenyatta just had an off day. Still, in her three starts this year, Zenyatta's best Beyer figure is a meager 104. Rachel Alexandra couldn't run that slow if she tried.

Zenyatta may not even be the second best filly or mare in racing. From out of nowhere, Careless Jewel has developed into a sensational 3-year-old filly in her own right.

It was easy to question her first stakes win, a front-running romp in the Delaware Oaks. She got loose on the lead and beat a modest group. But whatever doubts there may have been about her were put to rest Saturday in the Alabama at Saratoga. This time, she had to face legitimate Grade I company and race at a distance, a mile-and-a-quarter, that well could have been beyond her reach. Things only looked worse for her when she had to take up on the first turn and couldn't get to the lead. With a lot going against her, she drew off to a powerful 11-length win.

Still, no one is clamoring for a Rachel Alexandra-Careless Jewel showdown, and for good reason. Though less than overpowering in her most recent start, Zenyatta remains a horse with tremendous credentials and appeal. Say what you want about her slow figures and how she barely beat second-rate horses in the Clement Hirsch, she is, after all, undefeated.

The move by Betfair-TVG to sweeten the pot for the Beldame by $400,000 if both Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra show up is an intriguing one. The race would be worth $1 million should they both run and is on dirt, the only surface Jess Jackson is willing to race Rachel Alexandra over. Betfair and NYRA deserve credit for trying to make Zenyatta-versus-Rachel Alexandra happen.

Even so, it's not going to happen. This will only work if Jackson and Jerry Moss, the owner of Zenyatta, want it to happen. Obviously, Moss doesn't have any intention of taking Zenyatta out of California, where she can continue to run in one soft spot after another while adding to her undefeated record and contributing to Moss's bank account. Jackson is every bit as stubborn with his unjustifiable refusal to run Rachel Alexandra in the Breeders' Cup because the race will be run over "plastic."

For Zenyatta to face Rachel Alexandra, the sport needs Moss and Jackson to put the game first and their nit-picking qualms second. Good luck.

***

Jess Jackson still won't tell anybody where he's going to run Rachel Alexandra next, but he has been giving off troubling hints that he may just pick the Pennsylvania Derby. As usual, it's about the money. He likes the idea that the race is worth $1 million and the competition will be made up of a bunch of palookas.

Nobody doesn't like money, but does Jackson really want to turn his back on the tradition and prestige of Saratoga and races like the Travers, Personal Ensign and the Woodward just to make a quick buck that he doesn't need? Does he really want to come off as just another greedy owner who doesn't care one bit about the good of the sport?

They can throw all the money they want into the purse. The Pennsylvania Derby is and always will be just another race. It's only worth $1 million because the place is a casino first and a racetrack second and management doesn't know what else to do with all the money they are forced by law to pay out in purses.

Forget about it, Jess. Race her in Saratoga.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at wnfinley@aol.com.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com