Stage is set for Zenyatta-Rachel
Though they have not yet stood in the same starting gate, the most compelling storyline of the racing year if not the decade is a tale of two females, one a 3-year-old filly, the other an undefeated 5-year-old behemoth mare, hopefully destined to find themselves in the same place to settle the great racing issue of 2009.
They are a study in contrast: one blessed with brilliant and tractable speed, the other with a relentless, devastating late run that has never failed.
But where? And when?
Wherever that may be, the stage is set. Somehow, somewhere someone must make this happen.
It will not be in the Breeders' Cup. While Zenyatta's itinerary may be altered by public clamor for what would be the race of the year, the ultimate objective is the autumn defense of her Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic title at Santa Anita. And there is no immediate plan to leave the friendly confines of California, a state to which Rachel Alexandra's principal owner, Jess Jackson, has no intention of sending his prized filly. Jerry Moss, who owns Zenyatta, is open to sending the mare to meet Rachel Alexandra outside California, but there is no specific destination.
As her win streak grows longer at the expense of overmatched competition, Zenyatta, if she is to overtake Rachel Alexandra in the minds of those whose votes will determine the Horse of the Year for 2009, must defeat the Kentucky Oaks and Preakness winner, who added the Grade 1 Mother Goose Stakes to her resume at Belmont Park on Saturday, where she demoralized two opponents who are quality animals with promising futures.
Rider Calvin Borel, having stalked a very fast pace until ready to turn loose Rachel Alexandra above the quarter pole, began to throttle her down with more than a sixteenth-mile to run while opening a 19 ¼-length final margin and running 9 furlongs in 1:46.33, a stakes record in a race that has been won during its 53-year history by Shuvee, Ruffian, Davona Dale, Wayward Lass, Life's Magic, Mom's Command, Go For Wand, Sky Beauty and Serena's Song. Had Borel permitted Rachel Alexandra to run to the wire, Secretariat's Belmont course record, 1:45.40 set in the 1973 Marlboro Cup, would surely have been in jeopardy.
"When I asked her to run," Borel said, "I knew it was over."
A matter of minutes later and three time zones to the west, Zenyatta extended her perfect record to 11 in the Grade 1 Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park, where she carried 129 pounds with absolute aplomb, overcoming a slow pace and imposing weight with a typical Zenyatta performance beneath a confident Mike Smith ride.
The keenly anticipated bi-coastal drama unfolded perfectly, more than exceeding the most optimistic expectations. Anticipation of their eventual confrontation will fuel the second half of the racing season. Until they meet, Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, who have now won 18 consecutive races between them, will dominate the conversation of fans, horseplayers and those in every corner of the racing community.
In the afterglow of the Mother Goose, Jackson, while agreeing that the eventual showdown may be unavoidable in the face of public and industry demand, declined to discuss plans immediate or otherwise for Rachel Alexandra. "I am amazed by her beauty combined with her speed," he said. "She's one for the ages. I worry about her getting hurt, not getting beat. "We're going to try to get up to Saratoga and see if we can find a race. We want to pick the spots for her. She tells us when to run."
There are potential meeting places in the East that provide the proper stage and the dirt surface demanded by Jackson and not eschewed by Moss, whose mare has a Grade 1 victory on dirt last year at Oaklawn Park. The Aug. 30 Personal Ensign at Saratoga would fit Jackson's travel plans and provide a sensational venue and offers the classic 10-furlong distance. The Grade 1 Beldame on Oct. 3 at Belmont Park, is another and would provide Zenyatta with a true test in a 9-furlong race in advance of the Breeders' Cup.
"I'd like to see that happen for the fans and for racing. We'll find a way to make it happen," Moss said after the Vanity, "but no one will dictate where it will happen."
The filly in the East who has beaten the best males of her generation and the unblemished mare in the West have provided the sport with a perfect vehicle with which to generate wide public interest that has eluded its leaders.
Two for the ages, two truly great female thoroughbreds could share the same stage in what would be a titanic battle.
The sooner the better.
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He has also been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul maintains paulmoranattheraces.blogspot.com and can be contacted at email@example.com.