Zenyatta, 'Rachel' square off
If the very soul of racing is difference of opinion, 2009 will be remembered among the best of years.
In the twilight of the 2009 season, the New York Times polled its on-line audience on the Rachel Alexandra-Zenyatta Horse of the Year question left in the wake of a season dominated by two magnificent females. The debate continues among horseplayers and fans on the Internet and in the brick and mortar world. It could be argued that two-time Breeders' Cup Mile winner Goldikova has been slighted in the discussion after having made a substantial contribution to the year of the thoroughbred Amazon in a return to the Santa Anita turf course. The most talented filly at a mile seen in Europe or the United States since Miesque will be recognized with a second American championship and may well return next year, but Americans have seen too little of her to have developed an emotional attachment. There is no middle ground in the larger debate, however.
Though they have never been in the same state and may never settle the issue in competition, Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, even with the season behind them, are embroiled in another kind of race that requires no effort on their part but has captured their fans. Both were managed with specific objectives in the minds of their connections and accomplished the assigned missions with aplomb and high drama.
Both had perfect seasons in 2009. One completed an unblemished career with her 14th victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic, surpassing the great Personal Ensign's 13-for-13 career concluded in 1988 with a dramatic victory in the Breeders' Cup Distaff no less unforgettable than Zenyatta's triumph in the Classic 21 years later. The other punctuated a brilliant campaign with a display of genuine courage and resolve at Saratoga. Both ended the year with show-stopping flourishes of raw talent over males that unleashed thunderous reactions that shook the very foundations of racetracks 3,000 miles and two months apart, the first for Zenyatta in co-ed competition, the third of the year for Rachel Alexandra. Both victories came in prestigious races never before won by a female.
The supporters of both in the unsettled Horse of the Year race are passionate and intransigent. The rivalry is among groups of humans, not horses, but it is hotly contested and debated with conviction and vigor. A week after the Breeders' Cup, Rachel Alexandra led the New York Times poll by a wide margin, 70 percent to 30. Another online poll conducted by Bloodstock Research, however, was led by Zenyatta, 52 percent to 23 with 25 percent opting for a third option that stipulated "both."
There is a more politically correct school of thought that proposes that the filly that raced primarily in the East and the mare whose campaign did not require leaving California share the Horse of the Year title. Nice thought, but it is unlikely that the post-season poll will end in a tie and setting aside the current voting procedure would ignite a firestorm of another dark color.
When was the last time such enthusiastic debate continued beyond the Breeders' Cup and into the holiday season? Perhaps never.
Whatever the eventual outcome, Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta have served the sport well. Without controversy, they have inadvertently conspired by sheer dominance to raise racing's public profile in a positive way, something all too rare in recent years. They have provided examples of what racing can, but seldom does achieve. Zenyatta kept coming back until she realized her finest hour at the age of five and there is the glimmer of hope that she will remain in training for another year. Rachel Alexandra's connections have no retirement plans. They have returned an abiding star to the American turf.
For the record, this vote goes to Rachel Alexandra based upon her body of work this year. Owner Jess Jackson has been criticized for his decision to not race his filly on the synthetic surface at Santa Anita when he should be congratulated for the courage of is convictions. She beat males of her generation and older three times including once in the second leg of the Triple Crown while traveling to Louisiana, Kentucky, Maryland, New York and New Jersey. She won eight races on seven tracks, wet and dry. At every point of the season, when faced with a decision, Jackson chose the path of greatest resistance and peril.
A vote for Zenyatta, after what was a rather soft five-race campaign in 2009, may be cast in recognition of her career, not her season. There will be many of those but, her accomplishments not withstanding, she is not Horse of the Year.
All that is certain is that a healthy debate, balanced by the weight of public conviction, is in full force and will remain so until the vote is tabulated early next year and this is as good as racing gets in the face of the encroaching winter: Healthy argument and an uncertain result.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.