Haskin on Horse of the Year: Stalemate
by Steve Haskin
Date Posted: 11/15/2009 8:16:00 PM
Last Updated: 11/17/2009 8:36:47 PM

Zenyatta (left) vs. Rachel Alexandra (right) for 2009 Horse of the Year.
Photo: Tom Hall / Coglianese Photos

These are the final words from here on the Horse of the Year debate between racing’s two monarchs, Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. Unfortunately, only one likely will be crowned, but you can be sure both will rule in the hearts and minds of most racing fans.

 

What follows below is based on the facts, with a little emotion thrown in. But first, as one of those who would like to see both names permitted on the ballot, just to give voters as torn as I am that option, I feel compelled to comment on NTRA president Alex Waldrop’s reasoning why he doesn’t feel that would be appropriate. There is no evidence to support Waldrop’s comment that it would guarantee both horses the award. If someone feels strongly about either horse, they will vote for that horse. If the majority vote for both horses, then that's what they feel should be the outcome. It's free will and free thinking, with no “manipulation” involved.

 

Before the idea of putting both horses on the ballot is nixed, it would be reassuring to see a geographic study of the voters, mainly the percentage of voters located in the East compared to the West? If fairness is a major priority in determining Horse of the Year, I'm sure the NTRA would not want to learn after the fact that a substantial majority of the voters are located in the East, thus possibly swaying the vote. Those who point out the New York Times poll, which had the voting 70% for Rachel Alexandra and 30% for Zenyatta, surely must realize that having an Eastern-based publication conducting a poll is not exactly an indication of how the majority of racing fans in the United States feel. Let the Los Angeles Times conduct the same poll. Would anyone disagree that it likely would come out at least 70-30 the other way?

 

When Waldrop states, “We should select the Horse of the Year the same way we declare the winner of every race every day; victory must be earned,” is he implying that the winners of every race are ‘declared” by people's opinions and not “earned” by actual physical, head-to-head competition? The winner of a race is determined by fact, not opinion. You cannot compare a horse race to Eclipse voting.

 

OK, so the dual-name Horse of the Year ballot apparently is not going to happen. That leaves us with the dilemma of having to choose one horse over the other – or, ahem, leaving the Horse of the Year category blank if you cannot bring yourself to declare one of these once-in-a-lifetime horses the loser. Whatever happens, Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra both transcend Horse of the Year. A statue is a mere triviality compared to their spectacular and historic accomplishments. Some will compare this situation to other years when there were two superstars vying for Horse of the Year honors. But never before have we had a situation where one superhorse raced strictly on synthetic surfaces and one raced strictly on dirt surfaces. If you’re going to have two “dirt” surfaces in racing – which some horses love and some hate -- then the awards should reflect that, instead of forcing people to choose between two distinct worlds encompassed within the same sport. Zenyatta is the synthetic Horse of the Year and Rachel Alexandra is the dirt Horse of the Year. My simplistic mind cannot see any farther than that.

 

Here is what voters will be dealing with when filling out their ballots:

 

RACHEL ALEXANDRA:

 

Her campaign, in which she ran eight times, winning them all, at seven different racetracks, can be summed up with the following facts regarding her last six races:

 

* Fantasy Stakes -- biggest margin in the history of the race.

 

* Kentucky Oaks -- biggest margin in the history of the race.

 

* Preakness -- first filly to win the Preakness in 85 years…first horse in history to win from post 13.

 

* Mother Goose -- biggest margin in the history of the race, previously held by Ruffian... fastest time in the history of the race.

 

* Haskell -- second biggest margin in the history of the race…second fastest time in the history of the race by one fifth of a second, and two fifths of a second off the track record set by Spend a Buck 24 years ago.

 

* Woodward -- first filly in history to win the Woodward.

 

All you have to do is count how many times the word “history” has been used. Her last six races all had historical significance. Can you say that about any other horse in memory?

 

* Even winning the Woodward by a head and the Preakness by one length, her average margin of victory was more than eight lengths.

 

* Finally, in addition to beating the winner of the grade I Belmont Stakes and Travers, Rachel defeated seven Derby winners – Kentucky Derby, Santa Anita Derby, Arkansas Derby, Louisiana Derby, Illinois Derby, Tampa Bay Derby, and Iowa Derby, not mention the winners of the grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup, Whitney, Stephen Foster, Blue Grass Stakes, Secretariat Stakes, Acorn, and Test.

 

ZENYATTA:

 

* She defeated one of the deepest and most eclectic fields ever assembled in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, including eight grade/group I-winning males, ranging from ages 3 to 7. And she did it in magnificent fashion, coming from last and closing her final quarter in :23 flat, burning the ’09 Classic into the history books as one of the great moments in the annals of the sport.

 

* In the Classic, she defeated at least three likely male champions in 2009 – Summer Bird (3-year-old male), Gio Ponti (champion male grass horse), and Rip Van Winkle (champion miler in England). That will be increased to four should Gio Ponti or Einstein be voted champion older male.

 

* She became the first horse ever to win two different Breeders' Cup races.

 

* Life is Sweet, who she dismantled on three occasions in 2009, defeated the best of the remaining fillies in the country convincingly in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic (gr. I). In that race were four fillies whom Zenyatta had easily defeated in the past 12 months.

 

* In winning the grade I Vanity Handicap, she carried 129 pounds to victory, in only her second start of the year, conceding 15 pounds to the runner-up.

 

* Although this doesn’t pertain to just 2009, in the most telling fact of all, Zenyatta became the first deep closer ever to put together an undefeated career. That is one of the great accomplishments in racing history. To be at the mercy of the pace every race for 14 straight races, 12 of which were in grade I and grade II company, and manage to win every one, is a feat we likely will never see again. And it was in 2009 that she encountered her two slowest paces – 1:13 3/5 in the Clement Hirsch (gr. I) and 1:12 4/5 in the Lady’s Secret (gr. I).

 

* During her career, Zenyatta defeated the winners of no less than 36 grade I stakes, won by eight male grade I winners and eight female grade I winners. Her victims included two male classic winners (Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes), two Breeders’ Cup Distaff/Ladies Classic winners, two Travers winners, two Beldame winners, two Ruffian Handicap winners, and the winners of the Santa Anita Handicap, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Pacific Classic, Arlington Million, Champion Stakes, Sussex Stakes, Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, Santa Anita Derby, Man o’War Stakes, Spinster, Coaching Club American Oaks, Mother Goose, Personal Ensign, Lady’s Secret, and Santa Margarita among others.

 

So, good luck choosing between the two. I realize Rachel Alexandra ran more often and competed at more tracks and defeated males on three occasions. I just know I cannot vote against Zenyatta and I cannot vote against Rachel Alexandra. Maybe it’s heart over mind, I don’t know. It’s just the way I feel. Right now, all I can recall are two of the most exhilarating moments I’ve experienced on the racetrack in 40 years. With thoughts of Santa Anita and Saratoga, and even Monmouth Park, still fresh in my memory, I feel my only recourse is to look at all the facts stated above and call it a stalemate.

 

What I do know for sure is that John Shirreffs should be rewarded for the amazing training job he did with Zenyatta over the course of her career. While we’re deviating from the norm, the Trainer of the Year award this year should be cumulative, based on Shirreffs’ meticulous and brilliant orchestration of one of the great careers of all time. I honestly cannot think of another trainer who could have pulled this off; who could have been so in tune to a Thoroughbred’s wants and needs every day, 24 hours a day, over the course of two years. As for his 2009 accomplishments, he did win six grade I stakes, including both Breeders’ Cup “Classics,” as well as three grade II stakes and a grade III stakes. 

 

After Zenyatta leaves for Kentucky, Shirreffs, as he does every morning, will get on his computer at home at around 4:15 and check on the horses via closed-circuit cameras before heading to Hollywood Park. Not seeing the big dark bay mare in her stall, not having her to think about during his drive from Arcadia to Inglewood, and knowing she won’t be there to greet him, is going to leave a void as large as Zenyatta herself.

 

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