Zenyatta's Back; Now, the Envelope, Please

Zenyatta's Back; Now, the Envelope, Please
Photo: Tom Hall / Coglianese Photos

Get your chips and nachos and beer and wine out and settle into your favorite chair. Sometime between 10 o’clock and 10:30 EST all the pre-awards bickering and mud-slinging will be over and the post-awards bickering and mud-slinging will begin. Some will cry, some will get angry, some will feel as if they were robbed; some will shout ‘East Coast bias;’ and some will shout ‘West Coast glitz and propaganda.’ Others will gloat and celebrate.

 

But when you get right down to it, celebrate what? Cry over what? While people are celebrating and crying and complaining, the two central characters, Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, will be in their respective stalls some 1,700 miles apart, oblivious to all the mayhem they created. Their only reward might be a pat on the neck from their groom or perhaps an extra carrot.

 

Jerry and Ann Moss had an opportunity to make the announcement that Zenyatta was returning to race in 2010 at the Eclipse Awards ceremonies after accepting the award for champion older mare. But rather than make it in such dramatic fashion, they felt more comfortable breaking the news on Saturday afternoon at Santa Anita. When you think about it, news such as that probably should be made at a racetrack amongst the fans and the media and not at a black-tie affair where everyone’s focus is on Horse of the Year and with many people ready for bed. If there is one thing that doesn’t need upstaging it is the Horse of the Year announcement.

 

Regardless of who gets the statue, many people, after their initial joy and all the high-fives, will come to the realization that one of the greatest fillies in the history of the sport was deprived of racing’s highest honor. How can that not make you sad in a way, regardless of which one you favor? Racing had an opportunity to celebrate its two mega-heroes and all that is great with the Sport of Kings…and Queens and passed it up. But there are many who believe Horse of the Year should be a one-horse honor, and that is OK. There is no right or wrong, just opinion. Yes, a split vote option could have set a precedent, but if “dirt” racing is to be conducted on a championship level on two distinct surfaces, and horses of the caliber of Rachel and Zenyatta race only on their preferred surface, that has to create a chasm between the two entities. Therefore, either have a dirt Horse of the Year and a synthetic Horse of the Year or be prepared for controversies as we have now. There were extenuating circumstances this year, with two of the greatest fillies of all time competing in parallel worlds.

 

This year’s Horse of the Year vote is not only about Rachel Alexandra vs. Zenyatta. It is about East vs. West; dirt tracks vs. synthetic tracks; running in the Breeders’ Cup vs. not running in the Breeders’ Cup; owner vs. owner; trainer vs. trainer; my favorite horse vs. your favorite horse.

 

The coveted Eclipse statue over the years will chip and tarnish and eventually wither with time -- metaphorically, of course. And all that will remain of 2009 are the actual accomplishments of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta and the special place they occupied in people’s hearts.

 

Here is a reminder of those accomplishments. Let them sink in, because we’re not likely to see anything like them again…unless they outdo themselves this year.

 

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.

 

* Even winning the Woodward by a head and the Preakness by one length, her average margin of victory in 2009 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 to mention the winners of the grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup, Whitney, Stephen Foster, Blue Grass Stakes, Secretariat Stakes, Acorn, and Test.

 

Race for Horse of the Year
Race For Horse of the YearView Slideshow

Horses will expend a certain amount of energy during a race, many times depending on who they are running against. It’s all about class. Some horses will often run their heart out trying to beat a superstar and are not the same immediately afterward, while those who expend little energy when vastly overmatched just shrug off the race, take little out of themselves, and move on to the next race, unscathed.

 

With that said, here are facts that can be interpreted any way one wishes. It could prove interesting to some and meaningless to others.

 

The following horses were demolished by Rachel Alexandra in 2009:

 

Gabby’s Gold Gal, beaten 29 1/4 lengths by Rachel in the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I), came right back and won the grade I Acorn Stakes in 1:34 3/5.

 

Flashing, beaten 31 1/2 lengths in the Mother Goose (gr. I), went on to win two grade I stakes – the Test and Gazelle Stakes.

 

Summer Bird, beaten six lengths in the Haskell (gr. I), went on to win the grade I Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup.

 

Take the Points, beaten 32 3/4 lengths in the Preakness, came back to win two grade I stakes – the Secretariat Stakes and Jamaica Handicap.

 

Just Jenda, beaten 11 3/4 lengths in the grade II Fantasy Stakes, went on to win the Monmouth Oaks (gr. III) by 4 1/4 lengths and the Serena’s Song Stakes by 8 1/4 lengths.

 

Bon Jovi Girl, beaten 14 3/4 lengths in the Fantasy Stakes, came back to win the Susan’s Girl Stakes by eight lengths and place in the then grade II Cotillion Stakes and the grade I Gazelle Stakes.

 

Malibu Prayer, beaten 19 1/4 lengths in the Mother Goose, went on to win the Chilukki Stakes at Churchill Downs, an overnight stakes at Belmont by 6 3/4 lengths, and finish second in the Delaware Oaks (gr. II) and Monmouth Oaks.

 

Past the Point, beaten 17 3/4 lengths in the Woodward, came right back to finish second, beaten a half-length, in the grade III Bold Ruler Stakes.

 

Although Munnings, beaten seven lengths in the Haskell, did not win a subsequent stakes, he did finish third in the grade I King’s Bishop and Vosburgh over sloppy tracks.

 

On the other hand, only four horses all year managed to finish within 1 1/2 lengths of Rachel Alexandra – Mine That Bird, Macho Again, Bullsbay, and Musket Man – and none of them were the same afterward, going a combined 0-for-8 and finishing out of the money in six of them, while Musket Man suffered an injury and didn’t run the rest of the year. Flying Spur ran her heart out to finish second to Rachel in the Fair Grounds Oaks (gr. II) in the slop, beaten 1 3/4 lengths. But in her next start, the Kentucky Oaks, she was beaten 24 1/2 lengths by Rachel and never ran again.

 

Although the detractors likely will use that last point as a knock against Rachel, it is a distinct possibility, based on the subsequent performances of many of the horses that finished well behind her, that just the opposite is true. Who is to say that Rachel simply is so classy and so gifted that horses who gut themselves trying to beat her pay the price? After all, the four horses mentioned went into their races against Rachel having just won the Kentucky Derby (by 6 3/4 lengths), having just finished third in the Kentucky Derby after winning the Illinois Derby (gr. II) and Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III), and having just finished one-two in the Whitney Stakes (gr. I). The fact is, all were in the best form of their lives going into battle with Rachel and none were the same after getting close to her.

 

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, over a distance at which she had never competed, she defeated the eventual winners of three Eclipse Awards and one European champion, assuming Gio Ponti  wins both champion male grass horse and champion older male.

 

* Her detractors claim she beat a field of synthetic and grass horses. But if grass horses move way up on a synthetic surface, as Raven’s Pass and Henrythenavigator did in the previous year’s Classic, then shouldn’t Zenyatta get credit for defeating top-class grass horses from America and Europe over a surface they are supposed to love?

 

* By winning the Classic, the only filly ever to do so, she also 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, including third-place finisher and Eclipse finalist Music Note. Life is Sweet also came from 12th to finish third against the boys in the grade I Hollywood Gold Cup.

 

* 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.

 

* In her five victories, she came from far back (average of 10 lengths off the pace), despite never having a fast pace to run at. The average three-quarter split of her races was 1:12. In the Clement Hirsch (gr. I), in which she came from 13 lengths back after three-quarters in a dawdling 1:13 3/5, she had to close her final quarter in a remarkable :22 1/5 and final sixteenth in :05 2/5. A tick slower and she wouldn’t have gotten there, but it was her sheer determination and will to win that kept her unbeaten streak alive.

 

* Lethal Heat, who finished second and third to Zenyatta, in the Lady’s Secret and Clement Hirsch, respectively, was good enough to finish third, beaten two lengths by the boys, in the grade II Del Mar Mile Handicap, and second, beaten 1 1/2 lengths by the boys, in the California Cup Classic.

 

 There is no denying that some people voted for Zenyatta based also on what she has accomplished over her entire career. Although that should have little or no bearing on this year, it still is worthwhile to point out those accomplishments if just for history sake.

 

* During her career, Zenyatta has 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 Stakes, Coaching Club American Oaks, Mother Goose, Personal Ensign, Lady’s Secret, and Santa Margarita among others.

 

The only thing left to say is that one of these magnificent fillies will not win Horse of the Year. So be it.

 

Ever since Zenyatta supposedly bid farewell to the turf, there were rumblings far and wide about her possibly not being retired after all. They started when she began working at Hollywood Park, including a sharp half-mile in :48. Instead of gearing down toward retirement, she seemingly was being geared up…for what no one knew for sure. So, what you had, as odd as it was, was Rachel Alexandra, who definitely was planning to race in 2010, having no works, while Zenyatta, who apparently had been retired, having three works.

 

Jerry Moss had been confronted several times about the speculation that Zenyatta would run in 2010, but his less than convincing replies did not satisfy most people and only added fuel to the fires.

 

By making his announcement, Moss sent a surge of electricity throughout the sport, but from a historical factor, he is taking a big chance. Zenyatta had written an incredible chapter in the history books, retiring undefeated in 14 starts and going out with more fanfare than any horse in memory, including two farewell appearances. The Mosses decided in the best interest of the sport and for the simple pleasure of watching her run to risk her unbeaten record and her place in history

 

In the movie “Network,” tycoon Arthur Jensen says to prophet/newscaster Howard Beale:

 

“You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale.”

 

No sooner had the Pro-Ride dust cleared from Zenyatta's epic victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic, Moss announced that Zenyatta was retired. Nature was calling the soon to be 6-year-old mare and she was all but on her way to create little Zenyattas. But nature will now have to wait. There are other battles to be won first. Have the Mosses meddled with the primal forces of nature?

 

Will they seek out Rachel Alexandra, possibly in the Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. I) at Oaklawn Park on April 3, which would be one of the most anticipated showdowns in the history of the sport, or how about the Louisville Handicap (gr. II) at Churchill Downs on Oaks Day? Rachel won the Oaks on that day and Zenyatta was scheduled to run in the Louisville Handicap, but was scratched. Imagine the crowd that would draw. They could head for Dubai and the now $10-million purse of the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I), run over a synthetic track, but they would have to sacrifice a good portion of the year and Jerry Moss has all but nixed that idea.

 

Only time will tell if the decision to bring Zenyatta back at the age 6 was a wise one. It was difficult for the Mosses letting Zenyatta out of their life. Whatever happens, they certainly raised the bar with their sporting decision. Some call it chutzpah. They weighed the potential incredible highs against the equally incredible lows and decided it was worth it, even at the risk of toppling the towering monument Zenyatta had already built.

 

On a lighter side note, whatever races they choose, if Zenyatta keeps on winning, the Mosses have to keep her away from Santa Anita on the first weekend in October. The last thing they want is for Zenyatta to suffer her first career defeat in the Zenyatta Stakes (gr. I). You know what pranksters the racing gods can be.

 

So, the saga of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta continues, as will the deafening cheers that still resound throughout Santa Anita, Saratoga, Monmouth Park, Pimlico, and Del Mar. Racing fans can only hope that one day the irresistible force will meet the immovable object. What a day that will be.

 

 

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