Calling it “one of the most important moments at Oaklawn and in Arkansas sports,” Oaklawn Park president Charles J. Cella has upped the purse of the April 3 Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. I) to $5 million provided champions Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta both start, according to a track release.
At a morning press conference Feb. 4, Cella reported that he has spoken with the owners of both Rachel Alexandra (Jess Jackson and Harold McCormick) and Zenyatta (Jerry and Ann Moss). Both parties showed enthusiasm for bringing their champions to Oaklawn for the first Saturday of the Racing Festival of the South, Calla said.
Shortly after the Oaklawn Park announcement, Jackson issued a statement indicating his horse would participate, provided she was healthy and it fit her schedule, and Zenyatta's trainer, John Shirreffs, weighed in with a comment.
"My family and I would love to see her run at Oaklawn Park," Jackson said in the statement. "If she is in top form and it fits in our schedule, we will be there. Rachel, as you know, likes the track having won twice there last year. As you have heard me say many times before, a number of factors must be considered when deciding where to race a horse, the number one factor being the condition of the horse. Rachel will tell us when she is ready to start her 2010 campaign and we humans must agree she is in top form.”
"We were planning on running in the Apple Blossom anyway," Shirreffs said about Zenyatta. "We definitely want to go back to Oaklawn. We're hoping to run her in the Santa Margarita Handicap (gr. I, March 13), but it all depends on the weights. If she gets too much weight, we'd have to shop around for some other options. If she did run, it would mean coming back in the three weeks for the Apple Blossom, but she would have a long time between races prior to the Santa Margarita. If Rachel Alexandra runs it obviously would make it more exciting."
Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs, the wife of the trainer and racing manager for Jerry Moss noted Moss was tied up in business meetings all day but noted "we are excited...for the fans and for the industry."
Should Rachel Alexandra or Zenyatta fail to start, the Apple Blossom will revert to its original status as of Feb. 3, with a purse of $500,000 guaranteed.
Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta were unanimous Eclipse Award winners in their respective divisions in 2009 and were the only finalists for Horse of the Year. Rachel Alexandra was named Horse of the Year and top 3-year-old filly, and Zenyatta was voted best older mare for the second straight year.
Should both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta start, this year’s Apple Blossom will be an invitational event. Other leaders in the filly and mare division will be invited to participate. The $5 million purse will be the largest purse for a filly and mare race in the history of North American Thoroughbred racing.
“We have always pursued a goal of bringing the world’s best racing to Arkansas,” Cella said. “That is what led us to create the Racing Festival of the South more than 30 years ago. We have been even more fortunate in recent years. That gives us the opportunity to fulfill the promises we continually make to our fans, our horsemen, and all of our supporters – should this race come off as expected, it will most certainly fulfill every promise made.”
The distance of the race, historically contested at 1 1/16 miles, will be extended to 1 1/8 miles.
Alex Waldrop, president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, praised Cella and Oaklawn Park for its attempt to get the two horses.
“We commend Oaklawn Park and the Cella family for striving so aggressively to attract Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta," Waldrop said in a statement. "This is the matchup that every fan wants to see. Assuming that each horse remains healthy and fit, a showdown between these two great champions on April 3 in the Apple Blossom truly could live up to its billing as a race for the ages.”
As a lightly raced but promising 4-year-old in 2008, Zenyatta (Street Cry—Vertigineux, by Kris S.) captured her first grade I victory in that year’s Apple Blossom, beating then reigning champion Ginger Punch among others in her only start outside of California and only start on a conventional dirt surface. She has since gone on to post a perfect 14-for-14 record, highlighted by her victory in the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic (gr. I) and her victory against males in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I), in what was believed at the time to be the final race of her career. Rumblings about Zenyatta’s “un-retirement” began to be felt in December, and Jerry Moss made it official Jan. 16.
Rachel Alexandra (Medaglia d'Oro —Lotta Kim, by Roar) kicked off her 3-year-old campaign at Oaklawn with a pair of eye-popping stakes wins in the Martha Washington and the Fantasy Stakes (gr. II). Her record victory in the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) the day before the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) clearly stamped her as the best 3-year-old filly in the nation. She proved more than that in her next start when she became the first filly to win the BlackBerry Preakness Stakes (gr. I) in 85 years. Rachel Alexandra beat 3-year-old colts again in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I) and became the first 3-year-old filly to win the Woodward Stakes (gr. I) against older males in September.
Richest Races in North America in 2009:
Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) - $5,000,000
Emirates Airline Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. IT) - $3,000,000
Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) - $2,177,200
Breeders’ Cup Mile (gr. IT) - $2,000,000
Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) - $2,000,000
Sentient Jet Breedes’ Cup Sprint (gr. I) - $2,000,000
Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic (gr. I) - $2,000,000
Emirates Airline Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT) - $2,000,000
Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) - $2,000,000
Pattison Canadian International Stakes (Can-IT) - $1,927,556
International Races of Note in 2009:
Japan Cup (Jpn-I) - $6,455,720
Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline (UAE-I) - $6,000,000
Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (Fr-I) - $5,828,400
Emirates Melbourne Cup (Aust-I) - $5,650,000
Dubai Sheema Classic Sponsored by Nakheel (UAE-IT) - $5,000,000
Dubai Duty Free Sponsored by Dubai Duty Free (UAE-IT) - $5,000,000
Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Cup (HK-I) - $2,580,000
Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby (Ire-I) - $2,109,300
Prix du Jockey Club (Fr-I) - $2,095,995
Investec Derby (Eng-I) - $2,076,453