Jess Jackson, co-owner of Rachel Alexandra, reacts to the Horse of the Year announcement at the 2009 Eclipse Awards.

Jess Jackson, co-owner of Rachel Alexandra, reacts to the Horse of the Year announcement at the 2009 Eclipse Awards.

Jonathan Moore

Eclipse Awards: Event Full of Grace, History

Rachel Alexandra gets the main prize; fans may get showdown this year.

In perhaps the most anticipated announcement in Eclipse Award history, a Preakness, Haskell, and Woodward (all gr. I) trumped a Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) as Rachel Alexandra was named 2009 Horse of the Year over Zenyatta.

By a vote of 130 to 99, Rachel Alexandra won the coveted trophy, though her co-owner, Jess Jackson, lamented that one of the talented distaffers had to lose.

“It’s too bad that the two of us are competing in a year where both of these fillies executed world-class and lasting history,” Jackson said.

Because the awards ceremony Jan. 18 was conducted in Southern California, the crowd at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel was decidedly partisan toward hometown hero Zenyatta. But when National Thoroughbred Racing Association president and CEO Alex Waldrop announced Rachel Alexandra’s name from the podium, those in attendance applauded in admiration of her perfect 2009 record.

Jackson graciously referred to Zenyatta repeatedly in his acceptance speeches, both when Rachel Alexandra captured the 3-year-old filly title and Horse of the Year. Jerry and Ann Moss, the owners of Zenyatta, paid tribute to Rachel Alexandra when they accepted Zenyatta’s trophy for older female.

“It’s hard to be disappointed when you’re at the Eclipse Awards with a champion like Zenyatta,” said her trainer, John Shirreffs, after the announcement. “Sure, Horse of the Year would have been a great honor, but it sure doesn’t detract from anything she’s accomplished.”

The Mosses received a surprise during the evening. After actress Bo Derek announced that the older female award went to “my favorite horse of all, Zenyatta,” Sting congratulated the Mosses via a video. Zenyatta is named for the album “Zenyatta Mondatta” recorded by Sting and the Police in 1980.

“I’m thrilled to have a stake in this,” said Sting. “I love it when you win.”

Steve Asmussen, who trained Rachel Alexandra once Jackson and Harold McCormick bought her following the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I), won his second consecutive training title. His family and some of his employees accompanied him on stage, where he gave a heartfelt thanks to all of them, singling out assistants Scott Blasi and Darren Fleming.

“Last year I should have given the award to Scott and to Darren,” said Asmussen. “But for 20 years I’ve been looking at my brother’s Eclipse (jockey Cash Asmussen), and I just had to have one.”

Asmussen then walked over and put the trophy in Blasi’s hands.

2009 Eclipse Awards Ceremony
2009 Eclipse AwardsView Slideshow of this year's ceremony.

After the ceremony, Jackson thanked Asmussen for the training job he did with Rachel Alexandra and two-time Horse of the Year Curlin. Asmussen became the first to train two different horses to consecutive Horse of the Year titles since Elliott Burch in 1969 and 1970 with Arts and Letters and Fort Marcy.

Jackson and Asmussen said they look forward to racing Rachel Alexandra against Zenyatta in 2010.

“I’m delighted that Zenyatta is going to run again,” said Jackson. “I hope that we’ll be able to match up for a race or two or three to excite the fans and to see some real competition.”

“I think it’s a tremendous opportunity,” said Asmussen. “I’m very thankful for the Mosses and their generosity of running her again. It’s great for racing.”

William S. Farish, who received the Eclipse Award of Merit, likened a meeting between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta to the popularity of the Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race.

The Eclipse Awards were not just about the two amazing distaffers, however. Gio Ponti  won two championships as older male and male turf horse, the first time that has happened since legendary John Henry turned the trick in 1981.

Shane Ryan of Castleton Lyons and the owner-breeder of Gio Ponti dedicated the awards to his father, Tony, and brother Cathal, both of whom died in 2007. Ryan recalled how he and his father walked the Castleton Lyons acreage in Kentucky shortly after buying it in 2001.

“In his wisdom and his parental way,” Ryan told the crowd, “he turned to me and said, ‘One day, this farm is going to produce another champion.’ ”

Another person missing was the late Bobby Frankel. Jay Hovdey of the Daily Racing Form opened the evening by dedicating the program to Frankel. Jerry Moss also remembered the Hall of Fame conditioner.

“He became our first trainer,” said Moss. “He would get a kick out of us being up here, I’m sure. We appreciated Bobby’s artistry, his honesty, and his bluntness—always his bluntness.”

Frankel trained for Prince Khalid Abdullah’s Juddmonte Farms, voted the year’s top breeder for the fifth time. Dr. John Chandler, in accepting the award, noted that Frankel “played such a great part in our racing success, and we will miss him sorely.”