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Countdown to the Cup: Big Chasm between A-Z

The “A” being Alexandra, as in Rachel, and the “Z” being Zenyatta, as in… well, Zenyatta.


Following the Woodward Stakes, Rachel Alexandra’s trainer Steve Asmussen responded to a question regarding a possible meeting with Zenyatta. “A lot gets said about the other mare and what’s next,” he replied, “but I think we ought to let one or two of the articles be about something that’s actually happened instead of guessing what might happen.”


Simple, but to the point. You can read all the columns you want about how great it would be for the sport to have the two super fillies hook up, but it’s just space filler. And NTRA president Alex Waldrop’s last-minute push to get Jess Jackson to run Rachel Alexandra in the Breeders’ Cup and the $1-million purse increase were desperate, futile gestures that were too little too late. It’s time to move on. Rachel is not going to California, and not going anywhere other than on a well-deserved vacation. Jackson has been too emphatic in his comments to change his mind now, especially after last year. The Breeders' Cup is trying to get something it never had a chance of getting. "No plastics," remember? Under the right conditions, who wouldn’t have wanted to see Rachel take on Zenyatta, but Rachel is at the end of a taxing, incredibly ambitious campaign and just gutted herself to beat older males, while Zenyatta, who only runs the last three-eighths of a race, is a fresh horse with only three starts. The time has passed for them to hook up.


As for Zenyatta, she is not leaving California. Why would she? Her goal all year has been the Breeders’ Cup, not running against Rachel Alexandra. Zenyatta has had her own agenda for almost a year, and the only chasm wider than A to Z is the 2,500 miles between Zenyatta’s world and Rachel Alexandra’s world. So, do the math. Do you travel 21 miles from Inglewood to Arcadia to get to your destination, or 5,000 miles?


Rachel has run every month except one from February to September, competing in eight stakes at seven different tracks, tackling males on three occasions, and running her heart out in the Woodward. There is nothing for her to prove, and Jackson has already stated he is giving her a vacation, especially with a 4-year-old campaign lined up for next year. Rachel has every right to start tailing off after all she’s been through. As mentioned, Zenyatta is fresh, as are the two other dominating damsels, Icon Project and Careless Jewel. It makes little sense to run Rachel in the Beldame or any other race. She already has Horse of the Year locked up and has written one of the great chapters in the annals of the sport. When a writer comes up with the perfect ending, he or she does not force another chapter.


It’s time to come to the realization that the worlds of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta are never going to collide. Rachel has closed out her campaign on as high a note as any horse in memory, and Zenyatta has a chance to close out her career in spectacular and historic fashion with a victory in the Classic. To retire undefeated and with a BC Classic victory would be a remarkable feat in itself. In short, there’s plenty of glory to go around for both horses.


The vast majority would agree that Rachel’s wondrous Woodward win was one for the ages, but that should not detract from Zenyatta and all she has accomplished in her undefeated career. No, she didn’t face males or the highest-quality field in the Clement Hirsch, but how many people did not get goosebumps watching her charge down the stretch and get up in the final stride, overcoming a snail-like pace? Like Rachel in the Woodward, she should not have won that race, and it was only her class and determination – and greatness -- that got her the victory.


Although her campaign has not been nearly as ambitious as Rachel’s, as she’s only run three times and in the same races as last year, it is apparent the Mosses and John Shirreffs have a rousing finale planned, and if so, that no doubt would be the Classic. Even if she finishes a fast-closing second or third in the Classic, the opinion here is that she will attain a higher place in history than if she won the Ladies Classic (gr. I) again and retired undefeated. So, if it is indeed their plan to run in the Classic, can you really fault them for not taking Zenyatta back East when their destination is Emerald City and they are already on the yellow brick road?


Cheers for Chip


I have read the following blog comment on Bloodhorse.com’s “And They’re Off” video and on “At the Races with Steve Byk,” and I am posting it here as well, because it is something everyone connected with this sport, and even those that aren’t, should know about, for it shows once again that there is no sport that has the ability to touch people’s hearts as horseracing does, and no sport where the fans can interact with the stars. So, here goes:

In June, just a few days before the Belmont, my 13-year-old son and I got up at 3 a.m. and headed down to Belmont to watch Mine That Bird train out on the track. Once there, I was told that while I could go in to watch the morning works, my son could not. According to the security guard at the gate, one must be 16 years of age or older to get in. Needless to say, my son was so disappointed and barely spoke a word the entire 1 1/2-hour car ride home. My son is mildly autistic and he deals with difficulty and heartache too often, due to the difficulties of living with any type of autism. That day was supposed to be special. I took him out of school for the day and he barely slept the night before we went down to Belmont. He was so excited that he would see the horse he fell in love with when Mine That Bird won the Derby.

“A few days after the Belmont, I happened to post about our experience on a blog here on Bloodhorse. Chip Woolley's girlfriend, Kim, saw it and immediately e-mailed me. No more than one day later, Chip called my son on the phone  and thanked him for being such a good fan. He also asked for our address and sent my son a great, signed picture of Mine That Bird's Kentucky Derby win. He made my son feel so special. To him, that picture is, as he calls it, "a one of a kind.

“Chip Woolley also invited us to come and meet Mine That Bird when we came up to Saratoga. He gave us his phone number and when I called him the day we got up to Saratoga, he remembered us immediately. He invited us over to the Clark Stakes barn and for the next three hours, my son and I had the experience of a lifetime, visiting with Chip and George (the groom and exercise rider) and Mine That Bird. Chip is such a genuine, caring person. When he speaks to you, he gives you his undivided attention. He gave my son a stash of carrots to feed to Mine That Bird.

“I can't thank Chip and Kim enough for such a truly special day. As we left the stakes barn, my son said, "Mom, Chip is a really nice man, isn't he?" My answer was, "Yes, Morgan, you are right. He is a very, very nice man." Chip may not know it but he made my son feel so welcomed and so special. I truly cannot thank him enough and will always be so grateful to him.

“I wanted to share my story about a man who my family views as one of the greatest human beings in racing.”

So, cheers to Chip Woolley, and here’s to Mine That Bird, who thrilled the fans at Ruidoso Downs on Labor Day, leading the post parade for the All-American Futurity and receiving an ovation worthy of a Kentucky Derby winner. Between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, and the amazing odysseys of Chip Woolley and Mine That Bird and Tim Ice and Summer Bird, how can 2009 not rank among the most memorable in racing history?

Where it all began

On April 17, I received a phone call from Churchill Downs’ Darren Rogers informing me that there were two new horses added to the Derby picture. He told me their names and the names of their trainers, neither of whom I had heard of, and gave me their phone numbers. I proceeded to call them, rather reluctantly I must admit, considering all the top horses still on the earnings bubble. The following story appeared later that day on Bloodhorse.com:


The Birds Are Coming to Kentucky


Derby fever continues to run rampant as usual as two more horses, Summer Bird and Mine That Bird, both sons of Birdstone , are heading to Churchill Downs for the Run for the Roses.


Summer Bird is coming off a powerful third-place finish in the Arkansas Derby (gr. II) in only his third career start, while Mine That Bird is coming off a fourth-place finish in the Sunland Derby.


Summer Bird, who made his career debut at Oaklawn on March 1 and broke his maiden on March 19, turned in an explosive stretch run from 15 lengths back in the Arkansas Derby to finish third, beaten only 1 1/4 lengths by Papa Clem at odds of 26-1.


“After a few of those horses came out and we started moving up in earnings from 24th to 21st, we started talking about it,” said trainer Tim Ice, a former assistant to Cole Norman. “The way he came out of the Arkansas Derby, it gave us a little bit of hope. We definitely think we have a real nice horse, but the seasoning part he’ll have to make up for with his talent. I believe the colt has the ability to run with some of them, and hopefully, we can get lucky and hit the board.


“This colt has shown me nothing but athleticism and professionalism since the day I got him. I’m not surprised he ran as well as he did in the Arkansas Derby. Actually, a buddy of mine was standing next to me watching the race and he got a little worried, and I told him he’s running just fine. I like a horse who lays eight or 10 lengths off the pace as long as they try, and he has the heart of a lion. He wants to run and tries to catch any horse in front of him. He does the same thing when he’s galloping. He doesn’t want anything in front of him, and he does it all on his own.”


Summer Bird is currently stabled at Louisiana Downs, and Ice said he will ship to Kentucky on April 22 and have one work over the track.


Bennie “Chip” Woolley, trainer of Mine That Bird, said the gelding will work at Sunland Park Sunday and ship to Louisville on Tuesday. He is scheduled to work at Churchill Downs the Monday before the Derby.


“We finally came to the decision (Thursday),” Woolley said. “We just weighed our options and felt this was our one shot at the Derby and decided to run. In the Sunland Derby, he made his move too early and came up a little empty. He’s healthy and doing real good, so we’ll take a shot.”


Mine That Bird has $138,705 in graded earnings and currently ranks No. 18 on the list, while Summer Bird, with $100,000, is No. 21.

Who knew?

Go Godolphin


The Godolphin gravy train made a six-week stop at Saratoga after being derailed at Belmont Park, and the result was eight victories from 14 starts, including four grade I scores, which would have been five had Vineyard Haven not been disqualified in the King’s Bishop Stakes (gr. I).


With Seventh Street (Go For Wand), Music Note (Ballerina), Flashing (Test), and Pyro (Forego), along with Sara Louise (gr. III Victory Ride), Cocoa Beach (De la Rose Stakes), and the unfortunate Vineyard Haven, Godolphin has a powerful arsenal heading into the fall, especially in the various filly and mare divisions.


Also, keep an eye on Girolamo, an impressive allowance winner at the meet, and last year’s juvenile champion Midshipman  and UAE Derby (UAE-II) winner Regal Ransom. The latter has turned in five-furlong works in :59 2/5 and :59 3/5, and six furlongs in 1:11 4/5, while Midshipman has had three straight solid five-furlong works in preparation for the Jerome Handicap (gr. III).


Can anyone stop Goldikova?


Now that last year’s explosive winner Goldikova is back on a roll, knocking off everyone in her path in three straight group I stakes against males, can anyone stop her from repeating in this year’s TVG Breeders’ Cup Mile (gr. IT)?


Some of the top horses who have the best chance at this point are based in the Northeast – Justenuffhumor (six for six on the grass and winner of the grade II Fourstardave and Bernard Baruch at Saratoga), Bribon (winner of the grade I Met Mile and an impressive allowance winner at a mile on the grass), Cowboy Cal (runner-up in the Baruch), Mr. Sidney  (winner of the Maker’s Mark Mile), and Courageous Cat  (winner of the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame Stakes).


Justenuffhumor is being pointed for the grade I Shadwell Turf Mile, as is Mr. Sidney, who will return to his favorite distance and surface. Justenuffhumor will remain at the Greentree training center at Saratoga and train over the synthetic surface. Cowboy Cal, who won the Strub Stakes and San Pasqual over Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride early in the year, will run in either the Shadwell Mile or the Oak Tree Mile (gr. IIT), after which a decision will be made whether to point for the BC Mile or the BC Dirt Mile. Bribon is headed up to Canada for the grade I Woodbine Mile, while Courageous Cat is aiming at the Jamaica Handicap for 3-year-olds.


If Goldikova isn’t scary enough off her victory last year, the horse she trounced by six lengths in the group I Prix Jacques le Marois, Aqlaam, came back and won the group I Prix du Moulin at Longchamp impressively last weekend.