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A Showdown For the Ages

By Andrew Beyer
Monday, September 7, 2009

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. After her electrifying photo-finish victory in the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga, Rachel Alexandra should be entitled to rest on her laurels. The filly has campaigned steadily since February, racing at seven different tracks and winning all eight of her starts. With three triumphs over males, she has virtually locked up the horse-of-the-year title. Owner Jess Jackson and trainer Steve Asmussen would be happy to give her a breather until she resumes racing in 2010.

However, Rachel Alexandra still has one piece of unfinished business: a confrontation with Zenyatta, the champion 5-year-old mare who has never been beaten in 12 career starts and has unleashed explosive last-to-first rallies in most of them. Almost everyone in the sport wants to see a race between two of the greatest female thoroughbreds of all time. The New York Racing Association would like to host the showdown on Oct. 3. But a Rachel Alexandra-Zenyatta race will probably never happen. Partisans of each horse blame the other's camp for being unsporting, but the real blame belongs to the Breeders' Cup organization.

The Breeders' Cup chose Santa Anita in Arcadia, Calif., and its synthetic track as the site for its event in 2008 and 2009, and last year's results produced an inescapable conclusion: Synthetic tracks are very different from dirt. The horses who won over Santa Anita's Pro-Ride surface were either proved synthetic-track runners (such as Zenyatta) or turf specialists. Top horses with good form only on dirt didn't win. The highest-profile loser was Curlin. Jackson had been hesitant to run over synthetics, and his views on the subject hardened after the defeat. So when Jackson bought Rachel Alexandra in the spring and watched her develop into a superstar, he adamantly declared he would not race her on "plastic," his derisive word for synthetic surfaces. The Breeders' Cup would not be on her agenda.

For Zenyatta, by contrast, back-to-back Breeders' Cups in her home state were a blessing. The mare can run on dirt or synthetics -- she scored a smashing Grade I stakes win over Oaklawn Park's dirt in April 2008 -- but since then she has not ventured from California, where she won the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic last year. With the Cup back at Santa Anita, trainer John Shirreffs and owner Jerry Moss decided to stay at home for all of 2009 and aim for the Breeders' Cup again -- either the Ladies' Classic or against males in the Classic. As for a meeting with Rachel Alexandra, Moss said in a recent teleconference, "The Breeders' Cup was created for this kind of a circumstance.

"That's the spot where champions are made."

However, a Rachel Alexandra-Zenyatta race at Santa Anita would not necessarily be a meaningful test. A victory by Zenyatta might prove only that she is a synthetic-track specialist and Rachel isn't. The New York Racing Association sought to have this showdown in the Beldame Stakes at Belmont Park on Oct. 3. Betfair, the parent company of the TVG racing network, offered to add $400,000 to the purse, making it a $1 million race if Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta both show up. The Zenyatta camp evinced some interest, but Shirreffs was concerned about sending his mare into NYRA's mandatory prerace detention barn, and he is reluctant to change his long-planned all-California racing schedule for her. Yet Zenyatta could never find better circumstances for a race on dirt against Rachel Alexandra.

Of all the dirt tracks in America, none is more conducive to Zenyatta's come-from-behind style than Belmont Park, with its sweeping turns and long stretch. Zenyatta has conclusively proved her ability to run on dirt -- her performance at Oaklawn was one of the best of her career -- so Belmont would be the fairest possible site for the confrontation.

Zenyatta is a fresh horse, after running only three times against soft opposition this season, while Rachel Alexandra has been through a grind, running eight times in the last seven months. After earning a career-best Beyer Speed Figure in the Haskell Stakes of 116, she recorded a 109 at Saratoga on Saturday. Her form may be on the downgrade, while Zenyatta could very well be pointing toward a peak effort. Advantage: Zenyatta.

Rachel Alexandra is the horse with the most to lose. She could go to the sidelines tomorrow with the horse-of-the-year award locked up. The only way she could lose the title is to lose to Zenyatta. Although Jackson recognizes that Rachel Alexandra is ready for a rest, he said, "If Zenyatta were to come to the Beldame, that would direct us to that."

Jackson has been the consummate sportsman in his management of Rachel Alexandra, picking tough spots such as the Woodward so that the filly can show how good she is. And it would be extraordinarily sporting for him to risk horse-of-the-year honors in the Beldame. Meanwhile, Moss and Shirreffs have so far avoided any serious challenges this season for their mare. They have avoided racing against males. They have acted as if their main goal is not to lose and not to jeopardize the mare's perfect record. If that was their aim, they could have retired her last season. But if they are in this game because they like the excitement of the sport, how could they resist a showdown with Rachel Alexandra?

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