by | 11.17.2010 | 12:47am

While Ray is traveling back from Osaka (hopefully we won't have to hear too much about jet lag once he returns to the United States), he wanted to reignite the debate over Horse of the Year. The following piece was submitted by Jeff Shapes, a marketing communications consultant, freelance writer and horse racing enthusiast, not necessarily in that order.

By Jeff Shapes

There's one overriding reason Zenyatta should win the Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year over Rachel Alexandra, and it has nothing to do with their comparative records on the racetrack. No, Zenyatta has earned the honor because her electrifying performance in the Breeders' Cup Classic flew in the face of the general negative assessment of her chances to win the event, while at the same time capping off a brilliant, undefeated career that put her into the discussion of who is history's greatest female race horse. Now, if that doesn't make her Horse of the Year, they might as well retire the award.


Yes there had been speculation that if Zenyatta ran in the Classic and won, there'd be a Horse of the Year debate. But in their heart of hearts, not to mention their racing opinions, those speculators, whether in public or not, didn't believe Zenyatta had what it took to beat the “big” boys in the big race. Indeed, there were some who said she shouldn't even run in the Classic, since there wasn't really anything to gain. Better to protect her legacy as an undefeated champion with another romp in the Ladies' Classic, than to go out with a loss chasing an unattainable goal.


Need some proof of how little regard the experts had for Zenyatta in the run up to the Classic? Despite being tabbed the pre-race wagering favorite, not one of the 11 media members whose selections were published by USA Today in its Breeders' Cup preview picked Zenyatta to win. And east coast bias wasn't in play. Joining writers from the New York Daily News, New York Post, Lexington Herald-Leader and Albany Times-Union in giving Zenyatta the thumbs down were the national correspondent of the Daily Racing Form, horse racing writers from the Associated Press and USA Today, an editor of the Thoroughbred Times, an on-air personality from HRTV and racing writers from the Los Angeles Daily News and San Diego Union-Tribune, in whose backyard Zenyatta ran all except one of her career races.


Want to bring in some more exulted names? Joe Drape of the New York Times did not pick Zenyatta, and neither did Steven Crist of the Daily Racing Form. The Washington Post's Andy Beyer, inventor of the Beyer Speed Figure, the acknowledged statistical method for comparing racetrack performances under different race conditions? He labeled Zenyatta a throw out.

Luckily, Zenyatta's connections had much greater faith in their magnificent mare than the experts.  Questioned for not shipping Zenyatta to a traditional dirt track to take on Rachel Alexandra head-to-head, team Zenyatta stuck to their guns of getting her ready for the Breeders' Cup the best way they thought how. If that meant staying in Southern California and competing exclusively on synthetic surfaces, well that's how it would be done. And though they never stated it, the guess here is that winning the Classic as a finishing touch on a Hall of Fame career, not to mention the historical achievement such a win would represent, was probably the long-range goal of those who guided Zenyatta's career.


Of course, Rachel Alexandra's connections, like most others in the racing world, assumed their filly had a stranglehold on Horse of the Year when she concluded her 2009 season with a win in the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga in early September. It was Rachel's eighth victory in eight races, accomplished at seven racetracks in six states, with three coming over male competitors. Her campaign encompassed eye popping performances in such keystone events as the Kentucky Oaks, Preakness Stakes, Mother Goose Stakes, Haskell Invitational and the aforementioned Woodward, and was highlighted by either record breaking victory margins or historical firsts just about every time she left the starting gate.


With such a resumé, who could blame Jess Jackson for putting Rachel away for the winter, especially since she probably needed a rest after an exhausting year (visible in the Woodward). But, had the Breeders' Cup Classic not been held on a synthetic surface, there's little doubt Rachel would have continued her season and run at least one more race to conclude a campaign for the ages. After all, it was Jackson himself who announced his intention to run Rachel in next year's Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs at the same time he said he would not run her this year on Santa Anita's Pro-Ride because of his distaste for synthetic surfaces (or plastic as he labeled them).


Can we know how a Zenyatta-Rachel Alexandra showdown in the Breeders' Cup Classic would have played out? Is there a certainty that had Rachel been entered in the race, Team Zenyatta would have taken her on? Would Rachel have performed as poorly on the synthetics as last year's Horse of the Year, Curlin, and as other “dirt” horses seem to? These questions can never be answered. But what is fact is that Zenyatta showed up on Championship Saturday and won the most important North American race that's open to all Thoroughbreds regardless of age or sex. This was no Raven's Pass swooping in and leaving nothing behind but a few footprints.

Copyright © 2009, The Paulick Report

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