by | 11.17.2010 | 12:47am

Although I don't necessarily buy her conclusion that Rachel Alexandra “must” be elected Horse of the Year for 2009, I can't disagree with Natalie Voss that we have two very exciting and deserving candidates for the sport's top honor. Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra are to many in Natalie's generation what Secretariat, Ruffian, Affirmed or Seattle Slew were to mine, or Seabiscuit was to a previous generation of racing fans.

A University of Kentucky Equine Communications student, Natalie joined the Paulick Report earlier this year as an intern. This, her first published piece for us, reflects both her enthusiasm for Thoroughbred racing as well as her burgeoning knowledge of the sport. But most importantly, as we look to expand our audience in the future, it is imperative that we listen to the voices of the next generation. — Ray Paulick

By Natalie Voss

Right before this year's Breeders' Cup, the Paulick Report posted a handful of editorials and news articles taking the view that Zenyatta could not beat the males in the Breeder's Cup Classic. The Europeans were too tough, it was too big a test for her first try against boys, Summer Bird was a sleeper sitting on a big performance: the reasons were various and valid. I'll admit that if you had asked me, I would have pointed out all these things, particularly because although Zenyatta has a tremendous lifetime record of victories, she hadn't blown away any of the fields she'd beaten.

On these points I'll admit I was proven conclusively wrong. For perhaps the first time in her career, Zenyatta was forced to overcome adversity and did so with ease. The loading debacle before the race, her slow start and spotting 12 lengths to the leaders early made me shout in disappointment ”She's done” as the field moved down the backstretch. I gave my television set a round of applause right along with the Southern California crowd when we realized she had fought through to the lead coming to the wire. It was a truly incredible race.

But now the party is over, and we are left to all put our two cents in on which horse will be forever associated with this season by carrying the title “Horse of the Year 2009,” and here are mine: as incredible as Zenyatta's win was this weekend, the title still must go to Rachel Alexandra.

There have been, and will continue to be a flurry of editorials on the Paulick Report and elsewhere from various handicapping experts and journalists voicing their (sadly, ultimately irrelevant) opinions on which of the two fillies should go home with this honor. Mine may perhaps be less relevant than any of them, as I am just starting out in the racing industry, a mere college intern for the Paulick Report, but for what it's worth here are my assertions:

— Zenyatta has faced and beaten stakes company males once. Rachel has done it three times, with many (although not all) of the horses she beat also appearing in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Both fillies ran against and defeated many top fillies and mares this year. In short: they have faced almost all of the same opponents.

— Considering the above, Zenyatta does just enough work to win, weighing in with an average margin of victory of two lengths. That is what a winning racehorse is supposed to do–just enough to get the job done. But a champion is a horse who smashes their competition impressively, particularly in the face of adversity. Rachel's 20 length margin over her peers in the Oaks, her crushing six-length margin in the Haskell, and even her hard-fought length victory in the Preakness, so soon after the Oaks and despite her dislike of the Pimlico surface, all make her victories more impressive than Zenyatta's.

— Zenyatta had a relatively easy season, in my opinion, only running five times this year while Rachel has run nine times, each time facing harder competition and setting five stakes records along the way. Zenyatta set one.

— Rachel's exciting victories made a splash in the sports world at large, which the racing industry so desperately needs. Granted the attention of the “non-equine world” is not a great indicator of what events in racing are most relevant, but name me a horse that has captured more (positive) attention from casual fans this year, or even within the last ten years. We need a horse like her. And now that we have one, we need to reward her for what she's done for the industry: she's given us a great athlete to point to when people ask us to explain why this sport is great.

Whoever wins the award will be deserving. The most remarkable aspect of the debate to me is that, for the first time in my young memory we are choosing between two females for Horse of the Year. Looking back at the list of past winners, I have always become immediately jealous of other generations that they have lived to see such greats as Secretariat, Affirmed and Ruffian, while as a loyal fan since 1995 the greatest season I can boast witnessing is Silver Charm's in 1997. Now I think finally, we are all privileged to have seen something truly, timelessly great for the first time in years and that is a pair of horses who should both be remembered through history for their accomplishments…and perhaps that is the greatest reward of all.

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