Apple Blossom Time

Oaklawn Park made all the right moves with their big Apple Blossom announcement. They put up the money, they changed the distance, and in short they dangled one heckuva carrot in front of Jess Jackson and Jerry and Ann Moss.

It all makes for great theater and great anticipation. But there are logistics to consider, and at some point the theater will collide with reality. Jackson commented at the Eclipse Awards that Rachel Alexandra was behind in her schedule due to the weather, adding that the Apple Blossom was unlikely. He has tempered that a bit, but still has left Rachel’s status up in the air, and rightly so. Of course, $5 million can turn unlikely into likely in a heartbeat, but Jackson is not one to do anything if it isn’t well calculated and thought out, despite the monetary lure.

The next obvious question is: can Rachel Alexandra be in the shape of her life for the biggest race of her life off a seven-month layoff? It obviously would be difficult for her to get in a prep race, considering Jackson cast doubts about her even making the Apple Blossom. But perhaps Fair Grounds can write an allowance exhibition race for her three or four weeks before the Apple Blossom. Seven months is a long time between races, especially having to come back in a race of this magnitude against an opponent like Zenyatta, who would have an advantage if John Shirreffs gets a prep race in her.

On the other side, Shirreffs mentioned the Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap (gr. I) as a possible first start back for Zenyatta. By running in the Santa Margarita, Zenyatta will have to make her 6-year-old debut carrying at least 130 pounds, unless Santa Anita racing secretary Rick Hammerle feels, because it's her first start of the year, she deserves the same weight she carried in the Vanity Handicap (gr. I) last June when she easily defeated pretty much the same caliber horses she’d be facing now. That’s going to be a tough decision with so much at stake.

If Zenyatta does run in the Santa Margarita and escapes with her unbeaten record intact, she would have to ship to Arkansas and come back in only three weeks, something she has never had to do. Her shortest spacing between races was the 24 days between her career debut and a first-level allowance race. The alternative would be to go straight into the Apple Blossom off a five-month layoff or look for another prep. But Shirreffs said he has no concerns about running her back in three weeks, because of the amount of time between the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the Santa Margarita. He added that the Apple Blossom, where she scored her one and only dirt victory, has always been in the plans for Zenyatta, whether or not Rachel shows up.

As exciting as the prospects of the two super fillies meeting at a neutral track for $5 million are, it’s not as cut and dry as one would think. This is not to say it won’t or shouldn’t happen, it’s just a reality check that there are circumstances involved, especially regarding Rachel Alexandra.

But in the theater not all scripts are perfect and it sometimes takes some adlibbing to make it work. All we can do is sit back and let the scriptwriters iron it all out and come up with an opening scene that will knock the audience out of their seats. If they can’t, there are plenty of other scenes that can be played out the remainder of the year.

In discussing both star players, the Mosses have gone all in, so to speak, with their decision to unretire Zenyatta and risk her unbeaten streak, and to some extent her legacy. It is a big gamble, considering all the fanfare, all the accolades, and all the farewell parties. No horse, or any athlete for that matter, could have made a more grandiose exit. The question now is: what lies ahead for Queen Z and how do you keep her unbeaten as she tackles new frontiers and new obstacles?

Of course, her main obstacle will be Rachel Alexandra, who beat her out in the Eclipse voting, not only as the sport’s reigning queen, but Grand High Exalted Mystic Ruler of all Turfdom. But Zenyatta still has her loyal legions who believe she is the rightful heir to the throne.

In mapping out a schedule for the entire year, which no doubt will be include a number of other out-of-town dirt races, Shirreffs and the Mosses will have to decide how many times they want to ship her back and forth across the country and still have a relatively fresh horse for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The logical move would be to make intermittent raids back east, preferably searching out Rachel Alexandra. In between, she can finally deviate from the same schedule she was on the past two years – she has gone way beyond races like the grade I Vanity and Clement Hirsch. Now her summer sights would have to be set on the grade I Hollywood Gold Cup and/or Pacific Classic and even the Jockey Club Gold Cup in the fall.

If Zenyatta does lose and fails to emulate Personal Ensign, will it hurt her legacy? Let’s just say it will make her mortal and remove the unbeaten aura that surrounds her, but even if she should let’s say split with Rachel Alexandra and also win a couple of additional grade I stakes against the boys and win again on the dirt, she will not lose her status as one of the greatest fillies of all time. She will instead be compared to a different type of filly, such as Gallorette, who constantly ventured outside the box to face the best male horses in the country and was not afraid to get beat. Racing fans and historians love throwbacks, and a successful campaign of taking on the best males and females and traveling across the country would make Zenyatta a throwback, the likes of which we haven’t seen for nearly four decades. And even if she should lose one or two races, it is her victories that will be remembered far more than her defeats.

As for Rachel Alexandra, the sky’s the limit. Racing against the boys is old hat and she has already entered the realm of throwbacks.

Jackson and Asmussen really don’t have many opportunities to race her against colts the first half of the year. The grade I Stephen Foster would be the most logical spot, but the real bold move would be the Met Mile (gr. I). The drawback of running in that race, however, is the possibility of gutting her. That one-turn mile is tough and often knocks out a horse that has a grueling race.

If the Apple Blossom doesn’t happen, there is nothing wrong with starting the year off against fillies in races such as the La Troienne (gr. II), where she could also meet Zenyatta, and the Ogden Phipps (gr. I) before tackling the boys again in such prestigious races as the grade I Whitney and Jockey Club Gold Cup prior to the BC Classic. The traditional pool of stakes Jackson and Asmussen have to choose from include the La Troienne, Met Mile, Stephen Foster, Ogden Phipps, Delaware Handicap, Whitney, Woodward, and Jockey Club Gold Cup. A lot of careful thinking and planning are going to have to go into it. That is the price of greatness.

The bottom line is that 2010 should be filled with great drama and high emotion. It’s already started, regardless of what happens with the Apple Blossom. If they do wind up meeting at Oaklawn, you can bet Hot Springs will be hotter than it’s ever been or ever will be.

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