This is the first of a three-part diary on the $5-million Apple Blossom Invitational (gr. I) April 9, pitting Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta in a long-awaited battle for the ages. Part two will cover the month of March and part three will cover the days leading up to the race, the race itself, and the aftermath.
Feb. 11 - Charles Cella announced that the $5-million showdown between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta that had been proposed for the April 3 Apple Blossom and was rejected by Jess Jackson because of the timing was back on for April 9. Both Jackson and Jerry Moss came out with statements that they were prepared to do battle on that date. This announcement set in motion a frenzy of activity, with the media and fans rushing to make arrangements.
Blood-Horse editor Eric Mitchell called later that afternoon and asked if I had any interest in going to Oaklawn to cover the race. Hmm, let's see, cover the race of the millennium, the greatest non-Triple Crown event since Seabiscuit--War Admiral? Uh, sure, why not? Heck, I'll even stay and watch the Arkansas Derby the next day. And if Lenny Shulman winds up going, we can shoot "And They're Off" from Oaklawn. With the race being held on a Friday afternoon in mid-April, Thoroughbred racing and Hot Springs, Ark. should be the center of the sports universe.
Eric said he was able to reserve one room at the Austin Hotel and Convention Center and would call them again and try to reserve another room. I immediately called Continental and booked a nonstop flight from Newark to Little Rock, arriving Tuesday night and leaving early Monday morning. Things are happening fast.
Earlier that morning, Zenyatta worked a solid six furlongs in 1:13 4/5 for her scheduled debut in the March 13 Santa Margarita Handicap. Santa Anita racing secretary Rick Hammerle is trying to get management to change the conditions of the race to weight-for-age. Imagine Zenyatta getting beat for the first time in her life conceding a ton of weight off a 4 1/2-month layoff. That would remove her unbeaten aura and prove disastrous for Oaklawn, greatly reducing the importance of the race. Neither filly can afford to lose their prep. Rachel Alexandra will go into hers - the New Orleans Ladies - off a seven-month layoff.
Feb. 12 - Rachel Alexandra, who is on a tight timetable, with no room for error, worked in the slop at Fair Grounds this morning, breezing five furlongs in 1:03 4/5. Asmussen normally would have put off this work, but it's time to get serious and stick with the schedule if she is to make her prep in the New Orleans Ladies, the same day as the Santa Margarita. Don't think Charles Cella and the rest of the racing world won't be holding their breath on that day.
Feb. 13 - Terry Finley of West Point Thoroughbreds called and asked what I thought of the idea of Oaklawn Park opening the race to males; he was intrigued with the idea of running Macho Again for $5 million. My thought is, because it is an established filly race they couldn't include males in the Apple Blossom, and that Oaklawn is thrilled enough to have Rachel and Zenyatta. This race is all about them and there was no need to bring males into the mix. That can come later on after this grudge match is settled.
Feb. 15 - I e-mailed my go-to guy at Oaklawn, Jason Milligan, in communications and told him I would be making my first trip there. I never thought in a million years that if I ever did get down to Oaklawn it would be for the Apple Blossom. I had tried calling him, but Oaklawn's number was constantly busy. I can only imagine the overload of phone calls after all hell broke loose. It took one person who had purchased 20 seats for April 3 six hours to get through to Oaklawn after hearing of the change of date and the confirmation from both Jess Jackson and Jerry Moss. He was told those 20 seats are not valid for April 9.
Jason's reply to my e-mail: "It's about time you decided to show up. The Austin is a good spot. It is probably 2 miles from the racetrack. Be glad that you have a reservation anywhere (seriously)."
Later that afternoon he wrote back: "It has been hectic and will be that way for the next seven weeks. If the race had been held on April 3, we could have made a light business day big, but now we are making a good day better. The people that already had April 9 tickets feel like they hit the lottery."
But the people who rushed to get tickets and hotel rooms and make flight arrangements immediately after the April 3 proposal was announced are out of luck.
That same night I received an e-mail from Harry King, columnist with Stephens Media in Arkansas, saying: "Was at Oaklawn today (Monday), talking with Jason Milligan about widespread interest in the April 9 race. He shared your e-mail to him and your e-mail address. I would like to use it and your trip to Arkansas to help illustrate what a big deal it is. I have a few questions I would like to incorporate into a column."
Feb. 16 - It didn't take long for ebay to get in on the action. Two tickets on the finish line are being offered for $1,100 and a box for $6,500.
Because my plane arrives in Little Rock at 10:19 p.m. on April 6 and it's over an hour drive to Hot Springs, and because my plane leaves Little Rock at 7 a.m. April 12, I made reservations at a Holiday Inn Express for the nights of April 6 and 11.
The worst thing that can happen, with the exception of an injury, is for either filly to get beat in their prep. In that regard, Zenyatta's connections and fans received good news today when trainer Mike Mitchell announced that Santa Maria Handicap winner St. Trinians, the fastest rising female star in the country, will pass the Santa Margarita and face the boys instead in the Santa Anita Handicap a week earlier. St. Trinians has dominated her opposition in all four of her starts since arriving in the States from England, where she was a solid handicapper on Polytrack, winning or placing with weights as high as 138, 137, and 134.
Feb. 17 - A new website was launched today for the Apple Blossom by the Hot Springs convention and Visitors Bureau. As reported by KARK 4 News on Arkansasmatters.com:
"The excitement over a big upcoming race at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs is spilling over onto the World Wide Web.
A special internet website containing all available information about the April 9th $5-million Apple Blossom Invitational featuring famous fillies Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta has been established.
‘The website will be opened to the public at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, February 17,' said Steve Arrison, CEO of the Hot Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, who is having the site created.
‘People interested in the Apple Blossom will find a one-stop web address to find out the very latest information,' Arrison said."
Feb. 18 - Rachel Alexandra is starting to get serious, as indicated by her 1:00 1/5 breeze this morning, second fastest of 19 works at the distance. Because she went so slow in the slop last week she was more aggressive this time. Steve Asmussen indicated that Rachel has put on more than 100 pounds during her fall and winter vacation.
The two stars are now on the same work day schedule, as Zenyatta also breezed, going six furlongs in 1:14 at Hollywood Park, fastest of four works. John Shirreffs said she "looked absolutely beautiful."
A representative from Saudi Arabia called Oaklawn wanting to know how large an aircraft Memorial Field in Hot Springs can accommodate, basically inquiring whether or not the sheikhs will be able to land their 747.
Every hotel in Hot Springs is already booked (all 3,840 rooms in the city), and people are being directed to hotels in Arkadelphia, Mt. Ida, Benton, Bryant, and Little Rock. It is being projected that Oaklawn's attendance record of 72,484 for the 2006 Arkansas Derby will be eclipsed, especially if infield bleacher seats are added. Reserved seats are sold out, and bidding on eBay is beginning to pick up. A pair of reserved seats are currently going for $202 with almost five days remaining.
Arkansas-born producer-director Harry Thomasson, best known for the TV series Designing Women, has contacted Oaklawn about doing a documentary on the race. Other producers have made similar inquiries.
Can racing really pull this off?
Ellen Kiser, secretary to our publisher Stacy Bearse, called this afternoon and asked me if I'm set with a hotel room. She contacted every hotel in Hot Springs trying to get a room for Stacy and there was nothing available, so she is attempting to get him a three-bedroom condo to rent. My buddy Ed Fountaine of the New York Post called shortly after asking me about my hotel situation. He got shut out as well, but found a cabin by a lake and was looking for someone to share it with. By the time he called back, all the cabins were booked. Fortunately, he was able to find a motel for $59 a night. This is really getting crazy. And the race is still seven weeks away.
Of course, it didn't take long for the misinformed PETA zealots to get in the act. Their vice-president Kathy Guillermo sent letters to Jackson and Moss urging them not to enter their fillies in the "match race," citing Ruffian's catastrophic injury and even mentioning Go For wand and Bayakoa, implying that the Breeders' Cup Distaff was "essentially a match race." Apparently Ms. Guillermo hasn't looked at Rachel's and Zenyatta's past performances or even cares about the fact that they have totally opposite running styles.
Feb. 19 - Rachel Alexandra came out of yesterday's work in great shape. She is scheduled to work six furlongs next Wednesday (Feb. 24) and then have her most serious work the following Tuesday (March 2).
John Shirreffs could be away from Zenyatta for the first time if Life is Sweet winds up going to Dubai for the World Cup on March 27. That's only two weeks before the Apple Blossom. To say his mind will be in two places at once is a gross understatement. His wife, Dottie, who is racing manager for the Mosses, wrote me: "Not sure yet what is happening. John is getting his passport (hasn't had one in years). Being apart from Zenyatta would also be interesting, especially with the timing of the different races. So...what can I say?
"In relation to Oaklawn, I heard that everything is booked already. People in California have been talking about doing a charter for the day as there are NO rooms....but not sure about the seating. It should be interesting and fun! The hope is that all of this is great for racing! It's such a great sport.....let's hope!"
I will be in Dubai as well and it should be interesting watching Shirreffs over there dealing with the World Cup, with Zenyatta more than 8,000 miles away.
Feb. 22 - Fifty thousand trading cards of Rachel and Zenyatta will be printed on Wednesday (Feb. 24) by the Hot Springs Convention and Visitor's Bureau - 25,000 of each horse - and will given away at the Hot Springs Visitor's Center on March 2 at the track on March 6.
Feb. 23 - The early odds are out in Las Vegas, and Rachel Alexandra (--140) is favored over Zenyatta (+120).
Feb. 24 - Rachel Alexandra breezed six furlongs in 1:14 this morning, coming home her final quarter in :24 1/5 and galloping out a very strong seven furlongs in 1:27. Asmussen called the work "ideal" and "way easier" than her last work."
So far, 10 fillies have been nominated to the Apple Blossom, with Rachel and Zenyatta still not officially nominated. One of those who is, who no doubt will bring a different type of intrigue to the race, is Venezuelan Horse of the Year and Filly Triple Crown winner Bambera, who has won 16 of her 18 starts by an average margin of almost six lengths and is riding a six-race winning streak. Although Venezuelan-bred, her two maternal great-grandsires are American Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew and Affirmed, and her broodmare sire is Le Voyageur, whom Patrick Biancone brought to the U.S. to finish third behind Easy Goer and Sunday Silence in the Belmont Stakes. To the fans in Venezuela, she is known as "Her Royal Highness," according to Claire Novak on ESPN.com.
If Bambera, who is currently training at Calder Race Course, working five furlongs in 1:01 3/5 Feb. 22, should upset the two American superhorses, what kind of propaganda will that be for Hugo Chavez? Could this be another Max Schmeling - Joe Louis scenario?
Also among the 10 nominees are West Point Thoroughbreds' Justwhistledixie, so Terry Finley could be running for $5 million after all. She is the 5-2 morning line favorite in Saturday's one-mile Sabin Stakes at Gulfstream.
Feb. 25 – Message on the Apple Blossom Facebook page: “MY HOME FOR RENT FOR APPLE BLOSSOM... WALK TO THE TRACK...5 BEDROOMS! MESSAGE ME!!!!!!”
Others read: “Available single, detached lake cottage, 10 min. to Oaklawn Racetrack, very nice neighborhood…I have a 2 bedroom 2 bath Condo at Sunbay for rent Derby Week!...Two bedroom, 1 1/2-bath townhomes available for rent in Hot Springs Village. Call (so and so at…) and tell her that I sent you! Very reasonable rates!”
You get the picture. This could be a real money-maker for anyone with a large enough house close to the track, even just for parking.
Feb. 26 – Working two days after Rachel this time, Zenyatta breezed a strong six furlongs in 1:13 1/5 this morning, fourth fastest of 15 works at the distance. Mike Smith called the work “unbelievable.” Shirreffs caught her final quarter in :24 flat.
A check over at eBay shows the bidding on a six-seat box for April 9 and 10 going for $3,050, with almost four days of bidding still remaining. A two-bedroom condo overlooking the lake for April 2nd to the 9th and four reserved seats are being offered at $10,000, but no bidders yet on this one.
Unfortunately for Calvin Borel, Todd Pletcher has decided to run Super Saver, on whom Borel won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn the same day Rachel runs at Fair Grounds. That will force Borel to take off a hot Derby horse, but there is still an excellent chance he will get the mount back, as Pletcher is loaded with Derby horses. For Borel, of course, it’s a no-brainer. He’s already given up a 6 3/4-length winner of the Kentucky Derby to ride Rachel. For Borel, this is a love affair.
If there is one filly who could possibly pose a threat to Rachel and Zenyatta on her best day, and could compromise Rachel on the pace, it is the brilliant Alabama winner Careless Jewel, whose kamikaze mission in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic was a complete disaster. But with only a pair of slow half-mile breezes at Palm Meadows in :53 2/5 and :52 3/5, she is nowhere near a race.
Feb. 27 – The proposal to change the conditions of the Santa Margarita Handicap to a weight-for-age race was rejected by Santa Anita management, so Zenyatta will have to carry substantial weight in her first start of the year and make large concessions to her opponents. You can bet racing secretary Rick Hammerle will make the weight spread as fair as possible.
Justwhistledixie ran an uninspired fourth in today’s Sabin Stakes and certainly didn’t look like a filly who can compete with Rachel and Zenyatta.
The bidding on that box at Oaklawn for April 9 and 10 is up to $4,800 on eBay. That’s $800 bucks a person.
So, ends part I. Who knows what March will bring as the days count down? Once Rachel and Zenyatta get by their March 13 races successfully and in good health, then we can start smelling the apple blossoms.