It has been called the greatest rivalry that never was -- two magnificent fillies, as different as two horses can be, destined to never meet on the racetrack. The rivalry between Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra in reality was not between the horses, but their passionate and often zealous fans, who did everything but take up arms against each other. This was a feud settled by verbal warfare, often rooted in geographical differences. Some might even be upset that Rachel’s name comes first in the above headline, so let me assure you it is strictly alphabetical.
Everyone knew how and when this rivalry eventually would end, and they waited patiently five years for these queens of the Turf to bring the two factions together in celebration. It is time to forget all the “what might have beens” and rejoice in what was. This also is the time to cease speculating, and even insisting, who would have emerged victorious had they faced off in battle.
Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra will all but hold hands on Friday as they strut into the National Museum of Racing side by side and take their place among the immortals in the Hall of Fame.
It was only fitting that they took parallel roads to get there, because their running styles were so contradictory, a showdown between them likely would not have proven anything. As we know, Rachel was all about exceptional speed, brilliance, and the ability to decimate her opponents with the utmost ease. Zenyatta was all about a powerhouse and often dramatic late kick that was timed with amazing precision. Both fillies at some point or points in their career were tested for courage and resolve and asked to reach deep down and give every fiber of their being. They always delivered.
Rachel’s devastating victories against fillies and magnificent conquests over males in the Preakness, Haskell, and Woodward will be inscribed in racing lore, especially rocking the grandstand at Saratoga in the Woodward Stakes against older horses, in which she turned back challenge after challenge in one of the gutsiest performances ever witnessed. And the more one ponders Zenyatta’s feat of going unbeaten in 19 races, including a spectacular victory over many of the best males in the world in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and coming within a nose of duplicating that feat as a 6-year-old, the more amazing it becomes. Some feel, and rightfully so, that BC Classic defeat at the hands of the top-class Blame was her greatest performance.
As the National Museum of Racing prepares to enshrine these two remarkable mares into the Hall of Fame, I can’t help but think back to five years ago during Breeders’ Cup week when Richard Migliore, Ernie Munick, and I drove from to Louisville to Lexington to visit both Rachel and Zenyatta on the same day at their respective homes at Stronestreet Farm and Lane’s End Farm.
The resounding cheers and the free-flowing tears of joy had long subsided, as racing’s two queens now lived the quiet life, awaiting their first foals. Even though they no longer were Xena and Wonder Woman, both mares continued to inspire their legions of fans, who after a year still were fueled by the countless memories and unforgettable moments they experienced while in the presence of two of the greatest and charismatic fillies of all time.
An audience with one was a rare moment to cherish. An audience with both on the same day bordered on the surreal.
So it was that Richie, Ernie, and I departed the frenzied atmosphere of the Breeders’ Cup in Louisville on a glorious, cloudless day and headed out I-64 toward Lexington and our scheduled visits with Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra.
Mig, who had the privilege of working Zenyatta when she was young, still talked about the energy she emitted. “When you get inside a horse’s space, you can feel their energy, and sometimes, you can’t believe what you’re feeling,” he said. “I’ve been around a lot of great horses, so it’s not like I go ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ because they’re good horses. But feeling her energy was a genuine sensation that I had only felt when I was around Seattle Slew at the farm. It’s hard to describe, but it’s similar to the feeling you get walking into Churchill Downs on Derby Day. I just know with Zenyatta and Slew I’ve never felt anything like that in my life…never. She had become this amazing animal, and the energy she gave out was unbelievable.”
He was now about to feel it again as we pulled up to the barn where Zenyatta resided. When we arrived, she was inside the barn being weighed. She was then brought out and allowed to graze on a small patch of grass, as we all lavished our affection on her. It was apparent she still loved human contact.
Ernie, who has worked in racing in numerous capacities over the years, providing video coverage for the Breeders’ Cup and currently race analysis for NYRA, has as infectious a personality as anyone I’ve ever met. And, pardon the cliché, but he wears his heart on his sleeve and has no reservations about declaring his love for Rachel Alexandra. It is a love that has not waned in the slightest in five years. He even admitted having feelings of guilt when visiting Zenyatta and putting together a one-year-later video on her for the Breeders’ Cup website. But knowing his visit to Rachel was still to come and the feelings he still had for her, he had to wonder how he would hold up seeing her again after more than a year and on a more intimate level.
When we pulled up to Rachel’s barn, there she was standing outside, as if waiting patiently for us. Like with Zenyatta, it was a visit to remember. The first time I ever met Rachel was the morning after the Kentucky Oaks and I was able to pet her, even though her ears were pinned back to her shoulder and her left eye, that was glaring at me, was as wide as a saucer. But she obviously had mellowed, and on this day she allowed all three of us to hug and pet her, as she flopped her ears around.
Both mares’ coats were resplendent and showed no sign of the impending winter. Zenyatta and Rachel allowed us to dote on them for a good 45 minutes each.
I can still see the look on Ernie’s face when he first laid eyes on Rachel, while trying to hold his emotions in check, or his filming and narrating his Zenyatta video, putting his guilt feelings temporarily on hold and appreciating being in the presence of greatness.
I looked at these two placid mothers-to-be and was flooded by a wave of memories, recalling two gallant and determined heroines who possessed the power to touch people like few before them. Their siren calls could still be heard and likely will for years to come.
Now, as both mares head into the Hall of Fame, I think of how they triggered arguably the most heated debate in the history of the sport. I admit I’m glad they never raced against each other, thus keeping alive a rivalry only of the mind…and the heart.