Showdown - By Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the January 23, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)      

Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta couldn’t share Horse of the Year honors, but the fans of both outstanding females should be thrilled. Not only will both be racing this year, the owners are already talking about hooking up.

And not just in one race, according to the vision of Rachel Alexandra’s owner, Jess Jackson.
“I am hoping we can match up in a race or two or three to excite the fans and see some real competition,” Jackson said after collecting Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old filly trophies during the Jan. 18 Eclipse Awards ceremony. “I think you could define both horses by having a series of competitions as many of the great horses have had in the past.”

One of Jackson’s dreams is to see horse racing regain some of the glory it enjoyed in the 1940s and ’50s. Think Seabiscuit versus War Admiral; Nashua against Swaps.

“I would like to see that restored, and I think we can do that if older horses continue to race,” he said. “Rachel and Zenyatta have proved to the fans that they (the fans) can be excited and that they (the fillies) are something special. Each of these horses has blazed a new expectation among the fans.”

Zenyatta’s owners, Jerry and Ann Moss, certainly seem game.

“Frankly, Zenyatta didn’t lose anything,” Jerry Moss said after the Horse of the Year announcement. “No one has beaten her on the track. What she lost was a popularity contest. She’ll be back. I let the horses do the talking, and I believe in that.”

John Shirreffs, Zenyatta’s trainer, said the charismatic champion older female would definitely be racing outside of California in 2010. Last year Zenyatta made all five of her starts in California, Shirreffs said, because the Mosses wanted to support California racing.

“I’ve said before we didn’t feel it was fair to our California fans to take Zenyatta out of the market,” Shirreffs said. “California was in a little bit of desperate times and to take a name like Zenyatta out of the races and not support Hollywood Park and not support Del Mar would have been tough.”

And now?

“Now we want to have some fun and show her off a little bit,” Shirreffs said.

Where the two champions may meet is pure, unfounded speculation. Zenyatta raced successfully on dirt at Oaklawn Park in the 2008 Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. I). Rachel Alexandra is currently in training at Fair Grounds. Both Shirreffs and Rachel’s trainer, Steve Asmussen, who garnered his second consecutive trainer of the year title, said it was too early to begin talking about specific races or even specific meets.

There also seems to be a bit of a difference in how both camps believe the two horses should meet. Shirreffs talks about Zenyatta starting here and Rachel starting there and then allowing them to meet during a natural progression of the racing season.

Jackson, on the other hand, seems focused on developing a series of races. If Jackson convinces the Mosses to buy in to the series concept, an obstacle could be money. Jackson made it clear that champions should not be running for six-figure purses.

“Part of the problem might be to attract other horses unless the purses are large,” he said.

“You don’t race a champion for $200,000. You should be running for $2 million or $3 million.”

Jackson admittedly has an ulterior motive to packaging these champions in a premium racing series. He truly believes racing older horses is good for the sport because it sustains enthusiasm over multiple seasons, but he also believes owners need a greater share of the revenue because they are shouldering the cost of racing these stars.

“Could you imagine Frank Sinatra performing for $200,000?” he said. “It is not fair to ask the owners to bear that cost. When the economic model gets corrected, you’ll see more owners coming in because it is such a joy.”

The economic model is not likely to change for owners in 2010. But maybe this year, fans will get what they’re wishing for—a real competition settled not at a ballot box but on a racetrack.

25 Comments

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Bob Z

“I’ve said before we didn’t feel it was fair to our California fans to take Zenyatta out of the market,” Shirreffs said.

“California was in a little bit of desperate times and to take a name like Zenyatta out of the races and not support Hollywood Park and not support Del Mar would have been tough.”

And now?

“Now we want to have some fun and show her off a little bit,” Shirreffs said.

So the economy is that much better in California this year than last year that now Zenyatta can race elsewhere...

Hmmm...  Better let the Terminator know...

I just caught a whiff of something...

"Jackson admittedly has an ulterior motive to packaging these champions in a premium racing series.

He truly believes racing older horses is good for the sport because it sustains enthusiasm over multiple seasons, but he also believes owners need a greater share of the revenue because they are shouldering the cost of racing these stars."

I partially agree with that..

I wouldn't expect to pay the same ticket price for the Super Bowl as I would for a regular season game... but

.... If Mr. Jackson and Mr Moss can't get a 3 race series together for the bigger digits then we might be back where we were last year...

My suggestion would be to both commit to running in the Apple Blossom and continue to negotiate with the powers of the big races and try to get the purses raised to make it attractive for both camps....

By both running in the Apple Blossom you get one race out of the way which will be the highlight of the early season before Derby weekend... and at least they will have run against each other once if the details of additional races can't be worked out...

The longer it goes on without meeting at least once the odds go up that it won't happen... due to negotiations... and more importantly the health of the horses...

Get the first one done!

20 Jan 2010 3:57 PM
Draynay

Rachel is the better horse and it really does not matter where they meet.  However, they will make sure it's at Churchill or Belmont. I expect Rachel will race in Apri and look for Zenyatta come June.

20 Jan 2010 5:34 PM
Mark

Any chance we could see the two meet up in the La Troienne on Oaks day?  Or is this going to happen at some event that steps up with a big "money added" situation?

20 Jan 2010 5:37 PM
Householder

Makes sense with Moss being a CHRB Board Member that he would want to support racing in California.  It wasn't long before we started to see another CHRB in tow Bo Derek.  Moss even managed to get Arnold to attend Zenyatta's going away party complete with a speech at Hollywood Park.  

20 Jan 2010 5:37 PM
John

The ONLY fair way is to have a two out of three races. The first should be in the east because RA won HOY at the track and distance of her choice. The second would be Z track and distance of her choice. Then the final, if necessary, would be somewhere in the middle like Churchill or Sam Houston with the details worked out.

20 Jan 2010 6:12 PM
Slew

There are so many tracks last year that did offer to raise their purses to a million...the Beldame...and Oklahoma...to draw both of these ladies.  No takers then.  I can't believe that's all the connections are waiting for now.  I believe more of the story will unfold as the year progresses.  

20 Jan 2010 6:32 PM
Ida Lee

I don't think the money is going to be a problem. $1,2 or 3 million will be easy to get to attract these Super Fillies. Plus there needs to be enough prize money for third and fourth place to attract other good horses. And now let me put a knife in everyone heart: What happens if the girls lose? In horse racing, anything can and will happen. I will love them no matter what and they will still be my Queens.

20 Jan 2010 7:14 PM
Bob Z

The final will/should be the Breeders Cup at Churchill...

20 Jan 2010 7:50 PM
Kent D. Hersman

Did anyone that was voting for HOY actually compare the weights carried by these two horses.

Rachel Alexandra has never carried more than 122 lbs and she has never proved her ability at the classic distance.  For this she gets Outstanding 3 Year Old, but not HOY.

Zenyatta carried 129 lbs for 1 1/8 miles in a excellent time of 1:48 flat.  Respectable for any racehorse.  She followed this by carrying more weight in the BC Classic than Rachel has ever carried. (123 lbs).  She showed up, also.  Considering this: the best they can do for her is say some kind words and give her the same award she had last year.

Time will tell, but I am pretty sure that Z would have fared fine against the boys in the Woodward with a miniscule (118 lbs) on her back.

This is the first time that I have watched the Eclipse Awards and walked away scratching my head and wondering if there were some "hanging chads."

20 Jan 2010 9:34 PM
Matt

Would someone please inform Mr.Jess Jackson that there already is a number of races that are regularly scheduled that meet his requirements. From Dubai to Paris to New York, Kentucky, Illinois, Ontario, California, Japan, Hong Kong etc. Purses range from $10 million to $1 million. Distances from a mile to a mile and a quarter.

Or he can play his games with racetrack managers and have them inflate purses of their races on short notice, for the benefit of him and his bank account.

20 Jan 2010 10:46 PM
sceptre

These speculations are all rather ridiculous as much can happen in the interim. What really prompts most of the interest/speculation is the fact that Zenyatta is undefeated and RA has a long winning streak. Should either lose before they meet suddenly much of the glamour disappears. So, would you prefer their campaigns be contrived to hopefully avoid such occurrences?-do you prefer reality or myth? Zenyatta had already compiled among the rarest of records, she is also now six, and should have been retired. Such records as hers were to be cherished-to serve as inspiration for the Sport, now and later. Isn't there some worth to this? Now it is in jeopardy of being lost for some rather limited immediate gratification for her owners and the racing public. I see the potential loss greater than the potential gain.    

20 Jan 2010 11:02 PM
EMD

“I’ve said before we didn’t feel it was fair to our California fans to take Zenyatta out of the market,” Shirreffs said.

Excuse me, but who is he kidding?  He was looking at her unbeaten record and not wanting to take her out of "their" comfort zone.  Her limited, restricted campaign caused her to lose HOY honors to Rachel.  Rachel didn't wait for anyone to come and get her -- she went out and took all comers. And she was only a 3 y/o.

The fragile nature of these animals keeps me on the bare side of hopeful for both.  ONE race will only prove that ON THE DAY one is better.  And we don't know if both will developed to be readily in sync to meet on a particular day.

I'm just glad to see they both will race this year, win or lose!

21 Jan 2010 6:48 AM
LouAnn Cingel

I just hope we don't physically injure these horses during the year battling it out, that is if they ever truly do meet on a track to race.  Why do I have the feeling that it'll never happen?

21 Jan 2010 8:20 AM
Rachel

I think the two fillies meeting at the bigger venues all season is the best way of not having a fluke "Upset" of one bad or troubled race...

21 Jan 2010 9:14 AM
John McEvoy

What about distance? I can envision Rachel getting loose on the lead and lasting going nine furlongs. Ten furlongs? Along comes Zenyatta.

But this whole scenario/discussion/exchange of passionately held opinions, is GREAT.

21 Jan 2010 1:20 PM
NIJINSKYTOM

Does Jess Jackass think that he is the Saviour of TR. Nobody forced him to pay all that money to buy RA so why do the racetracks have to pay him back to get him to race at their tracks? Maybe if the original owners had kept her by the end of the year with her dominating females they would have let her raced in the BC Classic and that would have put to rest who was better and done more good long term then JJ's strongarming!  

21 Jan 2010 1:57 PM
Nancy

Well said EMD.

21 Jan 2010 2:54 PM
apajax6

But, Jess, I thought it was about sportsmanship, not money... *gag*

21 Jan 2010 4:00 PM
Meydan Rocks!

Rachel fascinates me from a pedigree stand point. I was always impressed by MDO's high cruising speed and even though he won at 1-1/4 miles, he was probably more effective at 1-1/8th and fell short at 1-1/4 to horses that were better at going long like Pleasantly perfect.

I always loved Congaree but MDO was a touch better than Conga going long.

And now we have MDOs daughter taking his speed and adding increased lung capacity. Somewhere in her tail family she must have an "increased lung capacity" gene that just kicked in really well.

It would be fascinating to see these two go at it at 1-1/8th and longer. I suspect, Zenyatta hasn't been flattered (if I may dare say so) by her unambitious campaign.

When asked, Mike Smith has this look on his face when talking about how bad ass she really is. I have seen many superior athletes sport this look which (tries to supress the urge to brag) and kind of says, let's just get it on and see what happens. It must have taken some serious self control on his part because I always watched his body language when writers would ask him questions about Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta

I have a feeling that Zenyatta is capable of being closer to the pace (like Point Given in the Preakness) and still have that lung busting kick at the end.

I was at Santa Anita when she killed the boys on BC day. I saw her rush on by about 500 feet from the finish line.

I have never been so stunned in my life by a horse.

Let the games begin!

Whew. ;-)

21 Jan 2010 4:21 PM
Glimmerglass

I truly hope that JJ doesn't pull this same stuff as he did with Curlin of 'either you up the ante or else we don't run.'

Does he really see tracks as rolling in money? Does he not connect that the money diverted to him with a fat purse comes from the hides of the smaller guys?

Just because his horse comes to a track doesn't mean the race will yield some massive windfall. Beer sales only go so far. Please tell me how NYRA made anything extra the day RA ran in the Mother Goose against 2 other horses? I think it actually cost NYRA money with the guaranteed minimum.

I still recall that CD coughed up extra money for Curlin to run there earlier in the year but when JJ could've run him in the Clark H. after the BCC loss to rebuild his reputation, record and give something back to the fans it was the same old "not enough money to run".

Wasn't there a famed line from a supermodel in the 1980's that "We don't wake up for less than $10,000 a day" - isn't Jackson saying effectively the same?

There is being a sportsman and being greedy IMHO and JJ lands on the latter too often with his remarks.

21 Jan 2010 4:24 PM
Bobbie

Kent D , please remember that Rachel was only 3 years old, and age and number of wins means carrying weight.You will have more races and more wins in an older champion like Zenyatta. Zenyatta was already 5 I think.

3 year-old Rachel beating older males still astonishes me.

21 Jan 2010 4:57 PM
Tairaterces

Remember that JJ is just like Stronach. . . if he can't CONTROL the game he won't play.

21 Jan 2010 5:24 PM
ThePixiePoet

JJ needs to shut his trap.

I agree with him on everything, but he is way too verbal about stuff. He needs to keep it cool and not spout out everything that is on his mind. He doesn't know PR at all!!

21 Jan 2010 9:29 PM
Paul A

Draynay how do you say Rachel is a better horse.  She may well turn out to be, she was 3 and Zenyatta 5.  But Zenyatta would have beaten Rachel in every race last year except for maybe the Haskell (as those races unfolded).

22 Jan 2010 10:55 AM
dr fager01

Rachel showed weakness in the Woodward winning by a neck, she showed her last 1/8th is questionable.  i believe jess jackson is trying to get us high on his wine, and then mug us the fans, my true belief is, this meeting of 2 of the best mares in the last 20 years  will never happen, i have seen too many champions breakdown, this is the fragile nature of the horse , it should have happened in 09, the longer they wait the more they will duck each other. jess jackson is game for a series of three, i want to see these great horses race against each other in historical races. zenyatta good luck and stay sound.

28 Jan 2010 1:03 AM

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