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.

Recent Posts

More Blogs