Who would win — Rachel or Zenyatta?

OK, say the two camps got together and a special race, at 1 1/8 miles, was set up to include both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta in an eight-horse field at Churchill Downs.

Who do you think would win?

Would Rachel’s superior early speed, which enables the Medaglia d’Oro filly to take her opponents gate to wire or lay just off the pace, be too much for Zenyatta to overcome?

Or, is Zenyatta just too good for her younger foe? Zenyatta has closed to win all 12 of her career races no matter how fast or slow the early pace. Would she add Rachel Alexandra to her list of conquests?

What do you think?


Ex-horseman criticizes synthetic tracks

A former trainer who wished to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the subject told me recently that, while the proponents of synthetics had only good intentions, the artificial tracks have turned into a disaster.

“The synthetics are terrible,” he said. “I can tell you, they suck, and if I was (still) training horses, I would not know my (butt) from first base.”

Asked if he felt synthetics will still be a part of California racing in five years, he didn’t hesitate.

“I don’t see how,” he said. “The only thing is the dollars that have gone into them, but maybe after going through this they’ll figure out another way to keep improving them. I really think we were sold a bill of goods. All the stuff they were supposed to do, they didn’t do any of that stuff. Will they still be here in five years? No, I don’t think so.”

Add this former trainer to a growing list of horsemen who maybe at the beginning of synthetics were pro-artificial tracks, but they’ve since adopted a new attitude after seeing how they perform.

“There have been more injuries that you can’t bring horses back from than the regular dirt track,” the ex-trainer said. “I think the overall horse population has suffered more with synthetics than dirt.”

But he does feel the majority of officials responsible for synthetic tracks meant for them to be a positive.

“I feel terrible for all the people who tried to do the right thing,” he said. “Santa Anita tried to do the right thing. You don’t put $10 million up to try to screw up racing. They didn’t spend their $10 million thinking what they were doing was going to be a bad thing. They thought they were really doing something special, and they intended to do something special.

“Hindsight being an easy deal, obviously it looks like it maybe would have been better to try it on maybe the training track at Santa Anita and saw how it handled the winter and the traffic and had a little better idea with it. It was a rush to action. I believe everybody believes that now. What do you do? You try to take action and do the right thing, and as it turns out it might not have been the right thing. But it wasn’t because people didn’t have great intentions.”

O’Neill: Pro-Ride surface will be just fine

I saw Doug O’Neill in the Top of the Park restaurant at Fairplex Park on Wednesday and asked him if what I had heard was true — were trainers unhappy with the recent condition of Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride surface since it re-opened for training on Sept. 1?

O’Neill told me that while the track was a little uneven and had some inconsistencies in it for a few days, the problem has been corrected.

“The first five lanes are fine now, and that’s all you really need during training hours,” O’Neill said. “I think they did some work on it. It will be OK.”

O’Neill sent 12 horses out over the surface last Monday morning, so that backs up what he’s saying. He can’t be too concerned about it.

Santa Anita closed its synthetic Pro-Ride surface for eight days in late August, restricting workouts to the infield dirt training track, so that polymer and binder could be added to the artificial track before the beginning of the Oak Tree meet on Sept. 30.

The Breeders’ Cup will be held at Santa Anita on Nov. 6-7 for an unprecedented second consecutive year.

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Horses to consider at Fairplex

I’m heading out to Fairplex Park today for a little Fair fun and plan to strongly consider putting some money on these horses:

2nd — Swiss Spirit has the speed to wire this field
4th — Cee’s Harmony also has dangerous Fairplex speed
6th — Warren’s Grandslam is as good as any in this field
7th — Exacta box using Chiphouse George, Mr Inn Zone, Dinner at Jake’s and Pointed Home
9th — My best bet of the day is Pacific Halo, who has the tactical speed to stalk the leaders and then close well in the stretch. Factotum also has a shot in this spot, and I’ll box the two.

Good luck!

ESPN to televise Breeders’ Cup prep at Oak Tree

The Breeders’ Cup and ESPN have gotten together on a deal to help promote this year’s Breeders’ Cup, which will be held for a record second consecutive year at Santa Anita’s Oak Tree meet.

During a break on its college football doubleheader on Saturday, Oct. 10, ESPN will televise one of two races from Oak Tree — the $350,000 Goodwood Stakes, expected to include Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, or the $300,000 Lady’s Secret Stakes, scheduled to be the unbeaten Zenyatta’s final prep for an expected start in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic on Nov. 6.

Mine That Bird is winless in three starts since his Derby win, but the gelding developed quite a following since finding the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs on May 2. He skipped the Travers Stakes because of minor throat surgery.

Zenyatta could tie Personal Ensign’s undefeated record of 13-0 with a victory in the Lady’s Secret. She’s 3-0 in 2009, including a victory in the Clement Hirsch at Del Mar on Aug. 9 when she had no pace to run at yet staged an amazing closing surge to remain unbeaten.

ESPN will also televise Breeders’ Cup prep races from Keeneland on Oct. 11 and Toronto and Great Britain on Oct. 17. The Breeders’ Cup will be held Nov. 6-7, with ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN Classic televising the races.

Pedroza en route to another Fairplex riding title

Those who thought the broken pelvis that jockey Martin Pedroza suffered in January at Santa Anita, an injury that sidelined him for months, would somehow translate into a slowdown at Fairplex Park this season were badly mistaken.

Pedroza, as usual, is off and running at Fairplex, winning 12 races through the first four days of the 15-day meet to take a 12-5 lead over Alonso Quinonez and Christian Santiago Reyes in a bid to increase his record with an 11th consecutive riding title at the Fair.

Pedroza, who’s also won a record 573 races at Fairplex and twice won a one-day record seven races last year, is taking aim at his single-meet record of 51 victories set in 2004.

Make no mistake, Pedoza is a very capable rider no matter where he’s riding, but he’s King of Fairplex and you leave him out of exotics, pick threes, pick fours and pick sixes at your own peril.

In the trainers’ race, defending champion Mike Mitchell and Clifford Sise have both won with four of their first six starters to lead the charge. Sise won all four of his races in one day, prompting him to good-naturedly remind everyone that he’s a dirt trainer and not an artificial track conditioner. Sise, who’s had an abnormally slow year, is an opponent of the synthetics.

Jess Jackson: Thanks, but no thanks

It didn’t take Jess Jackson, Rachel Alexandra’s co-owner, long to announce the inevitable — his star filly will not be running in the Breeders’ Cup, despite event officials trying to lure the princess of racing to the event by hiking the winner’s share of the $5 million Classic from $2.7 million to $3.7 million earlier Friday.

“Rachel already has completed a brilliant long campaign,” Jackson told The Associated Press. Jackson cites his strong distaste for synthetic surfaces as the reason he does not want the Medaglia d’Oro filly to run over Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride track.

“These false tracks create potential for injury, a risk I am not willing to take with Rachel,” he said. “As to the Breeders’ Cup, my position has not changed. My concerns are well known about the tracks in California. … Bottom line, despite an increase in the purse, she will not race at the Breeders’ Cup this year.”

Two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, also owned by Jackson, finished fourth during his first try on a synthetic in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita, prompting some to speculate that’s the reason he doesn’t want to send Rachel Alexandra to California for this year’s event despite the fact she scored an easy victory over Keeneland’s Polytrack surface as a 2-year-old.

Anyone who has read my columns and blogs knows I am not a fan of synthetics in the least, but I think Jackson is over-reacting in this instance. I can understand him not wanting Rachel Alexandra to be stabled at a track that has a synthetic and to run over the “false” track more than once, but the fact she already proved she can handle an artificial track and would be racing over it only once during Championship Weekend, well, I think his decision is wrong. I don’t think there’s that big risk he talks about in just one race. In fact, it might have been less safe for her to run on that sloppy track at Monmouth in the Haskell than over Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride one time.

Bottom line: It’s his horse and he can do with her what he wants. But the fact he talks about her 2009 campaign in the past tense makes it seem less likely that Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta will ever hook up, even after the Breeders’ Cup at a neutral track like the Fair Grounds.

Breeders’ Cup tries to lure Rachel to Arcadia

In an attempt to give racing fans around the country the matchup they covet, Rachel Alexandra vs. Zenyatta, the Breeders’ Cup Board today said the winner’s share of the $5 million Classic will be increased from $2.7 million to $3.7 million if both distaffers start in the race on Nov. 7 at Santa Anita’s Oak Tree meet — making it the richest winner’s share in the world this year.

Jess Jackson, Rachel Alexandra’s co-owner, has already said he will not send his star 3-year-old filly to the Breeders’ Cup because he does not like artificial tracks. Santa Anita has a synthetic Pro-Ride suface that was used last year when Curlin, also owned by Jackson, finished fourth in the Classic after taking the lead at the head of the stretch.

Earlier this week, Jackson said Rachel Alexandra, a daughter of Medaglia d’Oro who is 8 for 8 this year and has won five consecutive Grade 1 stakes, might be finished for the year after a hard-fought victory over older males in last Saturday’s Woodward Stakes at Saratoga Race Course in which she was all out to hold off Macho Again after setting some swift fractions.

“Racing fans around the world have made it clear that they would like to see Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta face each other and the best horses from the U.S. and Europe in the Breeders’ Cup Classic,” Breeders’ Cup president Greg Avioli said in a statement. “While we respect that the race has not been under consideration by Rachel Alexandra’s connections, we wanted to make sure that the Breeders’ Cup did everything in its power to make the prospect of competing at Santa Anita in November as attractive as possible.”

Zenyatta, unbeaten in three starts this year and 12-0 in her career, is currently being prepared to run in the Lady’s Secret Stakes at Oak Tree on Oct. 10. She is then expected to try to defend her Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic title on Nov. 6, although the 5-year-old mare’s connections have not ruled out a start in the Classic the following day instead.

An earlier offer by TVG and Betfair Ltd. to add $400,000 to the purse of the Beldame Stakes at Belmont Park on Oct. 3, raising it to $1 million if both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta start, was considered by the Zenyatta folks, who then decided they did not want to put their standout through the rigors of the NYRA’s detention barn. Jackson has left open the option of running Rachel Alexandra in the Beldame if Zenyatta were to start in the Grade 1 race.

Bottom line: Rachel Alexandra will not be coming to Arcadia for the Breeders’ Cup and is likely done for the year unless a race is set up for after the Breeders’ Cup at a venue like the Fair Grounds in New Orleans.

Del Mar president sounds off about Polytrack

Joe Harper, president of Del Mar, was asked by this reporter Wednesday during his annual state of the meet briefing with reporters in the press box how he rated Polytrack’s performance in 2009:

“I personally think the Polytrack performed well,” he said. “I think it was a little different than what we had experienced the first year, the second year and (now) the third year. I think we made some good adjustments with the new equipment and got a handle on it. Obviously, that first week was a tough one, but I think Steve (track superintendent Steve Wood) was doing the right things and I think next year what we’ve got to do is obviously see what we’ve got and what we’re dealing with before we decide to change things or do something different.”

There were 12 fatalities over the synthetic Polytrack surface this year — 8 in the mornings and four during afternoon racing. There were eight fatalities during the first year of Polytrack and six last year. In 2006, the year before Polytrack was installed, 18 horses had to be euthanized after breaking down on Del Mar’s dirt track, partly spawning the CHRB’s mandate on synthetics.

Harper talked about the increase in breakdowns further.

“One of the things we’re going to do is have a lot of meetings with the trainers to talk about it and to say what we’ve learned,” he said. “The one thing like dirt this track seems to be is that it changes. All of our dirt tracks changed, all dirt tracks change. The sand dissipates, and they’re just different. We want to make sure that what we’ve got out there has all the right percentages in it. Has the fiber lessened over the three years that we’ve had it? Has the wax content changed? Has the rubber gone where erasers go? Those little chunks of rubber, you got horses running on it, it seems natural to me that they’d be worn down. So all those things we have to do some testing with and see what we’ve got before we decide what exactly to do.

“The ultimate goal here is to make it as forgiving a race track as we can. We all know what we’re dealing with in horses. Charlie Whittingham said they’re like strawberries, and if we can make that track as forgiving as possible, then we’ll be happier.”

Harper said his confidence in the artificial tracks has not wavered.

“You talk to a lot of these horsemen, and those of us with long memories don’t want to go back to dirt,” he said. “That comment has come out from some very large trainers. I mean, trainers with a number of pretty good-sized stables back there. There’s trainers who had no problem whatsoever with this track, there’s trainers that hate it, and some hate it just because it’s Polytrack, but they’re doing well on it.”

Interesting stuff. Now, I don’t expect Harper to say he suddenly has major reservations about Polytrack, not after Del Mar’s spent around $10 million on the track so far. But I find it difficult to believe that Del Mar management is as sold on the stuff as it was before the 2007 season began.

Zensational is Del Mar’s Horse of the Meet

Zensational, the 3-year-old sprinter who became the first sophomore to win both the Bing Crosby and Pat O’Brien Stakes, was named Del Mar’s Horse of the Meet in the annual media poll.

Trained by Bob Baffert, who finished second in the trainer standings to John Sadler, Zensational was also named the meet’s top sprinter and top 3-year-old.

Other winners included:

Top older horse: Richard’s Kid
Top older filly or mare: Zenyatta
Top grass horse: Spring House
Top 3-year-old filly: Internallyflawless
Top 2-year-old filly: Mi Sueno
Top 2-year-old: Lookin At Lucky

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