Data is all in: Who’s your final pick for HOY?

OK, you’ve seen Rachel Alexandra destroy members of her own 3-year-old filly class, watched her beat the 3-year-old boys and older males while attracting all sorts of attention to the sport .

You’ve also watched Zenyatta, unbeaten in her career, turn in the greatest moment in Breeders’ Cup history by becoming the first female to win the Classic. Zenyatta WAS the 2009 Breeders’ Cup, and her thrilling, emotional victory will be etched in the memories of all those who were there to witness it in person forever.

Rachel, 8-0 in 2009; Zenyatta, 5-0. Both brought tremendous exposure to a sport that badly needed it. Here’s your shot. Weigh in.


Star of the show brought down the house

Breeders’ Cup XXVI brought 58,845 to Santa Anita, the Great Race Place, last Saturday to watch the greatest filly/mare I’ve seen run in my lifetime, and I’ve been going to the races since 1973.

Yes, Zenyatta put on quite a show for a turnout that, for the most part, didn’t care who they’d bet on when jockey Mike Smith steered the mammoth daughter of Street Cry to the outside and then closed like a locomotive to win the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic by one length over Gio Ponti.

It was the biggest non-Churchill Downs crowd for a Breeders’ Cup since 1986 when 69,155 turned out at Oak Tree to watch horses like Capote, Fran’s Valentine, Precisionist and Skywalker run. It was the biggest crowd at Santa Anita, period since 1988 when Alysheba won the Big ‘Cap in front of 70,432.

It just shows how important it is for the sport to be able to showcase its stars on big days like Breeders’ Cup weekend. Yes, there’s no denying the fact a lot of poor management decisions have helped drag the industry down to where it is today, but a big part of the blame can also be pinned on the decision to retire horses before they’ve developed a following. And once they’ve developed that following, during the running of the Triple Crown races or what have you, then they’re sent off to the breeding shed before we can witness scenes like we did when Zenyatta became the first female to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“I think we’re all euphoric,” Allen Gutterman, Santa Anita’s marketing director, told me Sunday morning at Clockers’ Corner. “It’s been a difficult meet, and to see the reaction (of fans), you feel like you are in a real major-league sport again when something like this happens. It’s good for racing when we have these kind of things happen where the fans come out and want to be part of something.

“It shows you how badly we need stars and how the problem is when horses are retired so young. We don’t get a chance to develop stars as marketers and race-track operators. It’s not just all about the betting, it’s about the horses, and people love horses. When you see people with signs for Zenyatta or Rachel (Alexandra) or anybody, that means that they care. That’s an emotion that you can’t create with giveaways or freebies. It comes from the horse, and I think it’s the same thing how people feel about the Lakers or the Dodgers or something like that.”

Exactly.

Walter O’Malley’s decision in the late 1950s to uproot the Dodgers from Brooklyn and move them to Los Angeles caused a lot of bad feelings. Yes, the Dodgers were a bunch of bums to many Brooklyn fans, but they were “their” bums, and that’s all that mattered. They had developed a following, and then they were moved 3,000 miles to the west and the Brooklyn fans had lost something that meant a lot to them.

Same way with horses, only to a lesser extent. Stars like Secretariat, Street Sense, Empire Maker and Smarty Jones are retired way too early, before they can attract the same type of fan base Zenyatta did. And we saw Saturday just how powerful that fan base can become and what it can lead to in terms of drama and excitement for the sport.

Sadly, money rules the world nowadays. It’s the reason World Series games are all played at night and why the baseball playoffs are sprinkled with so many needless days off. It’s the TV money that calls the shots.

Same with these horses. Breeding rights are so valuable now, few want to risk future riches by racing their stars much beyond their 3-year-old campaigns.

Love him or loathe him for his decision not to bring Rachel Alexandra to the Breeders’ Cup because of his disdain for synthetics, but owner Jess Jackson deserves much credit for campaigning Curlin as a 4-year-old and if he does bring back Rachel for her 4-year-old campaign. Ditto the Mosses, Jerry and Ann, for bringing back Zenyatta for her 5-year-old season.

Imagine the sport right now if we hadn’t had Zenyatta this year, or if we didn’t have Rachel’s 4-year-old season to look forward to with anticipation?

Well, that’s too depressing to even ponder. Excuse me while I go watch a replay of Saturday’s Classic again for the umpteenth time.

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Lost in the brilliance that was Zenyatta

Talk about a show stopper, well, Zenyatta not only hogged the stage on Breeders’ Cup XXVI weekend at Santa Anita’s Oak Tree meet, she also overshadowed so many other great accomplishments and storylines the 14 World Championship races produced.

Now, don’t get wrong — Zenyatta was the 2009 Breeders’ Cup. Trainer Bob Baffert was right when he said, “What she did (Saturday) for the sport was incredible. The Breeders’ Cup, without her in the Classic, oh my God. It would have been like Friday. We’d have had two Fridays. She put about 10,000 people in the stands.”

Yes, Zenyatta is great. Fabulous. Incomparable. All the adjectives you want to use to describe a 5-year-old mare who has developed such a personality over the past year that she probably intentionally broke a length or so behind the others in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Spotted them a handicap, so to speak. Let the boys have a sporting chance.

She also had a quick answer for Life Is Sweet’s ultra-impressive victory in Friday’s Ladies’ Classic, one-upping a stablemate she had dominated in three head-to-head meetings this year with her own amazinginly emotional one-length victory in the Classic.

But how about these sidelights to a weekend that was again marked by great weather, injury-free racing and a huge two-day throng of 96,496, easily surpassing last year’s total of 82,578:

* The Brian Koriner-trained California Flag gave 82-year-old owner Keith Card a victory in the Turf Sprint. It’s been a tough year for Card, who has suffered some strokes and has not been in the best of health. But California Flag’s victory had to be great tonic for the man.

* When Dancing in Silks won the Sprint in a driving four-horse finish, it undoubtedly was great medicine for trainer Carla Gaines, who lost her brother and best horse — Nashoba’s Key — in 2008 and needed a shot in the arm. The gelding’s victory also gave jockey Joel Rosario his first Grade 1 win.

* Cloudy Knight, a 9-year-old gelding, almost pulled off a victory in the $500,000 Marathon, losing by a nose to Man of Iron and depriving Rosemary Homeister the chance to join Julie Krone as the only female jockeys to win a Breeders’ Cup race.

* European invaders Goldikova (Mile) and Conduit (Turf) successfully defended their championships from a year ago with big come-from-behind efforts. Conduit’s, in particular, was noteworty because the front-running Presious Passion ran his eyeballs out in the 1 1/2-mile event, running the half-mile in 45 seconds flat and still having enough in the stretch to hang with Conduit until the final 50 yards. What a race.

* Life Is Sweet finally emerged from Zenyatta’s shadow to post the biggest victory of her career, winning the Ladies’ Classic by 2 1/2 lengths. When she did that, Baffert knew Zenyatta was going to be tough in the Classic against the boys.

“I always thought well, maybe she’s (Zenyatta) been beating up these mares, and then when that Life Is Sweet did what she did the day before, I said, ‘Oh boy. Oh (bleep).’ (Zenyatta) had been toying with that filly.”

* Ahmed Ajtebi became the first Middle Eastern jockey to win a Breeders’ Cup when he guided the Saeed bin Suroor-trained Vale of York to the narrowest of victories over Lookin At Lucky and jockey Garrett Gomez in the Juvenile.

* Julien Leparoux won the seventh annual Bill Shoemaker Award for Breeders’ Cup excellence when he rode three winners in the two days, lifting him into No. 1 on the North American earnings list and giving him 10 Grade 1 stakes victories for the year as he bids to unseat Gomez as the Eclipse Award winner as top jockey.

Overall, it was another perfect weekend for the Oak Tree meet as Santa Anita became the first track to host the Breeders’ Cup in consecutive years. Things went so well that even one Eastern writer volunteered that maybe Oak Tree should host the event every year. Wait until guys like Nick Zito and Wayne Lukas have a chance to digest that idea.


Rachel or Zenyatta? In this instance, both deserve HOY

What an electric moment, one frozen in time for even the most casual of horse racing fan to cherish the rest of their life.

From the time Zenyatta was being saddled in the paddock, to when she did that little prancing act for her adoring public, to the five-minute delay at the gate when Quality Road acted up, to her tardy start out of the gate, to, finally, Mike Smith’s picture-perfect ride and the the roar of the crowd as Smith steered the massive mare outside and let her do her thing, which is to put her head down, lengthen her stride and close ground in the stretch like few horses we have ever seen, Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Classic was the greatest single moment in sports I have ever had the pleasure to watch in person. Not just the greatest moment in Breeders’ Cup history, but greatest sports moment ever. Period.

Then, of course, the scene that followed — trainer John Shirreffs going nuts in jubilation, tossing his cap into the crowd, everyone associated with the horse hugging, and many crying, the crowd’s roar when Smith galloped Zenyatta back in front of the clubhouse and then the heightened ovation as Smith stood in the saddle, exulting the fans to let it all hang out.

I wrote a column a couple weeks ago stating, for all intents and purposes, the Horse of the Year race was over and it was Rachel Alexandra’s no matter what happened in the Classic. Uh, wrong. It’s the second time I’ve eaten crow this year, the first being when I told readers back in May they could immediately eliminate Mine That Bird in their Kentucky Derby handicapping.

It’s funny how one race — albeit one astonishing race — can change a columnist’s mind. It was such a dramatic race, and the finish could not have been more thrilling. I’ve covered World Series, NFL playoff games, Rose Bowls, and nothing compares to that moment that I covered Saturday. It was something I will never, ever forget. It was one of those moments all of us are lucky to witness in person once in our lifetimes.

HOY? Well, I’m not as adamant anymore. They don’t let us split our votes, but I would love to see them voted co-Horses of the Year because neither one deserves to lose out to the other. They have both been so good for the sport this year that I think it would bring the house down if the two horses’ connections were asked to come up to the stage on the night of Jan. 18 in Beverly Hills and at that moment it was announced they were both all-time great horses and, because of that, for the first time in history, they would both be crowned Horse of the Year. Can you imagine the ovation?

Don’t give me the argument that the vote’s never been split and because of tradtiion and/or precedence, we can’t do it this year. Hogwash. Incredible circumstances call for temporary rules changes. These are two unbeaten race horses that did NOTHING wrong at any time this year. They were perfection, both going unbeaten and both drawing their own loyal followers. At a time when this industry has just about hit rock bottom and it’s starving for attention and feel-good stories, to have these two magnificent horses come along the same year and do what they have for the sport, well, tell you what — I’ll let YOU tell the owners of the losing horse the final results for HOY.

I mean, c’mon … Rachel Alexandra did things no filly has done in close to 100 years. Incredible, extraordinary feats. She made people sit up and take notice in the Preakness Stakes when perhaps interest surely would have waned. She took on the boys twice more, beating older males in the Woodward. She graced the inside pages of Vogue magazine, again lending increased exposure to a sport that is as starved for attention as much as Cubs fans are a World Series.

Zenyatta?

Well, I have been blessed enough to witness 10 or 11 of her 14 races in person, and she is unlike any horse — either sex — I have ever seen in the way she comes from last or next to last every single time and it doesn’t matter what the fractions are. How many times have you heard jockeys and trainers say after a race, “It’s tough to win when there’s no pace to run at.” Damn right it is, but you know what — Zenyatta closed and won every single time she raced, no matter how painfully slow the early fractions were. And she capped her career by becoming the first female winner of the Classic and the first horse to win two different Breeders’ Cup races.

Ladies and gentlemen, if what these two horses have accomplished in 2009 is not worthy of co-Horses of the Year, well, I’ll use part of a quote by Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who told reporters at Santa Anita’s Clockers’ Corner on Sunday morning that if Zenyatta is not rewarded with Horse of the Year, “there is something wrong with our sport.”

“They both deserve it, but I think after yesterday, you got to give it to Zenyatta,” Baffert went on to say.

I say if they aren’t named co-Horses of the Year, racing is missing a great opportunity and yes, there is something wrong with our sport.

Baffert said he would not be opposed to co-Horses of the Year.

“That wouldn’t be bad,” he said. “They’re both great mares. I’ve never seen anything like Rachel or Zenyatta since I’ve been training here. You got to give a lot of respect to both of them.

“(But) if you had to give it to one, it would have to be Zenyatta. What she did yesterday for the sport was incredible. The Breeders’ Cup, without her in the Classic, oh my God. It would have been like Friday. We’d have had two Fridays. She put about 10,000 people in the stands.”

True, but Rachel did a lot for the sport as well, and we know the Preakness would not have been what it was without her in the second leg of the Triple Crown. And when was the last time you saw a horse in Vogue? I mean, c’mon. It’s unheard of.

There were thousands of racing fans who went home after the Preakness, Haskell and Woodward after Rachel beat the boys feeling good about the sport, talking about the history they’d just witnessed for days after.

Same with Zenyatta.

“When (Zenyatta) hit the wire, it was like everybody won,” Baffert said. “I mean, horse racing won when she hit the wire. She made us all leave here feeling good about our sport.

“It was like a movie script. They couldn’t have written it any better. Then for her to make that run. And then the fans, I’ve never been at a track where the whole grandstand just erupted. There was so much buzz.”

Yes, this is so much more than just about how many races each won this year. It’s about what they also did for a sport crying for attention.

No, both Rachel Alexandra were just too brilliant, two good for the sport to ignore one of the two. We have to reward them both by making this a special occasion, naming them both Horse of the Year.

Dare we say it? Can Santa Anita draw 60,000 today?

Is it possible that Santa Anita could surpass all expectations and come close to or exceed 60,000 in on-track attendance today during day two of Breeders’ Cup XXVI during the Oak Tree meet?

Let’s do the math: Last year on opening Friday of Breeders’ Cup XXV, 31,275 fans showed up on track during a day when Zenyatta was running in the Ladies’ Classic. This year, on a day when there were no draws close to a Zenyatta, Oak Tree drew an on-track crowd of 37,651 — a 20 percent hike — for the Friday card.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. While Zenyatta was a big draw last year, she’s probably an even bigger attraction this year, what with her winning streak even larger and her taking on boys for the first time in the Classic. If 51,321 showed up on the second day last year without the lure of a Zenyatta going for a 14th consecutive victory and trying to become the first female to win the Classic, how many more will show up today?

Let’s say, for starters, Oak Tree and Breeders’ Cup officials are fortunate enough to get a 20 percent spike in attendance today like they did Friday. Well, that’s an on-track crowd of more than 60,000, and it’s been 21 years — when Alysheba won the 1988 Big ‘Cap in front of 70,432 — since Santa Aniat drew an on-track crowd of more than 60,000.

Breeders’ Cup and Oak Tree officials had to be smiling all night because of Friday’s on-track turnout. Let’s face it, Oak Tree’s numbers have been sagging badly the past few weeks and there was much uneasiness over what the numbers would be this weekend.

One high-ranking Santa Anita official told me on Breeders’ Cup draw day that they’d be happy with a two-day total matching last year’s 82,578. Well, to match last year’s on-track attendance, Santa Anita has to draw only 44,927 today. After that crowd Friday, I’d be very surprised if at least 50,000 aren’t on hand today, and I’m expecting a crowd of between 55,000 and 60,000.

That isn’t close to Santa Anita’s all-time record 85,527 that turned out when Lord At War won the 1985 Big ‘Cap, but in this economy and the way the horse-racing industry has struggled the past few years, well, a two-day Breeders’ Cup crowd of more than 92,651 would be mighty impressive.

Zenyatta’s camp wanted to meet Rachel in Beldame

Those who’ve been accusing the Zenyatta camp of staying home, protecting their mare’s perfect record and ducking probable Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra, perhaps better think again.

Apparently, Rachel Alexandra’s connections felt more compelled to face older males than race against Zenyatta this past summer. Jess Jackson and Co. had every opportunity to meet Zenyatta on dirt and in a 1 1/8-mile one-turn race, which would have been advantageous to the fabulous 3-year-old filly, but opted to go in the Woodward.

Zenyatta’s trainer, John Shirreffs, says they nominated the 5-year-old daughter of Street Cry to the $600,000 Grade 1 Beldame States at Belmont Park, which was run on Oct. 3, in hopes that Rachel Alexandra would bypass the Woodward at Saratoga on Sept. 5 and instead wait and run against Zenyatta.

“That was the whole reason for nominating her to the Beldame,” Shirreffs said. “It was probably the one realistic opportunity that we both had. Because up until then, obviously she was running in 3-year-old races and we were out here.”

Zenyatta’s veteran exercise rider, Steve Willard, who’s worked with Alysheba, Afternoon Deelite, Dare And Go, Gate Dancer and Gentlemen during his career, says it’s better for Rachel Alexandra that the two distaffers didn’t meet.

“I know everybody brags on Rachel, but I believe we could run her down,” he said.
“But the reason I know we could run Rachel down … yeah, she runs fast for a mile, but look at the finish. They are average times. Very average. And (Zenyatta) has never failed to catch her target.”

Mastercraftsman heaviest of Breeders’ Cup favorites

There were six favorites listed at 8-5 or lower when Santa Anita oddsmaker Jon White’s Breeders’ Cup morning lines were announced in conjunction with the post-position draw on Tuesday.

The heaviest favorite?

Mastercraftsman, at 6-5 in the $1 million Dirt Mile on Saturday. He’s won seven of 11 lifetime and won by five lengths in his only try on a synthetic in his last start.

Other heavy favorites included Zensational (7-5) in the Sprint, Conduit (7-5) in the Turf, Goldikova (8-5) in the Mile, Ventura (8-5) in the Filly & Mare Sprint, and Lookin at Lucky in the Juvenile.

If you’re looking to make a play in the new wager that challenges bettors to pick the jockey with the most wins during the Breeders’ Cup’s two days, Garrett Gomez is aboard two of the six heavy favorites.


Shirreffs recalls Zenyatta’s two most impressive races

Trainer John Shirreffs has no doubt which of Zenyatta’s 13 victories was most impressive. He doesn’t even hesitate before naming the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park in April 2008. She blew away Brownie Points and Eclipse Award winner Apple Blossom by 4 1/2 lengths, after which the runner-up and third-place finisher returned to win their next starts.

“That was absolutely her most impressive race,” Shirreffs said. “She just blew by them.”

But Shirreffs was also greatly impressed by Zenyatta’s effort in the 2008 Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park, a race in which the Brian Koriner-trained filly Silver Z opened an early 15-length lead before tiring.

“Everything was against her that day,” Shirreffs said. “She washed out in the paddock, it was like 160 degrees on the race track and she was just really upset. (Then) that horse of Brian Koriner’s, that gray horse, opened up 15 on the field, so everybody was sitting there watching, waiting to see what Zenyatta is going to do and nobody’s going after Brian’s horse.

“Before the five-eighths pole, Mike (Smith) had to start moving Zenyatta to go after Brian’s horse, so that was like a five-eighths of a mile sustained run under really bad conditions for her because she got so upset in the paddock … I thought that was a great race because she had everything go against her.”

Yet she still won by a half-length, the second-slimmest margin of victory in her carreer behind only her victory by a head in this summer’s Clement L. Hirsch at Del Mar, and she’s won seven more times since.

Shirreffs’ favorite victory with Zenyatta was her 1 1/2-length score in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic, when an adoring crowd welcomed her back with applause as Smith galloped her back to the winner’s circle.

“It was the Breeders’ Cup stage and everything,” Shirreffs said. “It’s when the East and West get together, and Cocoa Beach was coming in with a big reputation.”

Shirreffs also liked the crowd reaction before this year’s Hirsch at Del Mar.

“I thought it was absolutely spectacular, because in the paddock they were yelling and clapping and everything for her,” he said. “And then going through the tunnel, you couldn’t believe how it was in the tunnel, the yelling and screaming. It reminded me of the Derby. Everybody was so excited, and there was so much positive energy. It was great.”

The world “great” and Zenyatta seem to go hand in hand.

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Hall of Famer Bailey weighs in on Rachel Alexandra

Like most of us, former jockey Jerry Bailey, the all-time leading Breeders’ Cup winner with 15 victories, is disappointed Rachel Alexandra is not at Santa Anita this week to prepare for the $5 million Classic.

Yet Bailey is not ready to throw co-owner Jess Jackson under the bus because of his controversial decision to skip the Breeders’ Cup after two-time Horse of the Year Curlin finished fourth in last year’s Classic over Santa Anita’s synthetic Pro-Ride surface.

“He did step out last year and he brought Curlin against the desires of (trainer) Steve Asmussen, who didn’t think it was in his best interests at that time of the year to run him on the synthetic,” Bailey said on an ESPN conference call today. “But he did it anyway, so I got to tip my hat for him.

“Jess did put up a lot of money to buy this filly (a reported $10 million) and immediately took her outside of her division and ran against the boys in the Preakness and eventually in the Haskell, which it’s very unlikely the previous owners would have done. So he did contribute something to the game that I don’t think we would have seen had he not purchased this filly.

“But yeah, I wish she was here, because there would be nothing better than to see her against Zenyatta or both of them against the males. I am disappointed, but I am glad that (Jackson) wants to bring her back next year. So I am looking at the positive on that.”

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