Right now, Rachel’s not in Zenyatta’s class

After last fall’s Breeders’ Cup, I went on record as saying I thought Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra deserved to be co-Horses of the Year. Neither distaffer had done anything wrong in 2009, both were brilliantly perfect, and I didn’t think either deserved to win the nod over the other.

But, given the fact that Eclipse Award voters could not split their vote, I went with Zenyatta because she won the biggest race of the year in the Breeders’ Cup Classic in a race that included the top male horses in the country and she’d also spotted other fillies and mares weight as part of her 5-0 campaign.

I also wrote a column three weeks ago, calling Zenyatta the best horse I’d ever seen run in person. Needless to say, I received a lot of feedback from fans who took issue with my stance, asking how I could say she was better than Secretariat and Affirmed.

Simple, folks. She’s never lost. She’s 16-0. Whereas most great horses sometimes don’t feel like running or don’t give their best effort for whatever reason, Zenyatta has fired every single time, whether it be soft fractions, fast fractions or somewhere in between. She’s never had an off-day, and to me, that’s remarkable.

She receives undue criticism because she’s won 14 of her 16 races on synthetics. Well, that just shows how great she is because she much prefers dirt over artificial tracks. Get her on dirt, and she’s even better. Proof? Her two victories in the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park this year and in 2008 were the only times in her career she’s won by better than four lengths.

Less than an hour ago, Rachel Alexandra made her second start of 2010 and was upset again, losing to Unrivaled Belle as the 1-5 favorite in the Grade 2 La Troienne Stakes at Churchill Downs after losing to Zardana as the 1-9 favorite in the New Orleans Ladies at the Fair Grounds in her first race of the year on March 13.

Rachel Alexandra was a brilliant 3-year-old, one of the best of all-time. But so far, she’s failed to carry that 3-year-old form over to her 4-year-old campaign. She’s starting to concede weight to horses, giving four pounds to the winner today. That’s not an easy thing to do. It’s the great equalizer in horse racing.

There is much speculation going around today that majority owner Jess Jackson will now call it quits with Rachel Alexandra, that if he goes on with her and she loses again her legacy will be diminished. There’s something to that, but I also feel that if she’s sound, they need to go on with her to prove to her legion of fans that she can indeed win at 4.

Right now, if Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra were to hook up on the race track, it would be no contest. Zenyatta would eat Rachel for lunch. I’m not so sure you could have said that last fall after Jackson’s brilliant Medaglia d’Oro filly had beaten the boys in the Woodward Stakes.

But that was then, and this is now. Until Rachel Alexandra proves she can beat older horses and spot them weight, she’ll go down as one of the greatest 3-year-olds ever but won’t deserve consideration for all-time top horses like Zenyatta.

The two super distaffers were a match made in heaven last year, but it would be the mismatch of the decade if they met on the race track anytime soon.

Local trainers high on Derby chances for Sidney’s Candy

Hollywood Park publicity official Steve Schuelein asked some of the Southern California trainers who they like in Saturday’s 136th Kentucky Derby:

Ron Ellis– “California horses have shown they’re the class of the field. Post 20 may not be bad at all for Sidney’s Candy, although the rail may be tough for Lookin at Lucky.”
Mark Glatt– “I think California is pretty solid. The complexion of the race is a lot different with Eskendereya out. If Sidney’s Candy is willing to rate a little, he’s got a heckuva chance.”
Hall of Famer Jack Van Berg– “I like Sidney’s Candy.”
Ben Cecil– “I like John Sadler’s horse, Sidney’s Candy.”
Marty Jones– “The California horses.”
Carl O’Callaghan (a former Todd Pletcher assistant)– “Any one of the (four) Pletcher horses, but I’m rooting for Sidney’s Candy and (jockey) Joe Talamo.”
Craig Dollase– “I’d like to see the California horses do well. They’re always knocking us on the East Coast that we can’t run.”
Hollywood Park racing secretary Martin Panza– “Dublin. I think it’s time for Wayne Lukas.”

Noseda: Don’t judge trainers by their Derby record

How tough is it to win a Kentucky Derby? Well, all you need to know is that the incomparable Charlie Whittingham didn’t win his first until he was 73. He won with Ferdinand in 1986, becoming the oldest trainer to win the Derby. He won it again three years later with Sunday Silence.

How elusive is the Churchill Downs winner’s circle on the first Saturday in May? The late Bobby Frankel, five-time Eclipse Award winner as the nation’s top trainer, never won the Derby. Todd Pletcher, who’s won four Eclipse Awards, is 0 for 24 in the Run for the Roses, though he’s expected to start five more horses in Saturday’s 136th running in an effort to finally break through.

British trainer Jeremy Noseda, who’ll start Awesome Act in Saturday’s Derby, is well aware of just how difficult a race it is to win. He’s heard all the stories, witnessed many hard-luck tales with colts like I Want Revenge and Eskendereya, who may have been good enough to win the race but didn’t make it there because of injury.

“It’s one of the hardest races in the world to win,” Noseda said. “I’ve spent a little time in America, and I say to people (in England) that I think it’s a tougher race to win than the Epsom Derby. I don’t say that in relation to the quality of the horse, but the buildup, training on American tracks, the seasoning they need to go through to arrive there on Kentucky Derby day, and then the race itself is a unique event and it requires an awful amount of luck, whether it be draw or whether it be pace, whether it be traffic in the race.

“I think it’s such a unique contest that you need a huge element of luck, not only to run there on the day, but actually to go and win it on the day. To me, from the outside, there’s something about the Kentucky Derby that makes it an extraordinary, difficult race to win for so many reasons as opposed to our Epsom Derby. I generally believe that in the Epsom Derby, if you’ve got the best horse you’ll go and win the race. I don’t know if that really applies to the Kentucky Derby.”

True enough. Remember Point Given in 2001? Here’s a colt who won the final two legs of the Triple Crown — the Preakness and Belmont — and then the Haskell Invitational and Travers en route to Horse of the Year laurels after finishing fifth in the Derby. He just didn’t like the Churchill Downs surface, a sandy track that many horses just don’t handle.

In the Derby, often times it’s better to be lucky than the best horse in the race.

“That’s not in any way to run the race down, but it’s such a unique event that I think there’s so many other issues that come in to play in the buildup and come the day of the race,” Noseda said. “I think that’s one of the reasons it’s so special, because it’s an extraordinarily tough thing to do.”

Noseda went on to mention Whittingham as an example of just how difficult it is to win the Derby.

“Charlie Whittingham, who was no doubt one of the greatest trainers anywhere in the world, it took him long enough to win it, didn’t it?” he said. “So I don’t think we should look at any trainer and judge him by what happened in the Kentucky Derby. You need the element of luck.”

Favored Eskendereya out of the Derby

Last year it was I Want Revenge the morning of the race. This year, six days before the 136th running of the Kentucky Derby, likely post-time favorite Eskendereya has been declared out of the race because of a bad front leg.

Just goes to show how fragile these big, strong animals are. Also points out just how difficult it is to win the Derby. This colt was supposed to represent trainer Todd Pletcher’s best chance at his first Derby success after 24 failures, but now he’ll have to do it with one of his other runners.

You not only have to have the right horse to win the Kentucky Derby, but you’ve also got to be lucky. He or she has to stay sound and you need a clean trip in what is usually an overcrowded 20-horse field.

I got a feeling we’ll now see the filly Devil May Care in Saturday’s Derby if she looks ready. Pletcher feels a mile and a quarter and perhaps even longer distances will suit this filly, and when many of the others are backing up in the stretch she might just be the one who could keep going.

Eskendereya’s withdrawal is a blow to backers of Lookin At Lucky and Sidney’s Candy. Both of those colts’ prices figure to plummet now, with perhaps one of the two inheriting the favorite’s role.

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Rachel Alexandra may return to races Friday

Jess Jackson, owner of 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra, said Saturday his star 4-year-old filly might run in Friday’s $400,000 Grade 2 La Troienne Stakes on the Kentucky Oaks undercard at Churchill Downs.

Rachel Alexandra, who went 8-0 last year and beat males three times, has not raced since finishing second to Zardana in the New Orleans Ladies at the Fair Grounds on March 13. After that race, Jackson said the Medaglia d’Oro filly was not 100 percent and would not meet Zenyatta in the Apple Blossom Invitational at Oaklawn Park on April 9 as planned.

Jackson said a final decision will be made about the La Troienne after Rachel Alexandra works Monday morning at Churchill Downs, the track where she scored a record 20 1/4-length victory in last year’s $500,000 Kentucky Oaks.

“Right now we’re pointing there,” Jackson said. “Her workout Monday will tell us a lot more. It’ll be light; it’s not going to be a bullet. We want to see that she stays on track and improves every time she goes out and that’s what’s been happening the last two or three times. She’s getting ready.”

Zardana, trained by John Shirreffs, who also conditions Zenyatta, is scheduled to run in the La Troienne, setting up a rematch against Rachel Alexandra in the 1 1/16-mile race on dirt for older fillies and mares.

Jackson said he’s been pleased with Rachel Alexandra’s progress since she arrived at Churchill Downs from the Fair Grounds.

“She’s happy at Churchill,” he said. “Lexington is her home, but Churchill is her favorite track and she’s surely giving us every sign of being ready to run. She’s going to need another race before she really defines herself the way she did early last year but I think she’s 85 percent to 90, maybe 95, right now.”

Rachel Alexandra has won 11 of 15 starts in her career, compared to Zenyatta’s mark of 16-0. Still no word about a potential showdown between the two most popular horses in training today.

Shirreffs taking it one race at a time with Zenyatta

It’s been a little more than three months since Rachel Alexandra won out over Zenyatta in a spirited Horse of the Year race that was as hotly debated as any in recent memory.

Since that January night at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in California, Zenyatta has run her record to 16-0 with a pair of Grade 1 victories while Rachel Alexandra was upset in her 2010 debut at the Fair Grounds on March 13 and hasn’t raced since.

Zenyatta will probably make her third start of the year in the Grade 1 Vanity Handicap on June 13 at Hollywood Park if she’s not assigned the grandstand when weights are issued. The Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs the day before also is a possibility.

When Rachel Alexandra races again is anybody’s guess. Owner Jess Jackson is not talking, and he — not trainer Steve Asmussen — is usually the one who announces where and when the 4-year-old filly will run next.

On Wednesday, during opening day of Hollywood Park’s spring-summer meet in front of a sparse on-track turnout of 3,487, Zenyatta’s trainer John Shirreffs was asked if he harbors any bitterness over the fact his 6-year-old mare has two Breeders’ Cup victories, including the first ever by a female in the prestigious Classic, and 16 wins without a defeat but zero Horse of the Year titles.

“It’s hard to have any bitterness when it involves Zenyatta,” Shirreffs said. “She’s such a special gift and we’re really blessed to have her. And you know, that’s (Horse of the Year vote) a popularity poll. The other filly accomplished a lot, and the arguments go both ways. We’re just happy Zenyatta won the Breeders’ Cup Classic and accomplished so much.”

Despite the fact Zenyatta’s won both her starts on dirt by more than four lengths, there are still skeptics out there who label her a synthetic-track specialist. Never mind the victories were the only races she’s won by more than four lengths, they refuse to give her any credit.

Shirreffs only smiles when reminded of this. He, along with everyone else who has seen the daughter of Street Cry run on a regular basis, know she’s a better horse on dirt. She’s actually compromising her chances when she runs on a synthetic surface. She’s won twice over a track — Del Mar — that she detests.

“We always said she liked dirt, that it was her preferred surface, but that’s not what we have here (in California),” Shirreffs said. “She’s just so talented.”

Despite published reports, Shirreffs says a decision hasn’t been made whether Zenyatta will run in this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on Nov. 6 or the Ladies’ Classic the day before. He’s taking each race one at a time.

“It’s (too) early,” he said. “I think she accomplished so much last year it’s not about what she can accomplish this year, it’s more about letting other people enjoy her and let the fans have some fun with her.”

Shirreffs said Zenyatta will race outside of California again before the Breeders’ Cup, that his wife Dottie, who serves as racing manager for owners Jerry and Ann Moss, has every condition book from around the country on her desk to help pick and choose.

“She knows what’s going on,” Shirreffs said.

Still, he and the Mosses don’t want to keep Zenyatta on the road the rest of the year.

“You can’t ship every race, that’s impossible,” he said.

Bourbon Bay looks ultra tough in San Juan

If there’s anything close to a sure thing on today’s 10-race card during closing day at Santa Anita, it’s Bourbon Bay in the $150,000 Grade 2 San Juan Capistrano Handicap. He’s a short 6-5 favorite on the morning line.

Bourbon Bay, trained by Neil Drysdale, will be trying to become only the third horse and first since Kotashaan in 1993 to sweep the meet’s three marathon stakes on turf — the San Luis Obispo, the San Luis Rey and the San Juan. The first two are 1 1/2-mile races, and the San Juan starts up on the hill and is about 1 3/4 miles in distance.

In 1974, grass specialist Astray swept the three-race series, though the San Luis Obispo was split into two divisions that year.

Bourbon Bay, a 4-year-old gelded son of Sligo Bay, won the San Luis Obispo by 4 1/4 lengths and the San Luis Rey by 2 1/2 after beginning the meeting with a 3 1/2-length victory in an optional claimer at 1 1/2 miles over the grass on Jan. 6.

Overall, he’s won 4 of 11 on the lawn with two seconds and two thirds for earnings of $287,424. He’s 3 for 3 on the turf at Santa Anita.

The only horse I can see giving Bourbon Bay a run for his money is the Mike Mitchell-trained Tap It Light, who is coming off a three-quarter length victory in the Grade 3 Tokoy City Handicap at 1 1/2 miles over the turf on March 27. Tyler Baze retains the mount.

Stalingrad, a 6-year-old gelding trained by James Cassidy, has won 4 of 9 on the turf and has the back class to give the top two a battle, but his best races in graded stakes were more than a year ago at Saratoga and Belmont Park over soft turf courses. David Flores will ride.

Rafael Bejarano, the runaway winner of his third consecutive Santa Anita riding title, will climb aboard Bourbon Bay for the third consecutive race. It would be fitting if he ended the meet with a victory in the San Juan Capistrano.

Bejarano shooting for the century mark

Rafael Bejarano already is assured of becoming the first jockey to win three consecutive Santa Anita riding titles since Laffit Pincay from 1979-81. He took care of that long ago, but now he has a shot at another milestone.

Bejarano, a 28-year-old native of Peru, entered the final week of this Santa Anita season needing 11 victories to reach the century mark — something that hasn’t been done since Kent Desormeaux won 112 races during the 1994-95 season. Corey Nakatani also won more than 100 races that year, finishing with 107.

The century mark at Santa Anita has been reached 18 times, including a record nine times by the incomparable Laffit Pincay Jr., who looks like he could still be riding today if not for the injury that forced him to retire in 2003.

After Bejarano’s 0 for 4 Wednesday, he’s sitting on 89 victories with four days to go. He’s scheduled to ride in seven of the eight races both today and Friday and has been booked on mounts in eight of Saturday’s 10 races. He needs to average a little more than 2.5 victories per day, meaning he probably needs one four-victory afternoon to reach the magic number.

Can he do it? I say he will. What do you think?

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Top three stand out in latest Kentucky Derby rankings

Other than the top three in the Kentucky Derby rankings I submitted to the Paulick Report this week, I have been less than inspired by most of the runners. To me, there is a large gap between the top three — Lookin At Lucky, Eskendereya and Sidney’s Candy — and the rest of the contenders.

I was disappointed that Wayne Lukas’ Dublin could not go past 17-1 long shot Line of David in the Arkansas Derby. Super Saver, trained by Todd Pletcher, could not go by the winner either, but it was only his second race of 2010 and he could improve off that effort on May 1. Dublin didn’t have that excuse because if was his third start as a 3-year-old, though I’m hardly ready to dismiss him on Derby Day, not when Lukas has won four Derbies and is still high on the colt.

For some reason, call it a gut feeling or whatever, but I still have a feeling Conveyance, despite fading in the Sunland Derby, is going to run big in the Run for the Roses. Bob Baffert has not given up on the Indian Charlie colt and so I won’t either.

To me, the rest of the list is a grab bag. But the way these horses can improve from start to start early in their 3-year-old season, it’s not impossible that we get another huge price on Derby Day.

My latest Kentucky Derby rankings:

1. Lookin At Lucky — No 3-year-old has better overall resume than this guy
2. Eskendereya — Many think he’s the one who’ll give Pletcher first Derby victory
3. Sidney’s Candy — Talamo gets second shot after last year’s disappointment
4. Conveyance — Can he go gate to wire for Baffert like War Emblem in 2002?
5. Super Saver — Has already won by five lengths at Churchill as a 2-year-old
6. Dublin — Come May 1, it will be put up or shut up time for this talented colt
7. Ice Box — Career-best Beyer of 99 fits with most of the other contenders
8. Endorsement — One of four WinStar Farm runners who could make Derby
9. American Lion — Showed he liked dirt when he won the Illinois Derby
10. Noble’s Promise — Lackluster Arkansas Derby effort should produce nice Derby odds

They’re gushing over the super mare Zenyatta

On the eve of Friday’s $500,000 Grade 1 Apple Blossom Invitational, a race where Zenyatta will go for her 16th victory without defeat, here’s what some of the Southland trainers are saying about the 6-year-old superstar, courtesy of Santa Anita publicity official Ed Golden:

RONALD McANALLY (trainer of champion fillies Bayakoa and Paseana)
“I’m absolutely amazed that Zenyatta’s done everything you would have asked of her. She’s such a big, long-striding mare, and to win like she does, especially in the Santa Margarita when she was last turning for home and won going away, is remarkable. She’s just a great mare. I’m amazed every time she runs. It’s unbelievable.

“I think (John) Shirreffs has done a marvelous job with her, spacing her races and doing the right thing with her. I liked Zenyatta against Rachel Alexandra before the (Horse of the Year) voting and I liked her after the voting. I thought the Eastern voters made a big mistake making Rachel the Horse of the Year. The people back East have more votes than they have out here and I think they realize now that they made a huge mistake.

“I know Rachel wasn’t fit enough to win her first out in New Orleans this year. I could see the handwriting on the wall right from the beginning. But even had she been fit and they ran together tomorrow in the Apple Blossom, to me there’s no question that Zenyatta would have beaten her.”

“I really thought that Rachel Alexandra deserved Horse of the Year, but at the same time, I never had any doubt in my mind, and I don’t even need to see them run against each other, to know that she’s not as good as Zenyatta.

“I’ve been around racing 30 years. There are things a lot of us trainers don’t know, but we all know a freak when we see a freak, and Zenyatta stands head and shoulders above all the horses I’ve ever seen.”

“I always thought Zenyatta would beat Rachel Alexandra on any surface, as long as it wasn’t in a match race, where Rachel would get an easy lead. Zenyatta should have been Horse of the Year in 2009, because what she accomplished last year was enough to make her one of the all-time great race mares. Rachel Alexandra accomplished a lot, but we don’t know if she’s one of the all-time greats. So if you’re one of the all-time greats, and the other one is or isn’t, you should be Horse of the Year, no question about it.

“I’d like to see Rachel Alexandra do well and I’d love to see them compete against each other, but obviously, they’re afraid of Zenyatta and they’re not going to run against her.”

“Rachel Alexandra is a wonderful, beautiful, lovely filly, but I think Zenyatta is far superior. But by the same token, I think Rachel Alexandra ran against a class of 3-year-olds that maybe were subpar last year, maybe not. None of them jumped up real strong after she beat them, and the older horses she beat in the Woodward seemed to go downhill afterwards.

“But Zenyatta took on the best in the world and won as she pleased. Opinions are going to be East versus West, and that’s never going to change. I was in Hot Springs recently and the arguments were about which horse was best, but I’ll tell you this: they were all waiting for Zenyatta to come there.”

What do you think?