The Horses of Our Dreams

Note: this post will be full of unabashed Horse Racing Geekery. If this isn’t your cup of tea…you have been warned.

The above picture is a composite of the two candidates for U.S. Horse of the Year. On the left is Rachel Alexandra, a 3-year-old filly; on the right is Zenyatta, a 5-year-old mare. As far as I know, there has been no other year where two females are the best horses in racing. There have been excellent fillies and mares in the past, of course: Personal Ensign, Ruffian, Busher and Twilight Tear (way back in the 40’s) come to mind. But this year, these two have dominated the headlines, the records, the emotions…and the disputes.

Rachel Alexandra first burst into national prominence when she ran in the Kentucky Oaks, the day before the Kentucky Derby. When I watched my recording of the Kentucky Derby a day later, the talk was all of “possibly the best 3-year-old in America”–who had run the day before.

Then new owners purchased Rachel Alexandra, and two weeks later threw her into the Preakness Stakes against the best male 3-year-olds–including Mine That Bird, the Kentucky Derby winner.

The same day Rachel Alexandra won the Mother Goose against two other hapless 3-year-old fillies (by almost 20 lengths again), Zenyatta won the Vanity Handicap, carrying 129 pounds (which horses rarely do anymore–the Iron Horses of years past such as Kelso and Forego, who regularly ran in, and won, races carrying 130 or more pounds, are long gone).

Meanwhile, Rachel Alexandra went on to win the Haskell Invitational against 3-year-olds (including the winner of this year’s Belmont) and the Woodward Stakes, the latter against older males.

(The Haskell: At the very end of the clip, a woman says, simply, “Wow.” Indeed. I think this is Rachel’s best race of the year.)

Out West, Zenyatta had been running against decidedly soft competition…until her last race of the year (and probably of her career): the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

I’ve watched this about eight or nine times now, I think. Each time it gives me a lump in my throat and damp eyes. There are very few other races that affect me like that…one of them being Secretariat’s 31-length Belmont.

So now the debate begins. Who deserves Horse of the Year? This has been raging since Zenyatta crossed the finish line, both on the Blood-Horse website, ESPN’s Horse Racing page, and even Sports Illustrated.

My opinion, of course, doesn’t count for diddleysquat…but if I had a vote, I would cast it for Rachel.  There’s a reason why the award is called Horse of the Year, and Rachel nailed it.  If we were talking about comparing the Rachel of this year to the Zenyatta of last year–well, it would be very close indeed.

But Rachel put five lumps in my throat (Kentucky Oaks, Preakness, Mother Goose, Haskell, and Woodward) as opposed to Zen’s two (Vanity and Breeders’ Cup Classic).

This isn’t to say I think Rachel is necessarily a better horse than Zenyatta. Rachel is very good indeed, but she’s a teenager as opposed to Zen’s being a mature mare. Their running styles are also very different. It’s too bad they never met on the track, but I think at a mile and a quarter or longer, Zen would inhale Rachel and snort her out.

But for the overall year, Rachel Alexandra accomplished more.

No matter how much you may paint him as an egotistical S.O.B., this is entirely due to Rachel’s owner, Jess Jackson. He purchased the filly after her breathtaking Kentucky Oaks win and immediately threw her into the Preakness. He continued to test her in her subsequent races–which, unfortunately, Zenyatta’s owners did not do, until her last race.

This can serve as a lesson to others: if you have a horse who is sound and loves to race, for God’s sake, run him/her! Don’t be afraid of your horse getting beat, or marring her “perfect record” (which seems to be the Mosses–Zenyatta’s owners–obsession). If Zen had run in just one or two more races–say, the Pacific Classic or Hollywood Gold Cup (assuming she won, as I think she would have)–she would win Horse of the Year by a landslide.

She still may, but as magnificent as she was in the Classic, I don’t think she deserves Horse of the Year for one race.

Nevertheless, these two are two of the greatest female racehorses of all time, and as a bonus treat–barring injury–we get to see Rachel Alexandra next year!!

This sport is often heartbreaking, and sometimes maddening–but when it’s on, it can thrill like no other.

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