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BILL DWYRE

Nature of horse racing keeps stars apart

The sport has superstars in the 5-year-old Zenyatta and 3-year-old Rachel Alexandra, but the fillies may never compete together.

August 09, 2009|BILL DWYRE

All eyes will be on Zenyatta as she goes to the gate today at Del Mar for the $300,000 Clement Hirsch Stakes, a Grade I horse race worthy of her presence.

Similarly, all eyes were on Rachel Alexandra last weekend, when she went to the gate at New Jersey's Monmouth Park for the $1.25-million Haskell, also a worthy Grade I.

Rachel Alexandra won by six lengths. The New York Times reported that she "torched the accomplished colts" running against her.

A similar torching is expected today from Zenyatta.

Therein lies the problem for horse racing. It has two stars. And, very possibly, never the twain shall meet.

Zenyatta is 5 years old, has raced 11 times and won 11. She is last year's Eclipse Award winner for best older female. She won the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic, as well as six other races, and $2,050,500 last year alone. She took some time off this year, then came back to win nicely twice at Hollywood Park and is poised to give her fans at least three more races before her apparently inevitable retirement to baby-making.

"She is just a racing machine," trainer John Shirreffs says.

Rachel Alexandra is 3 years old, has raced 13 times, won 10, been out of the money only once and won her last eight by an average of nearly nine lengths.

"She spoils us," says trainer Steve Asmussen.

If Zenyatta is spectacular, Rachel Alexandra is other-worldly. Rachel Alexandra won the Kentucky Oaks by 20 1/4 lengths in the filly feature the day before the Kentucky Derby, then took on and beat many of those Derby starters two weeks later in the Preaknes, including winner Mine That Bird.

No filly had won the Preakness in 85 years. No filly has looked quite like this one in 85 years.

For other sports, the presence of two superstars would be manna from heaven, cash at the box office. But most other sports are less complicated than racing. They have leagues and races and playoffs and neatly orchestrated ways to market their superstars and, in the end, get them on the same field of competition.

Less so racing.

It is a sport of many pots and many more stirrers. All competitors in the NFL, NBA and MLB, for example, have the same agenda -- a championship. And if there is a variance from that, there is a commissioner to get everybody back on the straight and narrow.

Horse racing does not have a unified agenda. If a 3-year-old is involved, the agenda is the Triple Crown. For older horses, it is the Breeders' Cup and/or hundreds of other big pots to chase.

There's no commissioner.

So, to Shirreffs, Rachel Alexandra is merely a great horse, running in the East, and of no real concern to him or future plans for Zenyatta.

"Right now, Rachel Alexandra is a 3-year-old, running a 3-year-old campaign," Shirreffs says. "Zenyatta is 5, and we are just going about running our program."

In other words, Zenyatta couldn't run against Rachel even if her handlers wanted her to, because Rachel's handlers, for the moment, have kept her in her age division.

Shirreffs doesn't deny that some sort of meeting of the two super ladies would be good for racing. But his agenda, rightly so, is the welfare and success of Zenyatta, not public titillation.

Complicating all this is the stance taken by Rachel Alexandra's camp that, despite her star quality, she will not come West to run on synthetic tracks. That precludes, then, the best opportunity for the two stars to meet in the Breeders' Cup on Nov. 6-7 at Santa Anita.

The biggest beneficiary of a Rachel-Zenyatta faceoff would be the Oak Tree officials, at whose Santa Anita meeting the Breeders' Cup will be held for the second straight year. But Oak Tree's director and executive vice president, Sherwood Chillingworth, isn't bemoaning his fate, nor criticizing the stance of Rachel Alexandra owner Jess Jackson.

"I'm not angry," he says. "If he [Jackson] were here, it would make our day. But I just cannot lean on him any more than I did last year."

Chillingworth freely admits that his tack with Jackson last year, when Jackson was campaigning another star horse, Curlin, was that Curlin's presence in the Breeders' Cup was for the good of the sport. Jackson, who echoes that need at every opportunity, brought Curlin and didn't like what he saw when his horse seemed to struggle with Santa Anita's synthetic surface and faded.

Now, they will hold a Breeders' Cup and Rachel Alexandra won't come.

That leaves Chillingworth and his Breeders' Cup operation with one big hope, one that might ring a bell or two for the public.

"If Zenyatta would run against the boys in the Classic," Chillingworth says, "that would make my day."

November is light years away for Shirreffs, and owners Jerry and Ann Moss. Right now, they are interested in today's race and how well Zenyatta comes out of that.

After that, Shirreffs says, Zenyatta will be earmarked to race in either the Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Sept. 6 or the Lady's Secret at Oak Tree on Oct. 10. If it is the Pacific Classic, that would mean that the Zenyatta connections have departed from Breeders' Cup form to take on the boys, an indication that the Breeders' Cup could get its wish and have Zenyatta in the Breeders' Cup Classic instead of the Ladies Classic again.

Or it could mean nothing.

Shirreffs says the Mosses never said Zenyatta would be retired immediately after the Breeders' Cup. That leaves open the one last possibility of a Zenyatta-Rachel Alexandra meeting on Nov. 27 at the Clark Handicap for 3-year-olds and up, on the dirt at Churchill Downs.

It is a $400,000 Grade II race that could turn out to be racing's Super Bowl for 2009.

Or not.

--

bill.dwyre@latimes.com.

twitter.com/DwyreLATimes

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