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HORSE RACING

Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra race on opposite coasts

It's unlikely that two of the top horses in the country will meet in a match race.

June 27, 2009|Eric Sondheimer

Separated by nearly 2,500 miles and three time zones, the nation's top two female horses, unbeaten Zenyatta and Preakness Stakes winner Rachel Alexandra, will race today at the identical distance of 1 1/8 miles in Grade I stakes, giving fans an opportunity to compare, contrast and admire racing's two brightest stars.

Zenyatta, a 5-year-old mare who has won all 10 of her races, will carry an imposing 129 pounds in the $300,000 Vanity Handicap run as the fourth race at Hollywood Park.

Rachel Alexandra, a 3-year-old filly who has won six consecutive races, will race 13 minutes earlier in the $300,000 Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont Park.

In the racing office at Santa Anita, racing secretary Rick Hammerle has been dreaming. He imagines a match between Zenyatta, the amazon of the West Coast, and Rachel Alexandra, the pride of the East Coast who conquered the boys in the Preakness.

"I dream they'd just come together in a race," Hammerle said.

Each will go off the odds-on favorite today, but Jess Jackson, the owner of Rachel Alexandra, has ruled out running his horse this fall at Santa Anita in the Breeders' Cup because of the track's synthetic surface, denying a possible meeting against Zenyatta on racing's biggest weekend.

If this were the 1970s, a match race would seem likely. That was when match races were popular.

There was the 1972 match race at Hollywood Park between the 6-year-old mare Typecast and the 4-year-old filly Convenience that drew more than 53,000 spectators for a $250,000 winner-take-all purse that ended with Convenience and jockey Jerry Lambert beating Typecast and jockey Bill Shoemaker by a nose. In 1974, the 3-year-old champion filly Chris Evert beat Miss Musket by 50 lengths in a $250,000 match race at Hollywood Park.

But match races soon lost their appeal because of what happened July 6, 1975.

The nationally televised match race between Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure and the unbeaten filly Ruffian ended in tragedy. Ruffian broke down and was later buried in the infield at Belmont Park.

The sad memories from that ill-fated day aren't the only obstacle to holding a match race in the 21st century.

"There's too many combinations of things to happen," Hammerle said. "You need two marquee horses. You need two owners willing to do it and say, 'Hey, I'm in.' "

Someone would have to put up big money and then come the negotiations over where to run, how long the race would be and when to race.

"It's one of those things that the stars have to be aligned perfectly," Hammerle said.

Jackson said of the prospect of Rachel Alexandra's facing Zenyatta, "Love to see her, but they're going to have to come to the East or some other neutral track."

Zenyatta's trainer John Shirreffs indicated that after today's race, he will be in a better position to map out a plan for the rest of the year for Zenyatta, a daughter of Street Cry who will be making only her second start of the year.

"I think we have to get this race behind us and then make decisions," he said. "We want to get a couple races under her belt before we make any big plans."

On the day before this year's Kentucky Derby, Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra were scheduled to race on the same card at Churchill Downs.

But a muddy track caused Zenyatta to be scratched from her race. Rachel Alexandra won the Kentucky Oaks by 20 1/4 lengths.

The horses have different styles. Zenyatta usually drops back at the start before unleashing an extraordinary closing kick. Rachel Alexandra has the speed to be close to the front.

Now the two get to state their case on the same day to fans watching from televisions and computers at homes and at tracks across the nation.

Hammerle is hoping after this weekend, "the fever" will build and the feeling will be, "Wow, these two are at the top of their game. Let's get them together and meet."

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eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

A different era

A look at famous match races in thoroughbred racing.

Oct. 12, 1920: Man o' War vs. Sir Barton. Man o' War won 20 of his 21 races. He defeated Sir Barton, the first horse to win what later would be known as the Triple Crown, in a match race in Windsor, Canada.

Nov. 1, 1938: Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral. War Admiral won the Triple Crown wire to wire in each start and was a son of Man o' War. Seabiscuit, a former claiming horse, won his first race in his 18th start. They raced at Pimlico in front of more than 40,000, and Seabiscuit won in a track-record time of 1:56 3/5 for 1 3/16 miles.

Sept. 27, 1947: Armed vs. Assault. Assault won the 1946 Triple Crown and carried 133 pounds to win the Brooklyn Handicap. Armed made 81 starts for Calumet Farm and was the 1947 horse of the year after beating Assault by eight lengths in a match race at Pimlico.

Aug. 31, 1955: Swaps vs. Nashua. Swaps was the Kentucky Derby winner. Nashua won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. They met in a race televised by CBS at Washington Park in Chicago. Nashua and jockey Eddie Arcaro beat Swaps and jockey Bill Shoemaker.

June 17, 1972: Typecast vs. Convenience. It was a $250,000 winner-take-all race between the 6-year-old mare Typecast and the 4-year-old filly Convenience at 1 1/8 miles at Hollywood Park. Convenience won by a nose. Typecast won the award for champion older female horse.

July 6, 1975: Foolish Pleasure vs. Ruffian. Ruffian was a 3-year-old filly who had won all 10 of her races while never trailing. Foolish Pleasure was the Kentucky Derby winner. Ruffian was leading by a half-length after the first quarter when her sesamoid bones in her right foreleg snapped. She was euthanized and buried in the Belmont Park infield.

-- Eric Sondheimer

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