Friday, August 14, 2009

Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta: Living Legends

Originally posted here in my column, The Call to the Post

It's hard to get my mind wrapped around the fact that I'm living in an age I've always longed for. Even though the phenomenon has snuck upon us, it's safe to say that right now, this very minute in time, we're witnessing something very unique in the sport of horse racing. At this moment, on opposite sides of the country, are two special horses either getting an afternoon nap or perhaps a nibble of sugar cubes; to the naked eye, oh yes, they would appear to be the kind of race horse any owner or trainer would aspire to have. But looks are deceiving. If every horse could run as good as he looked, there would be Triple Crowns won every year. But these two, one a 3-year-old filly, the other a 5-year-old mare, are exactly as good as they look.

No one ever could've predicted we'd be seeing two modern marvels in the year 2009, two imposing female horses that will undoubtedly leave their impressions stamped in the history books for all of time. I never got to see the great Secretariat. I never got to see Man o' War or Ruffian, Spectacular Bid or Seattle Slew. But I got to see Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. Here we are, in a few span of months for the ages, a time when people thirty years from now will be looking at us with wonder in their eyes and whisper, "You got to see Rachel Alexandra?"

I was there. I never thought I'd be able to say I'd seen a Great, because it's so hard to know precisely what that is until you see it for yourself.

Now I know.

I know because of the sort of disbelief that overcame me when Rachel Alexandra swung into the final turn of the Haskell and began to separate herself from the rest of the field. That's not something just any horse could've done. Her competitors were decorated: a Belmont winner, an Arkansas Derby winner, an up-coming superstar. It takes a freak to spit in the faces of horses like that and run away for fun. That's what Greatness is.

The same can be said for Zenyatta, but on a different level. I was shocked after watching Zenyatta's last race, the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes, where she just barely won her twelfth race in a row. To the naked eye, it wasn't clear if she'd actually made it to the wire before the track ran out. Did the undefeated Zenyatta get foiled by a dirty head-bob? The idea that Zenyatta could be beaten by a horse nothing much better than a claimer stunned me so badly, I sat on my couch, jaw ajar, simply staring as the crowd at Del Mar shrieked and ebbed like a cage full of monkeys.

But those people were cheering-that's what stunned me. Zenyatta shouldn't have won the Grade I Clement Hirsch Stakes by a head, she should've won that race by 10 lengths, at worst. What in the heck just happened? Suddenly, this great unbeaten mare looked like a laughing-stock in comparison to the filly two years her junior, Rachel Alexandra, who'd just beaten a field of incomparably tough colts by 6 in the Grade I Haskell Invitational.

In her start prior to the Hirsch, Zenyatta was spotting the rest of the field at least seven pounds, carrying a career-high of 129 in the Vanity Handicap. Handicap races are supposed to make the field more "even" by holding back the horses with a better chance of winning. I understood Zenyatta would have a tougher time winning by much carrying 129 pounds in the Vanity, which she ended up winning by 2 1/2-lengths. But the Clement Hirsch had recently been stripped of its handicap status and had been turned into a stakes race. A stakes race against nobody special, ab-so-lute-ly nobody.

But then I realized something. The way Zenyatta was positioned in the Clement Hirsch, she should've lost. There was absolutely no way a normal horse could've won that race in Zenyatta's position. Just in the same way it took a freak filly like Rachel Alexandra to laugh at that field of colts and win by 6, it took a freak to run the entire race with slow fractions, let the leader run away, go six-wide around the turn while spinning out, and then rocket down the stretch at 40 miles per hour to win the race by a head. That doesn't happen. Not with a five-year-old mare the size of a house, not with anybody.

After the race, Mike Smith said with a smile, "Wasn't that something! I thought I had it... But I've got to admit I underestimated the company we were keeping today. They made her run."

Yes, it's true, Mikey gave her a bad ride. The Clement Hirsch was a reminder of Smith's latest debacle, when he tried a move too early with Mine That Bird in the West Virginia Derby and finished a tired and unimpressive third on the Derby winner. People make mistakes. Freaks fix them.

There's a lot of talk going on right now about setting up a match race between Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra. I'll tell you why that's a bad idea: match races are inherently a bad idea. No horseman in his right mind would ever want to put his charge in a match race knowing what we do now about those race situations (But that's a whole 'nother article).

I will say a race between these two champions would be the race of the century-but it would have to be a legitimate race with at least three other starters besides them. As to what would happen, I'm leaving that up to the horse racing gods, since both Rachel and Zenyatta seem to have an angel on their shoulder. Until that day happens, and it may never transpire, we should be grateful we are living right now, and can turn on the TV or go to the track and see these living legends do what they do best: amaze us, time and time again.


  1. They're both fine horses and Zenyatta has raced enough to be ranked among the top 5 Fillies and top 75 horses. But it's hyperbole to compare either to Secretariat. The clock doesn't lie. The immortal Secretariat's times were significantly faster than both at every distance.

    Heck, Quality Road's times were faster than Rachel Alexendra's prior to the injury. If he beats her on the track and then wins the Breeder's Cup, he'll get my vote for 3 year-old of the year.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Troll Y2K, but I believe you have made an inference.

    Anyone who would compare another horse to Secretariat would be foolish. Unfortunately, many do and will continue to do so. I will and have not. There was only one Secretariat, and all pale in his shadow.