November 20th, 2011 §
As Rapid Redux attempts his twentieth consecutive victory, the five-year-old gelding doesn’t seem bothered that his name rarely appears in the same zip code as contenders for an Eclipse Award.
Possibly, a quiet understanding exists that Eclipse Champions are exclusively found in the graded arena of racing. And, just as likely, Rapid Redux isn’t the least bit concerned about class wars with the graded fields. He seems focused on one single goal that isn’t controlled by Eclipse Award voting – winning his next race in any field.
Since December of 2010, Rapid Redux has been simply showing up at small tracks, facing rivals with similar blue-collar resumes, and grinding out victory after victory without the fuss of fancy awards or winning garlands. He could have had a nearly invisible career, like many of his counterparts, if it weren’t for his quest to capture a prized historical jewel in the racing world – the modern North American record for winning more consecutive races than any other horse in the sport.
There is something about Rapid Redux that makes me wish there was an Eclipse Award for such a horse. Because, ultimately, the working-class gelding is the type of guy that breathes life into the average race card on any given day at various tracks across the country. Eighty-five percent of racehorses are running in claiming races on an annual basis in North America. And, I am sure that nearly every owner and trainer with a horse among that 85 percent would happily take Rapid Redux into their stable without any questions about his ability to climb the class ladder in the future.
Yet, when it comes down to the Eclipse Awards, class seems to matter deeply when we choose our champions. And, though it would be tough to find an owner who would turn down an offer to purchase Rapid Redux for his last claiming price of $6,250, many of the same folks would probably never entertain the thought that he may deserve an Eclipse Award. This sport looks toward graded fields when crowning its champions, and, as for the claiming horses, they need to climb the ladder of class to have a shot during Eclipse Award season.
However, Rapid Redux may be doing something revolutionary in refusing to go beyond claiming and allowance territory while targeting the modern record for consecutive victories in North American racing; he is simply ignoring the traditional criteria of what makes a “champion” racehorse. In doing so, the gelding showcases the enormous heart of the blue-collar racehorse in capturing victory-upon-victory while brilliantly turning the sword on his critics with every winning stride toward the record. It is as if he is defying the very idea that “champions” don’t exist in the lower levels of racing.
In my view, Rapid Redux is a champion racehorse in his own right. No, he isn’t the kind that wins graded outings or millions of dollars. Rather, he is the kind of “champion” that exists where the bulk of trainers, grooms, hot walkers and various other individuals in racing make their living in this sport. He is the “champion” that races in fields where middle class owners can afford more than a small percentage of a racehorse. And further, he is the kind of “champion” that gives smaller owners the feeling of having a winning horse where they could not participate in this sport if they had to spend dizzying dollars to get in the game.
There is something about Rapid Redux that makes me wish that there was an Eclipse Award that the majority of participants in racing could strive to win. Because, without horses like Rapid Redux, the tracks would become cathedrals to the fifteen percent of participants who are extremely wealthy, extraordinary lucky, or to individuals who are extraordinarily lucky to work for someone who is extremely wealthy. And, in my view, racing would lose its heart that day.
Whether or not Rapid Redux reaches his magic number of twenty consecutive victories, he will remain a “champion” even if he stops at nineteen races and never ventures into graded territory. He is simply a different kind of champion; a blue-collar Champion that delivered a captivating number of victories, at seven different tracks, for small purses and little recognition until he started swirling around a coveted record in big-league racing. There is class to any horse that can accomplish that feat, whether the outings are graded, televised or simply everyday claiming and allowance races.
Yes, there is plenty about Rapid Redux that makes me wish there was an Eclipse Award for him this season. And no, it doesn’t have to be “Horse of the Year.” The “Horse of the Year” award wouldn’t serve the spirit of a horse like him anyway, because, in large part, claimers and allowance horses don’t simply retire after one exemplary year. They keep going, year after year, in a quest for more victories and more earnings to help support the everyday workers in this industry.
There should be an award for a horse like Rapid Redux to claim at the claiming level – An Eclipse Award. Because there are “champions” at all levels of racing, just as there are fans at all levels of this sport. And, as a fan of all levels of racing, Rapid Redux is the horse of my year.
Photo of Rapid Redux provided courtesy of Victoria Solzbach.
January 20th, 2011 §
On Monday, Zenyatta’s battle to earn “Horse of the Year” ended when she was finally crowned with the honor during the final moments of the Eclipse Awards.
The math was pretty simple on the face of the ballot. Zenyatta had five Grade I victories while Blame won three Grade I races. Blame won the Breeders’ Cup Classic and defeated more Grade I winners in 2010.
At times, Zenyatta was cast as the “emotional” or “popular” favorite in the pre-vote debates for the Award, in part, due to her passionate fan base and discussion of her overall career record. Yes, Zenyatta won 19 of 20 races in her career, with a 5-1 Grade I record in 2010. But, as the argument was made by many, “Horse of the Year” is not a lifetime achievement award or a “popularity” vote.
At the end of the voting, 238 eligible voters cast a ballot for “Horse of the Year.” Zenyatta won the Award with 128 votes while Blame received 102 ballots in his favor. Goldikova garnered five supporters, two individuals did not vote and one abstained.
Those are the basic numbers that amounted to Zenyatta being awarded “Horse of the Year” in a purely mathematical world.
However, as many commentators pointed our prior to the final decision, Zenyatta is also an “emotional” horse.” And, in being an “emotional horse,” she doesn’t live in a purely mathematical world of racing forms and figures.
She lives in both worlds. And, although I believe Zenyatta earned “Horse of Year” on her racing record alone, the intangible qualities that make Zenyatta an “emotional horse” hold a rare and sacred value beyond her racing record.
The “emotional” nature of Zenyatta is her glory just as much as her achievements in racing itself. And, in my view, there is nothing wrong with being “emotional” about horse racing, its’ athletes, and particularly, Zenyatta.
It is wonderful to be emotional about racing.
Through being an “emotional horse,” Zenyatta racked up some numbers that go beyond 128 votes for “Horse of the Year.” Zenyatta’s “math,” just as the mare herself, is focused on a few different equations.
She is the “Horse of a Lifetime” for many fans that witnessed her career. And, at the end of our lifetimes, Zenyatta will still reign immortal in the sport.
Infinity is an “emotional number” for Zenyatta.
Zenyatta also calculated the value of people when doing her math. She welcomed droves of fans that visited her barn throughout her career. Her guests were from all walks of life, including children, celebrities and general fans.
It appears that every fan, whether it is one person or thousands at a race, are “emotional numbers” for Zenyatta.
For those who could not show up at the track, Zenyatta started a Facebook page and website with a “diary” of her activities. She put a video on You Tube that allowed fans to take a “virtual ride” on her back. And, in the process, 60,000 people have followed her activities on Facebook, while 186,000 fans have taken a “virtual ride” on Zenyatta.
It seems like 100,000+ is also an “emotional number” for Zenyatta.
In her final race, Zenyatta saw many individuals at the racetrack. A crowd of 72,000 people stood on their feet to see if Zenyatta could win the Breeders’ Cup this year. And, even in the wake of her loss, the crowd remained standing to give the great mare an ovation in her lone defeat.
I imagine that 72,000 is an “emotional number” for Zenyatta.
When she was retired, Zenyatta had a number of friends that came out to see her even when she wasn’t racing. As she was paraded during her farewell at Hollywood Park, 11,216 fans shouted her name and took photos of the mare. And, when her plane landed the next day at Keeneland, over a thousand fans stood in the cold night to see her in the flesh.
It appears that 11,000+ is also an “emotional number” for Zenyatta.
But, in the end, 238 eligible voters decided whether Zenyatta’s 2010 campaign merited the “Horse of the Year” award. And, 128 voters deemed that she was “The Horse of the Year” in 2010.
I imagine that 128 is an “emotional number” for Zenyatta after her three-year campaign to win the Award.
Yet, there was another vote that shows the glory of being an “emotional horse.” In a Petition sent to the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, 5,807 individuals cast their signature to show their support for Zenyatta to be crowned “Horse of the Year.”
It seems like 5,807 is also very “emotional number” for Zenyatta.
It is the reward for winning the hearts of thousands of people and a show of appreciation for her achievements in racing. The fan vote was not only built on her racing record, but also in the emotional connection that Zenyatta has fostered with her fans.
So, yes. There was plenty of emotion involved in crowning Zenyatta the “Horse of the Year.”
Yet, there is nothing wrong with connecting fans to this sport on an emotional level.
Zenyatta, along with her connections, gave the industry a beautiful blueprint for the future. She involved fans in her endeavors. And, through involving fans, it seemed as if every Zenyatta fan won when she claimed a victory.
On Monday night, Zenyatta claimed her final victory.
And, for many who supported her campaign, they claimed a quiet victory as well.
It was emotional victory for Zenyatta and her fan base.
It was the perfect model for a “Horse of the Year.”
November 9th, 2010 §
The old rule of etiquette used to be that people shouldn’t bring up politics or religion in casual social settings. It is the quickest way to anger friends, start rivalries and ignite a big ol’ brawl in any circle. I agree perfectly with this rule of etiquette, but I’d like to add one more topic to the rule: The “Horse of the Year” Award.
Last Saturday, in a not-so-casual setting, Seth Hancock of Claiborne Farm shot those fighting words into the cold Kentucky air during a press conference after Blame had just defeated Zenyatta in the Breeder’s Cup Classic. As Zenyatta was quietly escorted back to her stable, Hancock was asked who should win the highly-coveted “Horse of the Year” award. He proclaimed with certainty, “Well, I thought the battle for Horse of the Year was fought about half an hour ago and Blame won it.”
Let the rodeo begin.
Two men can look at the same woman. One may find her beautiful, while the other finds her to be average. And, two voters can look at the same horse. One may see a decent horse, while the other person is marveling over their “Horse of the Year.” In my view, Hancock was doing just that. He had just watched Blame hold his nose in front of a bulleting monster mare and saw his “Horse of the Year.” Undoubtedly, Blame deserves praise, especially by his ownership, but winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic doesn’t necessarily clinch the “Horse of the Year” award.
How can a horse win the Classic and lose “Horse of the Year?” I believe Zenyatta would be happy to field this question for the audience. After two consecutive victories in major Breeder’s Cup outings, she received a few flowers, a couple new purses and a few bargaining chips at the voting booth. However, in the final stretch, she didn’t go home as “Horse of the Year” in 2008 or 2009.
The problem lies in the criterion that determines the Horse of the Year. It is completely subjective, and at times, downright snobby. Rifle through the “Horse of the Year” articles in the past few days and you’ll find a bundle of opinions.
The horse should win on a dirt track against male horses in Grade I races in a field of proven heavyweights.
It is also frowned upon if the races are solely in California. If a horse happens to train in California, it must be shipped all across the country to prove it is not solely a “synthetic” horse.
There is no reciprocity in the “East Coast vs. West Coast” arrangement. East Coast horses do not need to ship to California. It is presumed that they stand on golden hooves with dirt made of diamonds.
A male horse with a decent record of Grade I victories can overshadow any female horse in the field. If you’re a female, you better be able to beat the boys in every single outing against them as well as win all other Grade I outings. If you lose one race, you don’t stand a chance at Horse of the Year. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been undefeated throughout your entire career.
Finally, the female races are simply cupcake parties and bake sales. Sure, they are Grade I races, but they don’t really count for “Horse of the Year.” Since the inception of the Eclipse “Horse of the Year” award in 1971, one single female has won it through campaigning solely in female races – Azeri. Ruffian did not win the award. Neither did Rags to Riches when she beat Curlin in the stretch run of the Belmont Stakes in 2007. A victory in the Kentucky Derby won’t clinch the “Horse of the Year” award for a female either – Winning Colors and Genuine Risk already tried that path.
Somehow, Azeri slipped through a loophole in 2002 and won “Horse of the Year” through filly and mare-restricted races.
Similar to Zenyatta, Azeri built her “Horse of the Year” campaign through winning the Santa Margarita, Apple Blossom, Milady, Vanity, Clement Hirsch, Lady’s Secret and Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic (formerly known as the Breeders’ Cup Distaff). All in all, Azeri had five Grade I wins, three Grade II victories and one successful allowance race when she was voted “Horse of the Year” in 2002.
In contrast, Zenyatta tried to take the “Azeri Route” to “Horse of the Year” in 2008. She won the El Encino, Apple Blossom, Milady, Vanity, Clement Hirsch, Lady’s Secret and Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic that season. At the end of the year, Zenyatta had three Grade II victories and four Grade I wins, including the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic.
Yet, Zenyatta did not win “Horse of the Year” in 2008. Her critics insisted that she raced against “nobodies” and never ran against the boys. “Cupcake Parties” don’t count.
Zenyatta put a new twist on her campaign for “Horse of the Year” in 2009. While maintaining a perfect record, Zenyatta clinched one Grade II victory and won four Grade I races in her new campaign. Among those victories, Zenyatta stunned the racing world through becoming the first female to beat the boys in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. In doing so, she put away the 2009 Kentucky Derby and Belmont winners in the same field.
Yet, Zenyatta did not win “Horse of the Year” in 2009. Her critics insisted that she campaigned solely on synthetic track, failed to ship to the East Coast and that a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic was really just a great “moment” in her career.
Zenyatta decided to answer all remaining criticisms in 2010. While maintaining a perfect record, Zenyatta won five Grade I races. She shipped to the Apple Blossom and won by daylight on dirt. Zenyatta pulled a “three-peat” in the Clement Hirsch, Vanity and Lady’s Secret. She became the top-earning female racehorse of all time while capturing the female record for the most Grade I victories. She reeled in the record for the most consecutive Grade I wins. And then, she shipped to Kentucky to race the boys on dirt in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Yet, Zenyatta did not win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. In her final majestic flight toward Blame, she lost by a head. However, in her defeat, Zenyatta actually did beat a few more boys in the career. She finished in front of ten top-notch male contenders, including the Preakness winner and Haynesfield, the horse that had previously beaten Blame this season.
And then, the rules changed on Zenyatta.
As luck would have it, some members of the racing industry started to proclaim that the “Horse of the Year” award is an honor reserved for the winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. This was big news. Since the inception of the race, the “Horse of the Year” award has been denied to 58% of the Breeder’s Cup Classic winners. But now, it was a new requirement.
You must be kidding me.
Zenyatta has won more Grade I victories than Blame this year. And, she has met all the demands of her critics. She shipped from California to race on dirt against the boys in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. She was the oldest horse and only female in the race. Zenyatta made this journey with a perfect record of 19-0. She was the sole undefeated horse in the field.
Zenyatta had everything to lose among rivals that stood only to benefit their own career by being “the one” to defeat the great mare.
And, she still showed up.
In fact, she rose to the challenge.
Zenyatta filled the stands and captivated the media. She danced in the paddock, pranced in the post-parade and shot like a bullet down the cold dirt track against her male counterparts in a breathtaking attempt to maintain her perfect record.
The news of her defeat hit a national audience. Hard. The viewers of that race went beyond the regular crowd. Zenyatta brought Oprah into the racing world. She was the first racehorse to ever be profiled on 60 Minutes. And, Zenyatta introduced the fashion industry to the sport in the society pages of W fashion magazine. She marketed racing to non-enthusiasts. It was brilliant, beautiful and, most importantly, successful.
The racing industry has a new group of fans because of Zenyatta. And, the treatment of Zenyatta will define our industry to non-traditional fans in the racing world.
Treat her like a Queen.
Treat her like perfection.
She’s not your average horse.
Zenyatta is Horse of the Year.
» Read the rest of this entry «
September 22nd, 2010 §
Long before Zenyatta was born, there was Eclipse.
Eclipse was a race horse from Great Britain that retired with an undefeated record in eighteen career starts during the 18th Century.
Eclipse never felt the feeling of defeat.
He made the winner’s circle his stomping ground.
And today, Eclipse is one of the most coveted names in racing. He is the namesake to the annual Eclipse Award trophies that recognize the outstanding achievements of horses and individuals in the racing industry.
When we crown a champion “Horse of the Year,” we’re talking about Eclipse.
And, when we start talking about Eclipse, we should point to the horse embodies his level of achievement.
I’m pointing at Zenyatta.
Zenyatta has never felt the feeling of defeat.
She’s made the winner’s circle her stomping ground.
And today, Zenyatta is one of the most coveted names in modern racing. She has racked up a list of achievements that would have given Eclipse himself a grueling run for his money if he had met her in his lifetime.
Zenyatta has a perfect record of winning eighteen consecutive starts.
Yes, Eighteen. The only horse in U.S. history that has ever retired with a perfect record greater than eighteen was Pepper’s Pride, the holder of nineteen consecutive victories during her racing career. And, there is no doubt in my mind that Pepper’s Pride truly accomplished something spectacular.
However, Zenyatta and Pepper’s Pride raced in different circles. Pepper’s Pride built her winning record through racing solely in New Mexico in many state-restricted races. She never entered a graded race in her career.
And yes, there is a value for earning good grades on a report card.
I’m pointing at Zenyatta, again.
She is a virtual valedictorian in graded outings.
Zenyatta holds the world record for the most consecutive Grade I wins and has built her undefeated record through winning sixteen graded races, twelve of which were Grade I races.
Yes, twelve Grade I victories. Only six horses in U.S. history have ever captured more Grade I victories than Zenyatta. The record for the most Grade I victories in U.S. history stands with John Henry, who captured sixteen Grade I wins during his career.
But, John Henry isn’t up for “Horse of the Year.”
He already won it in his lifetime.
Yet, John Henry provides a fine example of the mathematics of being “Horse of the Year.” Aside from holding the record for winning the most Grade I races, John Henry was the highest money-earning thoroughbred of his time when he retired with career earnings of $6,597,947.
So, yes. There is the business of making money.
I’m pointing at Zenyatta, again.
Currently, Zenyatta has earned $6,254,580 during her career. She stands as the all-time female earnings leader in North America. And, she’s earned it in some impressive outings.
In 2009, a single female horse stomped into the gates of the Breeder’s Cup Classic and challenged all the boys to beat her to the wire. It was a bold move.
That female made history.
I’m pointing at Zenyatta, again.
When Zenyatta became the first female to win the 2009 Breeder’s Cup Classic, she didn’t break a standing record. And, she didn’t set a record that was vulnerable to being broken in the future. She stamped out an untouchable spot in racing history.
So, yes. Zenyatta is a living legend.
And, she keeps blazing along.
Through her journey, Zenyatta is redefining what it means to be a race horse in the modern age. She’s dancing for crowds and drinking Guinness. Zenyatta is posting her activities on Facebook and sharing videos on You Tube.
She is hovering on the L.A. Dodgers billboard like Godzilla, announcing that Los Angeles is her town.
How many race horses lay claim to owning a town?
I’m pointing at Zenyatta, again.
Yet, many people are pointing at Zenyatta these days. Children show up at the race track with pink and teal painted faces.
And, they’re pointing at Zenyatta.
Non-industry media is starting to notice Zenyatta. The Huffington Post and W Magazine are telling the non-racing world that there is something spectacular going on at the race track.
They are pointing at Zenyatta.
Even Oprah is praising Zenyatta these days.
When Oprah set out to find twenty elite women who embodied various character traits for O Magazine’s 2010 Power List, the maven found one woman who stood along in demonstrating the “Power of Heart.”
Oprah pointed at Zenyatta.
Yes, Oprah. A woman who has been televising heartwarming stories for twenty-five years went ahead and picked Zenyatta as the woman who showed “heart” above all rivals in the human field.
And still, Zenyatta races toward her last two outings in a mirror image of Eclipse’s undefeated record.
If she wins, she’ll eclipse it.
And, if she loses, she’ll match it.
Regardless, she has already raced into Eclipse’s territory.
And, when we start talking about Eclipse, we’re talking about “Horse of the Year.”
A horse that has never felt the feeling of defeat.
A horse that makes the winner’s circle their stomping ground.
I’m pointing at Zenyatta.
» Read the rest of this entry «
February 1st, 2010 §
After a contentious debate over the 2009 “Horse of the Year” Eclipse Award, Rachel Alexandra prevailed over Zenyatta when the winner was finally announced on January 19, 2010. Prior to the announcement, the owners of both champion fillies had committed to race their horses in the 2010 season. With the final ballots cast, the industry has moved from the “Horse of the Year” debate toward speculation regarding a match race between these two female rivals in 2010.
Since 1975, there have not been any major thoroughbred match races involving champions in America after Ruffian sustained a terminal injury while competing against Kentucky Derby winner, Foolish Pleasure. In that race, the undefeated filly Ruffian met Foolish Pleasure at Belmont Park in New York. A national television audience watched as Ruffian broke down shortly after the start and had to be euthanized the following day.
Before the sad ending to match racing with Ruffian’s injury, there were several other major match races throughout the century. In 1955, Kentucky Derby winner, Swaps, met Nashua, the Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner of that year. Nashua won the race, but speculation did not cease after the match. Swaps had been nursing a sore foot in days prior to the race. Eddie Arcaro, rider of Nashua, admitted many years later that he doubted Nashua could ever have beaten a healthy Swaps.
In 1947, Triple-Crown winner and 1946 Horse of the Year, Assault, held a $100,000 match race against Calumet Farm’s horse, Armed. Armed beat Assault by eight lengths and went on to win the 1947 title of Horse of the Year.
One of the arguably most talked-about match races of the century occurred in 1938, between the rags-to-riches underdog, Seabiscuit, and the Triple-Crown winner and reigning horse of the year, War Admiral. Seabiscuit tracked War Admiral across the country and quickly became the “People’s Horse” during the depression era. After he defeated War Admiral in the 1939 showdown, Seabiscuit went on to win Horse of the Year.
However, match racing existed before the popular match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral. In 1923, the Kentucky Derby winner, Zev, took on the English Derby winner, Papyrus. The race was dubbed the first “international” race and exorbitant prices were charged for tickets. Zeb won the match race against Papyrus, but doubts lingered about the victory due to track conditions and a mistake in shoeing Papyrus prior to the race.
Finally, in 1920, Horse of the Century, Man O’ War, met Sir Barton, the first horse to win what would later be dubbed the “Triple Crown,” in a match race in Canada. Man O’ War won the race by seven lengths, but the importance of the race was questioned because it was widely-regarded that Sir Barton was not at his peak performance.
With a new century, the industry is faced with the prospect of a major match race between two champion fillies – Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. From a brief look at the history of match racing, the unasked question is “What purpose would a match race serve?”
The most obvious answer is financial gain to the industry and owners, as well as reinvigorating public interest in the sport of horseracing. But, aside from these interests, does a match race serve either filly in cementing their championship status over the other filly?
From the historical view, Zenyatta appears to have more to gain while Rachel Alexandra more to lose if the two are pegged against each other in a match race. In the races in which a reigning Horse of the Year accepted and lost a match race, the prevailing horse went on to win “Horse of the Year” in the following season. Therefore, Zenyatta’s most important targeted race for 2010 should be a match against Rachel Alexandra if she wants to attempt to clinch the much sought-after title of “Horse of the Year.”
In the same vein, if Rachel Alexandra were to lose a match to Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra’s “Horse of the Year” victory over Zenyatta may be called into question all over again. Rachel would be forced into a rivalry with Zenyatta that could last over several races in an attempt to gain the lead over her rival in the court of public opinion.
Further, the historical record shows that match races rarely seem to settle the score between two rival champion horses. In the case between Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure, there was no true winner since Ruffian was injured during the race. Between Swaps and Nashua, Nashua’s own jockey, Arcaro, felt that Swaps would have won if he had been in better health. The race between Zev and Papyrus only clouded the debate since Papyrus encountered track difficulties and there was a mistake in shoeing the horse. Finally, Man O’ War’s victory over Sir Barton was also questioned since Sir Barton was not at his peak-performance level at the time of the match.
If a match race were to be held between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, it would seemingly do little to settle the debate regarding who is the greater horse between the two champions. However, it would make for an electrifying spectacle to watch these two fillies face off on the track.
Rather than aiming to have a match race settle the ongoing debate of who is the greater horse between Zenyatta and Rachel, a match race, if held, should serve only to showcase the two great fillies of our decade. Their championship status has already been proven in different races, on different tracks.
January 16th, 2010 §
On Monday, the winner of the prestigious “Horse of the Year” Eclipse Award will be announced and two breathtaking fillies remain in a dead heat for title. Throughout most of the 2009 racing season, Rachel Alexandra dominated the sport with flashy wins against other fillies, taking down the boys in three separate races, and, ultimately, being the first filly in 85 years to capture the Preakness Trophy. Of her eight starts as a three-year-old in 2009, she remained undefeated and ended her racing year as the first filly to win the Woodward Stakes.
By September of 2009, I believed Rachel Alexandra was the clear choice for “Horse of the Year” having watched her trample the field in the Kentucky Oaks, take down the Derby Winner in the Preakness, and close her season with her historical win in the Woodward Stakes. If anyone had challenged that notion, I wouldn’t have hesitated to hold a good old-fashioned yelling match to defend Rachel’s right to the title. In my mind, it was inconceivable that any horse could out-perform this “Super Filly.”
And then, the unconceivable arrived. On November 7, 2009, an undefeated five-year old female named Zenyatta walked onto the track at Santa Anita and dared every boy standing at the gate to defeat her in the richest race in America.
It was such a bold move that I skipped a wedding to watch her try.
As the gates opened, Zenyatta trailed the field. Throughout middle of the race, I watched with heartbreak as she hung in last place. It looked as if expectations had exceeded her ability. When it appeared near hopeless, Zenyatta made the bid for her place in history. She began to pick off her opponents near the last turn and went wide on the home stretch to deliver a seemingly late charge for the finish. In the final seconds, Zenyatta drove seamlessly past her contenders at the wire to win the Breeder’s Cup Classic. In this historical moment, my allegiance for “Horse of the Year” shifted from Rachel Alexandra to the first filly to ever take the most expensive race in America – Zenyatta.
Admittedly, Zenyatta’s contention for “Horse of the Year” would not be such a threat to Rachel Alexandra without her historical win in the Breeder’s Cup Classic. However, I am not in the business of rewriting history. In fact, Zenyatta’s bid for “Horse of the Year” is perfectly in sync with the historical background and ultimate spirit of the Eclipse Awards.
When the Eclipse Awards were founded in 1971, they were named in honor of a British racehorse and sire from the 1800s, named “Eclipse.” As a racehorse, Eclipse did not begin his career until he was a five-year-old and remained undefeated throughout the eighteen races in his career. In recognition of his legacy, Eclipse became the namesake to what are arguably considered the most prestigious achievement awards within the American horse racing industry.
By the very nature of the Eclipse Awards, the award categories provide a separation for age and overall achievement. Aside from “Horse of the Year,” which encompasses all ages and genders, the Eclipse Awards also maintain separate categories for the best “Three-Year-Old Filly” and “Three-Year-Old Male.” The scenario between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta appears to have been given some forethought prior to this moment.
Eclipse himself could not have won the best “Three-Year-Old Male” Award, just as Zenyatta can no longer compete for the best “Three-Year-Old Filly” award due to the age restriction. The Awards appear to follow the design that a “Three-Year-Old Filly” may become “Horse of the Year,” but that the rapture of the Triple Crown racing season cannot discount the outstanding performances of all racehorses during a given year.
Admittedly, Rachel Alexandra had an electrifying year as a three-year old horse – irrespective of her gender. If she had shown up to Santa Anita on November 7th to win the Breeder’s Cup Classic, there would be very little debate that she had earned the “Horse of the Year” Award. But, as Zenyatta trampled down the full field of skilled male horses to earn the distinction of the first filly to win the Breeder’s Cup Classic, Rachel Alexandra quietly stepped aside and placed her bets on her three-year-old season. When Zenyatta was first at the wire, Rachel lost her bet.
Zenyatta’s win in the Breeder’s Cup Classic holds more historical significance than any of Rachel Alexandra’s wins within this season. Zenyatta won the most expensive race in the United States. She is the first filly to ever accomplish this feat. The Breeder’s Cup Classic is one of the most contentious races in America – the field is full of great horses from varying backgrounds who are proven winners.
In contrast, Rachel Alexandra’s first Grade One win was in the Kentucky Oaks – among other fillies. Her next race, among males in the Preakness, is an impressive win – but not a “Game Changer.” Prior to Rachel, four fillies had already won the Preakness Stakes – the most recent win being in 1924. Further, the Preakness is the shortest distance of all three Triple Crown races, the Belmont being the longest race in the United States at a distance of 1 ½ miles. When Oaks-Winner Rags to Riches beat Curlin in the 2007 Belmont Stakes, Curlin was still awarded the distinction of “Horse of the Year” despite the fact that a Filly had not won the Belmont in over a hundred years when she crossed the finish line.
Zenyatta also holds distinction for building her undefeated record on a higher grade of races than Rachel Alexandra. In her career, Zenyatta has consistently run in only Grade 1 and Grade 2 races – remaining undefeated. In contrast, Rachel Alexander gradually worked from Grade 3 races into Grade 1 races, finishing second in both of her Grade 3 races. When viewing the overall career record of both horses, Zenyatta is the only undefeated horse who never delved below a Grade 2 race.
Finally, Zenyatta’s wins earned more money in 2009 than Rachel Alexandra. In 2009, Zenyatta was the second-highest ranking horse, boasting $3,330,000 in earnings. In comparison, Rachel Alexandra ranked fifth in 2009, bringing in a total of $2,746,914.
With the entry of more fillies in the prestigious male-dominated horse races, the industry is now squarely-faced with “The Filly Eclipse” for the Horse of the Year. Fillies are running alongside their male-counterparts and winning. When Rachel Alexandra ended her racing season in September, many believed that she had earned “Horse of the Year” over her potential male rivals for the Award. On November 7th, 2009, Zenyatta placed herself in undisputed contention with Rachel Alexandra as she moved past the finish line at the Breeder’s Cup Classic. Those watching the Breeder’s Cup Classic witnessed the first “Filly Eclipse” in history for the Horse of the Year Award.
After the Breeder’s Cup Classic, there have been arguments to hold a match race between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. This would not add or subtract anything from this competition. Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra are two distinct horses at different places in their career with their own unique character. They race in two separate fields - Rachel performs better on dirt and Zenyatta excels on synthetic track. If they ever settled where to run this race, the next question would be why the race should be run. This is a competition for the “Horse of the Year”- not “Best Filly of the Year.” It just happens to be that the two final contenders are fillies.
In the case of Rachel Alexandra, I truly believe that she has gone above and beyond to win the distinction of being the best three-year-old filly for 2009. She took on the boys, outran them, and bested the field with her astounding margins of victory in filly races.
Then, in a rare moment in November, “The Filly Eclipse” occurred and Zenyatta obscured all opposition.
When Zenyatta crossed the wire in the Breeder’s Cup Classic, she took my vote for Horse of the Year through pioneering a win in the most expensive race in America amidst a field a hard-tested males from various ages and backgrounds. It was an electrifying performance that not only earned her a place in the history books, but also, the well-earned distinction as “Horse of the Year.” I had seen my first ”filly eclipse.” It was breathtaking.
January 14th, 2010 §
On January 1st, 2010, the next group of Derby hopefuls all turned the three as the nation celebrated the new year. As the days begin to roll by, many trainers and owners will begin to set their gaze on one of the most prized accomplishments in sports – the winning of the Triple Crown in horseracing.
Although the first leg of the Triple Crown doesn’t arrive until May 1, 2010, when all eyes turn to Churchill Downs for the 136th Running of the Kentucky Derby, the prep races to qualify for the highly-coveted positions in the Derby are shifting into gear. As with every year, I begin to watch the Saturday prep races, with a hope that this year will bring the next Triple Crown Winner.
This year is no different – with the exception of this Blog. You might ask – Why are you starting a Blog about horseracing? The answer is simple. I love the sport. I love the players. I love to talk about horseracing. It makes me scream with excitement, cry with heartbreak, and leaves me endlessly studying the details of races to try to master the mysteries of the sport.
During this month, I will begin considering the new horses positioning themselves for the Kentucky Derby, making travel plans to go to Churchill Downs for the first Saturday in May, and reminiscing about my past “loves” who thrilled me (or left me heartbroken) at the wire. I study the video footage of all the prep races, read the handicapper’s picks, look for the standout performances, until finally, I fall in love with a new horse for the year. And, once I fall in love with a horse, I am unshakeable in my devotion.
After seeing Barbaro win the Derby, I actually bought a farm with the dream of owning a racehorse. When he died, my racehorse dreams hit reality. A friend called my office the day of his death to tell me the sad news. The first sentence out of his mouth was, “What is the worst thing you can imagine in this world right now?” My immediate response was “If Barbaro died.” Unfortunately, I had picked the right horse that day. I sent a dozen roses to his hospital and had my first major lesson in horseracing – These great atheletes are not infallable.
After Barbaro, I maintained my enthusiasm for horseracing despite the peaks and valleys that are inherent to great love. Prior to the historic Belmont when Rags to Riches beat Curlin, I had a hair-trigger temper for anyone who told me a filly couldn’t win the Belmont. When she stomped across the wire, it felt like I won that race with her. She taught me the next lesson – Fillies are a force to be reckoned with and should never be discounted on the basis of gender alone.
When Big Brown showed up on the scene, it was love at first sight. By then, I had sold my farm, having learned that you can’t “grow” racehorses without lots of money. I sat in my Chicago apartment and watched his races for the pure joy of witnessing such raw talent. At the Derby, I watched him thunder to the finish line first from the twentieth post. When he won the Preakness, I booked my first trip to New York City in life. I was convinced that I was going there to witness the coronation of the next Triple Crown Winner. When he finished dead last, my heart was broken and I learned the most important lesson to date – Any horse can win or lose a race. Even Big Brown.
This past year, I saw the fillies take center stage and slam the door on the gender divide in horseracing. Rachel Alexandra’s stunning wins made me stand in awe of her ability. I thought she was the easy pick for “Horse of the Year.” And then came Zenyatta – who closed the Breeder’s Cup with a historical victory that changed the landscape of horseracing for fillies forever. As I write this story, the 2009 “Horse of the Year” will be picked in less than a week. My mind spins in circles between the two of them and wishes that they both could hold the title.
However, in horseracing, there is only one winner. And, the answer only arrives when the race is won. It could be a filly. Or a longshot. It could be the favorite of the betting public. The horse could be a former claiming horse or have cost a fortune. One thing is certain – There are extensive amounts of money and lifelong dreams on the line. Everyone from the owners to the betting public pays to watch the performance. So, who will be the next Triple Crown Winner? It is among the most expensive questions in the world.
Do you have a comment, question, or idea? You can contact Jennifer at email@example.com.