Saturday, November 7, 2009 Updated: November 8, 4:59 PM ET
Horse of the Year? It's still Rachel
By Bill Finley Special to ESPN.com
It almost seems that the only fair thing to do now is to have co-Horses of the Year. How can you deny Zenyatta after a marvelous performance in the Breeders' Cup Classic, where she mowed down the best males in the world and likely concluded her career with an undefeated record? How can you deny Rachel Alexandra after she put in a perfect season in which she won the Preakness, the Haskell and the Woodward, doing things that no filly has ever done?
The Horse of the Year runner-up will be a deserving champion, one of the all-time greats and simply very unlucky to have come along in 2009, a year we will all long remember for how it featured two of the best female horses that ever lived.
There will not, of course, be two Horses of the Year or any sharing of the award. There can be only one, and that one is Rachel Alexandra.
This is not a title that should be awarded based on emotion or any silly pro-California prejudice. Nor should anyone penalize Rachel Alexandra because her owner made a foolish decision to keep his filly out of the Breeders' Cup because of all that nonsense about plastic. The only way to do this is to base your vote on which of the two horses had the better overall year. Most any way you look at it, the answer is Rachel Alexandra.
Rachel Alexandra won eight races in 2009. Zenyatta won five.
Rachel Alexandra won five Grade I races. Zenyatta won four.
Rachel Alexandra beat males three times. Zenyatta beat males once.
Zenyatta and jockey Mike Smith after their victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
The only category in which Zenyatta has an edge on Rachel Alexandra is in total earnings. Zenyatta earned about $3.3 million this year. Rachel bankrolled $2.7 million.
Zenyatta's many fans will argue that their horse won the race that really matters, the Classic, which is supposed to decide year-end honors. They're not wrong. Winning the Classic is a huge deal and a Classic win outweighs any single victory turned in by Rachel Alexandra this year. Yet, does one Classic win mean more than combined wins in the Preakness, Haskell and Woodward? No.
Rachel Alexandra's camp also has another major argument in its favor, that perhaps no horse has ever beaten a more accomplished collection of horses in any one year. She defeated the winners of the Kentucky Derby, Belmont, Travers, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Whitney, Stephen Foster, Test and Acorn, and that's not a complete list.
It would have been so much easier and so much better if this could have been decided on the racetrack. There would be no debate if Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta had faced off at some point this year. The winner of that race would have been Horse of the Year. Case closed.
The bad guy had been Jerry Moss. Prior to the Classic, his handling of Zenyatta was far too conservative. She should have tried males before, ventured outside of California more than once and he should have made more of an effort than he did to find a way to meet Rachel Alexandra.
But now, Moss deserves a tremendous amount of credit. After spending the entire year in the role of the overly cautious owner who was constantly outmaneuvered by Jess Jackson, he did the right thing. He won this chess match. Moss let his mare answer the questions on the racetrack and Zenyatta answered them with authority. Yes, she is great. Make that extra great.
This time, it was Jackson who was overly cautious and not bold enough to challenge his filly, synthetic surface or no synthetic surface. (Did he completely forget about the fact that Rachel Alexandra won over a synthetic track at Keeneland?)
As unlikely as it may seem, maybe there still is some way for the two to meet. Trainer John Shirreffs has made mention of the possibility that Zenyatta could run again after the Breeders' Cup and even if she is bred next year she could still run in a race or two in February or March. How about they move up the date of the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn so that Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra can both make the race? Oaklawn is, after all, the only track both have run over.
That is probably too much to wish for and leaves us with a debate to which there is no answer. Who's better? Believe what you want, but no one knows.
In the meantime, early next year, one owner and one owner only will collect the Horse of the Year hardware. It should be and, most likely, will be Jess Jackson. His filly had the better year.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at email@example.com.