The long, widely shared lament over the scarcity of enduring participation on the part of racing's best and brightest is temporarily suspended. Reigning horse of the year, 4-year-old filly Rachel Alexandra, and undefeated 6-year-old mare Zenyatta will return to competition in 2010, to the collective delight of all concerned. Racing needs stars and now has two magnificent females.
Although theirs is a rivalry only in the public consciousness at this stage, since they have not yet stood in the same starting gate, not since 1990 (when the new season promised the renewal of the Sunday Silence-Easy Goer rivalry that had spanned the previous season when the battle was joined in the Kentucky Derby and culminated in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Gulfstream Park) has a new racing season brought this level of anticipation.
As cruel fate would have it, Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, who were to have become reacquainted that summer in Chicago, never met again. Both fell to injury before the keenly anticipated renewal of their longstanding rivalry and were retired at age 4 after brief campaigns. The game is no less cruel nowadays, so the long view of the 2010 season, with the call already out for a series of races involving the belles of this ball, must be tempered with caution. The connections of every racehorse begin every day with a distinct sense of dread.
Even under the best of circumstances, it is unclear exactly what shape and form the anticipated rivalry between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta would take. Where? When? And, not insignificantly, how much money would it take to bring together the two most well-known names in racing?
Zenyatta's owner, Jerry Moss, had been quoted thusly: "Someday."
Rachel Alexandra's principal owner, Jess Jackson, is on record as having said: "Champions don't race for $200,000. It should be $2 million or $3 million."
There is early clamor from Gulfstream Park for the rivalry to commence in the Donn Handicap, and the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park, a race won by Zenyatta in 2008, has been suggested. Both races, however, are too early in the season to accommodate Rachel Alexandra, who has not yet begun serious training while wintering in New Orleans. The Louisville Distaff, run on the eve of the Kentucky Derby, was on Zenyatta's schedule last year, although she was declared after heavy rain left a quagmire over which Rachel Alexandra would demolish the Kentucky Oaks later in the afternoon. The Distaff, a Grade 2, falls far short of Jackson's monetary requirements, and it is difficult to imagine Churchill Downs raising the purse without the participation of a sponsor for a race that would in effect overshadow the Oaks, the Derby itself and the existing partnership with Yum Brands.
Ultimately, the economic climate might prove to be the greatest single obstacle -- if Jackson sticks to his seven-figure demand -- to bringing together Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta before the next Breeders' Cup. Racing's economic indicators have declined in lockstep with an economic malaise that is unflinchingly global and doggedly entrenched. Even the largest American racetracks will find it difficult, if not impossible, to fund the seven-figure purses required to draw more than the principal figures to races designed as stages for what is hoped will become a rivalry.
Since it is impossible to guarantee the presence of both in any single race, an arranged series that might be of interest to one or more corporate sponsors and a television or cable network is unreasonable, as is, for the same reason, scheduling and budgeting national electronic media coverage. So, the ingredients necessary to bring about seven-figure purses for races now run for much less are not present.
Outside the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup, only a few races on the American stakes calendar offer purses of more than $1 million, let alone the $2 million minimum Jackson has suggested. Of course, he could step up to create the $5 million Kendall-Jackson Vineyard Classic and solve the problem at least once.
An alternative list of appropriately prestigious, Grade 1 possibilities that would require Jackson reduce his economic demands is already in place.
The May 30 Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont would be an appropriate beginning, at a mile with one of the most prestigious titles in the nation at stake in a race guaranteed to draw at least a handful of high-class males.
Saratoga offers three possible destinations and the best showcase in American racing: the Aug. 7 Whitney Handicap at 9 furlongs, the Aug. 29 Personal Ensign at 10 furlongs (a race restricted to females, which might create problems in finding competition) and the Sept. 4 Woodward, the 9-furlong race that secured the horse of the year title for Rachel Alexandra last year.
Neither Jackson nor Moss is doing this for money. This is a rare demonstration of two men doing what is best for the sport and its followers. So, purses notwithstanding, prior to the hoped-for showdown in the next Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs in November, it is only appropriate to race two true superstars in races of established prestige -- races won by great horses past that are woven into the very fiber of the sport upon which the legacies of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta remain works in progress.
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He has also been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul maintains paulmoranattheraces.blogspot.com and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.