HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - In the boldest move yet to bring Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta together for the first time in a race, Oaklawn Park president Charles Cella announced Thursday that the purse of the April 3 Apple Blossom will be raised to $5 million if both horses start.
If the matchup fails to materialize, the purse for the Grade 1 stakes will remain at its originally scheduled $500,000.
The race will now be called the Apple Blossom Invitational, with its distance extended from a mile and a sixteenth to a mile and an eighth. For fillies and mares 4 years old and up, the Apple Blossom was scheduled to be a handicap, but if Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta go, all horses will carry 123 pounds and the field will be limited to 10.
Cella said he has had multiple conversations with Jess Jackson, majority owner of Rachel Alexandra, the Horse of the Year, and Jerry Moss, the owner of Zenyatta, the champion older mare who is 14 for 14 in her career.
"Both of them have told me they embrace the idea," he said.
If both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta start, the $5 million purse would put the Apple Blossom on a par with the Breeders' Cup Classic, the richest race in North America. The additional purse money of the race would be financed by Cella and the Arkansas Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.
Steve Asmussen, who trains Rachel Alexandra, and John Shirreffs, who trains Zenyatta, were both pleased with the announcement Thursday.
"It's great to see how much interest there is in the mares, and hopefully it will come together," Asmussen said. "From a timing standpoint, it's less than optimum."
Rachel Alexandra, now 4, has not raced since winning the Grade 1 Woodward over older males at Saratoga in September. Last Sunday she had her first work of the year, breezing a half-mile in 52 seconds at her base of Fair Grounds.
Jackson said making the Apple Blossom will be tight for Rachel Alexandra.
"As you have heard me say many times before, a number of factors must be considered when deciding where to race the horse, the number one factor being the condition of the horse," he said in a release. "Rachel will tell us when she is ready to start her 2010 campaign and we humans must agree she is in top form. ""If she is in top form and it fits our schedule, we will be there."
Zenyatta, 6, won the Breeders' Cup Classic in her last start Nov. 7. She breezed five furlongs in 1:01.60 at Hollywood Park on Wednesday, and following the work her connections said she could make her first start of the year in the Grade 1 Santa Margarita at Santa Anita on March 13. Last month, when Zenyatta came out of retirement, Moss said a spring goal for her could be the Apple Blossom.
"It sounds very exciting," Shirreffs said of the Thursday announcement.
"It's a race we've been thinking about going to no matter what happens."
Oaklawn is an appealing venue to both parties, with Jackson having said in the past that he prefers dirt, the surface at Oaklawn, over a synthetic track, and Moss noting that Zenyatta ran a memorable race in her one start at Oaklawn. Zenyatta's lone start outside of California came here in 2008 when she won the Apple Blossom. Rachel Alexandra is 2 for 2 in Hot Springs, having accounted for both the Grade 2 Fantasy and the Martha Washington in 2009.
If both start, 50 percent of the purse will go to the winner. If Rachel Alexandra or Zenyatta fails to start in the Apple Blossom, some of its conditions will change. The distance, however, will remain a mile and an eighth and the base weight wll stay at 123 pounds, but there will be weight allowances for nonwinners of a graded stakes. Further, the field size will not be limited to 10.
Nominations for the Apple Blossom close March 10, with pre-entries for the race to be taken on March 17. Final entries for the race are March 31.
Oaklawn's offer is one of two significant pitches in the region to bring Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta together. Sam Houston Race Park in Houston will put up a maximum purse of $2 million if the two were to start in the tracks Gallery Furniture Distaff that has a tentative, negotiable date of March 27.