Ultimate showdown

Mike Smith was just being a gentleman. When asked to compare the relative abilities of champion mare Zenyatta and Preakness Stakes diva Rachel Alexandra, he begged off.

May 23, 2009, 11:38 PM

By: Jay Hovdey



Daily Racing Form's Jay Hovdey will be filing daily notes and thoughts while covering the Triple Crown, exclusively on ESPN.com.

Mike Smith was just being a gentleman. When asked to compare the relative abilities of champion mare Zenyatta and Preakness Stakes diva Rachel Alexandra, he begged off.

"Aw, she's a great filly," he said of Rachel, who beat Smith and Derby winner Mine That Bird in Baltimore. "After what she's accomplished, I don't want to ruin it."

As he spoke, the house was still humming from the way Zenyatta and Smith had chewed up and spit out the Milady Handicap field on Saturday at Hollywood Park, and his comment spoke volumes. Let Rachel enjoy her moment in the sun. But the fact remains — Rachel Alexandra may be the most famous Thoroughbred filly in America and the toast of the Triple Crown — whether or not she runs in the Belmont Stakes. Zenyatta, a 5-year-old tower of power and reigning champion, is without a doubt the best female Thoroughbred in the land.

"I hope you don't want me to come up with anything new to describe her, with my limited vocabulary," Smith grinned at the end of business Saturday. He was not alone. John Shirreffs, Zenyatta's trainer, was likewise dumbstruck, managing a blurted "Wow!" into his cellphone to caller David Ingordo immediately after the Milady was run.

Like the fellow said in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"--"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." This is what we know. Zenyatta, suffering from a skin disease, was plucked from a yearling sale by Ingordo on behalf of Ann and Jerry Moss for a paltry $60,000. She grew about an inch a week, in all directions, and did not make her first start until late in 2007. Now she has won all 10 of her races. She appears to have no weaknesses, only idiosyncracies, like her stiff-legged, dressage style prancing in the paddock after she saddles and as she parades to the post.

With each appearance the imagination soars. Zenyatta's Milady was a good way to start her 2009 campaign. She was tested--for about a dozen strides — by the very good 4-year-old filly Life Is Sweet, who just happens to be Zenyatta's stablemate. The race was all but over by the time Smith hit the stretch, signaled by those big Zenyatta ears going straight up like satellite dishes as she cruised home under wraps. The champ returned unfazed to warm applause, prompting racing radio show host Jason Levin, standing trackside, to observe, "She was hotter than this going to the gate."

Unfortunately, given the state of business at Hollywood Park, Zenyatta's fans right now amount to voices crying in the wilderness. The TVG racing network did a good job of packaging the Milady and covering the post-race details. But they preach to the choir, and the sad truth was there to see. The live attendance at Hollywood Park on Saturday was announced as 6,042. Rachel Alexandra performed before an announced Preakness attendance of more than 77,000, plus network TV. No one ever hears "Rachel who?"

Rachel Alexandra, now racing for wine giant Jess Jackson, already proved herself superior to the 3-year-old males that made it as far as the Preakness Stakes this year. Her remarkable achievement is burned into the history books forever. Now, her only interesting challenge comes from the spectre of Zenyatta — older and wiser than Rachel Alexandra, and physically more imposing than any female Thoroughbred in reasonable memory.

On several occasions in this decade, racing fans have been cheated out of satisfying resolutions between generations. Funny Cide was never at his best, late in his 3-year-old season of 2003, to be properly tested against Mineshaft. The 3-year-old superstar Smarty Jones did not stick around long enough to face Ghostzapper in 2004, while in 2005 Afleet Alex was finished before anyone could find out if he could handle Saint Liam. In each case, Horse of the Year honors went to the older runner.

If it is too much to ask that both Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra keep the faith until the first week in November, when the Breeders' Cup offers the ultimate summit meeting. But that event will be on Santa Anita's synthetic surface, which leaves everyone with doubts. The best case scenario is a Zenyatta-Rachel Alexandra confrontation in a major dirt track race somewhere — anywhere — in the early fall. Guys like Jerry Moss and Jess Jackson make things happen all the time. Make this happen.

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