SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Though the unexpected tends to interject itself often in this game, it appears possible, if all the cards fall face-up, that there is a momentum of potential building toward yet another season-ending Horse of the Year controversy in which Zenyatta is one of the central figures.
As was the case at the end of 2009, there is a contender positioned to challenge Zenyatta despite her still-in-progress, unblemished 18-race career that may reach 20 wins before Eclipse Award polling is conducted. Last year, Rachel Alexandra was voted Horse of the Year, inspiring a burst of outraged pique that rivaled a week-old Southern California wildfire driven by a Santa Ana wind. Difference of opinion is racing's life force, except in California, where it is immutable evidence of "East Coast bias," a figment of the sunburned imagination.
This time, regardless of what she may win between now and season's end, Rachel Alexandra is not a player in the Eclipse Award shuffle. She will not recover from two early defeats, and her failure to show up at Oaklawn Park on the same spring weekend when Zenyatta was in attendance for the Apple Blossom is unforgivable. Her two most recent races, both victories in extremely suspect company, have impressed no one except perhaps owner Jess Jackson's publicist. Short of winning the Breeders' Cup Classic, Rachel Alexandra cannot possibly achieve enough this season to regain the stature she enjoyed a year ago, and she has yet to run a race in 2010 that suggests she is the same filly we saw a year ago.
Lack of meaningful competition notwithstanding, Zenyatta occupies the driver's seat in the race toward a Horse of the Year title, the only race she has ever failed to win. Her effort in a third Clement Hirsch Stakes win Saturday at Del Mar was, again, just enough, but enough nevertheless. It is as difficult to fault perfection as it is to gush over just enough.
Zenyatta's real competition in this year's Horse of the Year chase may again come in the form of a horse she will never look in the eye. Blame's hat is squarely in the ring after his dramatic victory over Quality Road in Saturday's Whitney Handicap at the Spa. Beating Quality Road -- a multiple Grade 1 winner, owner of a couple of course records and, before Saturday, considered by some the best American horse currently in training -- by a neck carries more weight in the grand scheme of things than beating the obscure Rinterval by the same margin. Sorry; it just does.
Quality Road had no excuse in the Whitney; he ran his race, set a controlled pace and was beaten from behind by a horse only now coming into his own for trainer Al Stall. Blame will race next in the Oct. 2 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont, Stall said. That call was made by Claiborne Farm's Seth Hancock, who plans to end Blame's season in the Breeders' Cup Classic. If the 4-year-old colt runs the table, Zenyatta -- who would be better served this year by running against others of her own sex in the Breeders' Cup -- will not be assured the most coveted of postseason titles even with a 20-for-20 career record. Again, the title would come down to "The envelope, please."
He lacks Zenyatta's charisma, mystique and certainly her fame, but Blame, who has not been beaten since October, has established himself as the nation's leading older male. With the Stephen Foster, Woodward and the scalp of Quality Road already in his pocket and what is, after the Breeders' Cup Classic, the sport's most prestigious races on his itinerary, he will have every opportunity to thicken a late-season plot that is always better spiced liberally with disagreement and controversy.
This time, the imagined "East Coast bias" would be no factor. Blame is based in Kentucky, trained at Keeneland and had raced only once in New York, more than a year ago, before the Whitney. He will soon be home. "We'll take him back to Keeneland in a couple of weeks," Stall said, "let him train there, and bring him back up to Belmont."
Ultimately, the location of the Breeders' Cup may play to his strength. Not insignificantly, Blame will end his campaign at Churchill Downs, where he is 3-for-4 and undefeated beyond 7 furlongs.
Even now, you can almost hear the whining.
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 also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.