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A Look at the 2009 Horse of the Year Picture

With the Breeders’ Cup almost upon us there is far more debate than usual about Horse of the Year this year – much of it due to some very out of the ordinary circumstances which require a different level of analysis and evaluation of campaigns than we typically encounter in these discussions.  Much of the determination for 2009 Horse of the Year really boils down to one simple question: Just how much is a Breeders’ Cup Classic win worth when the race isn’t being run on dirt, the field is missing its 2 biggest drawing cards, and the handicap division is among the weakest in racing history?  To me the answer is not all that much.  Certainly not enough to overcome the lead that Rachel Alexandra has established with one of the most incredible campaigns ever by a 3 year old filly.

The Breeders’ Cup Classic is often the defining race for Horse of the Year because of what it represents – the central meeting point for 3 year olds and older horse at a classic distance on the dirt.  It’s a race that everyone gears their campaigns toward so there are no excuses – a championship event.  Those factors are not present in this year’s event.  For starters, the race isn’t on dirt.  Some may want to bury their heads in the sand and pretend otherwise, but synthetics are a completely separate surface and most horses have different ability levels on each.  Some, like Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride surface bear little resemblance to dirt and, in fact, appear to favor turf ability and running styles more than dirt form. American racing is built around dirt.  That’s what we’re about and that’s what we reward in our year-end balloting.  Running a race on a non-dirt surface and calling it a “championship” or a “Breeders’ Cup” race doesn’t make it any more meaningful or impactful or make it any more relevant a measure of dirt ability.  It’s not.  You simply cannot apply the same weight to a “championship” event run on Pro-Ride that you would to a normal Breeders’ Cup Classic run on dirt.

Further diluting the value of a Breeders’ Cup Classic win this year is the quality of the field – or lack thereof.  The 2009 handicap division is the weakest I can ever recall.  There are simply no elite older horses this year.  Horses like Macho Again and Bullsbay and Dry Martini would be also-rans in most years, not trading wins in major Grade 1 races.  It’s just mind-boggling to see major handicap races won with BSF’s barely breaking 100.  In fact, the highest Beyer speed figure recorded by an older male this entire year is a 111 (Rail Trip & Solar Flare).  That’s astounding.  That the Whitney was won by a horse who had never previously exceeded a 100 BSF pretty much says it all about this division.  Add to the fact that Rachel Alexandra and Sea The Stars won’t be in the field and it’s hard to argue that winning the Classic is particularly significant in any way other than purse value to the winning connections.  Yes – there are some good Europeans coming over (and they will probably win) but they are grass horses and this is closer to a grass race than a dirt race.  What it is not is a race that should be the primary determinant of the 2009 Horse of the Year.

With all of the above said, let’s take a quick look at the individual candidates:

RACHEL ALEXANDRA – Needs no introduction.  8-for-8 this year including 5 Grade 1’s and 3 G1 wins against males.  Yes she went to sidelines a month early, but she ran one of the most ambitious campaigns for a 3-year old filly in many years.  She beat males while encountering exceptionally difficult trips and pace scenarios and absolutely demolished her 3 yo filly counterparts – albeit weak ones.  Her 8 wins also took place over 7 different racetracks in 6 different states.  At every path her connections challenged her.  They traveled, they faced 3 yo males in the Preakness and Haskell, they faced older males in the Woodward.  That ambition need to be rewarded.  That mentality is what we need in racing these days in this era where it’s all too common to see top horses never face each other and avoid top competition except for a few select races each year.

SUMMER BIRD – He has matured into a very nice horse and has put together a solid resume.  It seems odd to say that a horse who wins the Belmont, Travers, Jockey Club Gold Cup, & Breeders’ Cup Classic shouldn’t be Horse of the Year, but he shouldn’t.  There are 3 primary reasons why:

1. A Breeders Cup Classic win isn’t as significant as usual.  See above!

2. Summer Bird did absolutely nothing prior to the Belmont.  He was beaten 13 lengths in the Kentucky Derby and had only a Maiden win to his credit prior to the Belmont.  Should he win the BC Classic his record would be 9-5-1-1 with 4 Grade 1 victories.  Impressive but hardly exceptional.

3 – Most importantly, Rachel Alexandra blew Summer Bird away in the Haskell – beating him by 6.  Summer Bird has done nothing wrong, but his credentials with a win in the Classic certainly wouldn’t substantially exceed Rachel Alexandra’s – and in the face of otherwise similar accomplishments a decisive head-to-head win has to be the deciding factor.

ZENYATTA – I previously discussed her campaign and what a disservice her connections have done to her legacy by managing her so conservatively.  This is a horse whose campaign to date defines the concept of taking the path of least resistance.  She will run 5 times – all on synthetics – never leaving California, shying away from any matchups with Rachel Alexandra and never facing males until possibly the Classic.  Obviously if she doesn’t go in the Classic this is all a moot point, but even if she does it is definitely a case of too little too late.  All season long Zenyatta’s connections never looked for a challenge with their champion – and it wasn’t like they had to look very hard.  Having already proven that she was better than California’s older filly & mare contingent, there was no obvious reason to avoid races like the Hollywood Gold Cup or Pacific Classic.  Heck, even her stablemate Life Is Sweet who was on the same schedule at the time ran in the Hollywood Gold Cup.  NYRA desperately tried to arrange a meeting with Rachel Alexandra in the Beldame but her connections publicly shied away from that as well citing the value of the Breeders’ Cup as the meeting place for such an event.  That type of thinking cannot be rewarded.  The Breeders’ Cup is indeed the day to crown champions, but not at the expense of the entire rest of the year.

Bottom line is that even with a win in the Classic, Zenyatta would be 5-for-5 with 4 Grade 1 wins.  She’s had fewer wins than Rachel, fewer Grade 1 wins, and a far less impressive campaign overall.  Where Rachel Alexandra’s connections looked for challenges, Zenyatta’s connection avoided them.  From a public policy perspective you want to reward the connections who campaigned aggressively, not the ones who took the path of least resistance at every available turn.

Then there’s the head-to-head comparison.  If you look only at their races vs females, Rachel Alexandra is 5-for 5 while Zenyatta is 4-for-4.  Obviously Rachel faced inferior horses as a 3 yo filly, but she absolutely dominated her competition – winning races like the Kentucky Oaks and Mother Goose by 20 and 19 lengths.  Zenyatta meanwhile was life and death to beat Annaba’s Creation and won her races in a manner than was much more workmanlike than brilliant or fast.  Should she win this less-meaningful-than-usual Breeders’ Cup Classic it would certainly be an impressive accomplishment for Zenyatta’s legacy, but should that win really count more than a combination of wins in the Preakness, Haskell, and Woodward by a 3 year old filly?  Of course not.  At the end of the day Rachel’s campaign was simply better and more impressive in every way and is far more deserving of reward than Zenyatta’s.  Had Zenyatta run more than 5 times, thrown in a win on dirt or outside California, or another win against males, or shown interest in facing Rachel Alexandra when the powers that be were trying to set up the showdown, then maybe she’d have a case. But she didn’t.  Her connections never challenged her and at this point she’s trailing Rachel by a lot more ground than she could make up with a single Breeders’ Cup Classic victory – particularly one accomplished without beating her primary competition for the title.  Also keep in mind that if the racing season ended right now she wouldn’t even be # 2 in line and perhaps not even # 3 based on what she’s done to date.  It’s about accomplishments THIS YEAR, not reputation and legacy.

Normally the Breeders’ Cup Classic is the culmination of a year of major dirt races.  This year it is not.  It’s a watered-down event on a synthetic surface that plays closer to turf than dirt.  The championship dirt racing season in the US ended earlier this month for all intents and purposes…and at that finish line Rachel Alexandra is comfortably in front by any reasonable measure of comparison.

Rachel Alexandra is your 2009 Horse of the Year regardless of what happens in the Breeders’ Cup.


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Posted in Breeders' Cup, General Racing Discussion, Rachel Alexandra, Upcoming Races, Zenyatta.

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4 Responses

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  1. Steve M. says

    I basically agree with everyone thing you said, especially that Zenyatta is out of the discussion. However, if Summer Bird were to win the BC Classic in a field that included Zenyatta, he at least merits consideration for Horse of the Year. Understand that’s two big “IFs” – if Zenyatta runs in the Classic and if S-Bird wins; but it could happen. Summer Bird is a different horse with Desormeaux riding but the big question is how he handles pro-ride.

    You would have to compare Rachel’s 5 G1 wins: KY Oaks, Preakness, Mother Goose, Haskell (over Summer Bird), and Woodward against Summer Bird’s 4: Belmont, Travers, Jockey Club Gold Cup and BC Classic (over Zenyatta, maybe).

    The races S-Bird will have won are generally more prestigious. However, what Rachel has done as a 3-year old filly is truly unprecedented. Personally, I’d give the award to Rachel to reward Jess Jackson for being a true sportsman. If he’d never bought her we’d never get to witness these historic performances and achievements.

  2. Darrell says

    Thanks for the comment. I agree that it would be a tough beat for Summer Bird to lose HOY if he wins the BC Classic, but I have to hold against him the fact that Rachel beat him decisively the one time they faced each other, that this is a less meaningful BC Classic than usual, and that he really has nothing going for him Pre-Belmont.

    As you said, the course Jackson took with Rachel is something that racing NEEDS to reward in an otherwise close contest. From a public policy perspective you definitely want to send a message to owners and trainers that campaigning aggressively and seeking challenges will be recognized and rewarded.

Continuing the Discussion

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