A drama that started heating up last year between the two top female horses in the country, the three year old filly Rachel Alexandra and unbeaten six year old mare Zenyatta, is taking on even more excitement.
Rachel Alexandra, who won the Preakness and was undefeated in eight starts last year, won Horse of the Year honors in January over Zenyatta. Yet this weekend Rachel faced her first defeat – after a six month layoff – at the New Orleans Ladies Stakes. For anyone unfamiliar with thoroughbred racing, this level of competition between two ladies is unprecedented!
Before the upset, the two super horses were supposed to face off in a race for the ages at the $5 million Apple Blossom invitational on April 9 at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark. According to the New York Times, Rachel’s co-owner Jess Jackson began hedging his bets a week ago when he said he would send his filly to Arkansas only if she were dead-solid perfect. After this weekend’s race, trainer Steve Asmusssen said they would reassess their filly’s schedule.
All this drama just underlines the ironies of our times. The economy may be still struggling, and it’s often hard to find good news, but history is being made on the nation’s racetracks by two unlikely heroines.
What an unusual and exciting twist for Women’s History Month!
You know something’s afoot in thoroughbred horse racing when the two top contenders for Horse of the Year honors are fillies – and one of them has beaten the top colts in the land, including this year’s Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winners, Mine that Bird and Summer Bird. I wrote this spring about the thrill of seeing a filly in the Triple Crown, and how it evoked memories of the great Ruffian. But this time, there is no tragedy, only history in the making!
Rachel Alexandra, who won the Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown, is getting rock star treatment at Saratoga this summer as her owners debate which Stakes Race she should be entered in next. Early in August she cruised to her eighth straight win in the Haskell Monmouth Park in New Jersey, just a few ticks off the track record.
The other super filly is in California. Zenyatta, five years old, has never tasted defeat in eleven starts, including winning last year’s Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic, but she has only run against fillies. Zenyatta was a late bloomer, who did not begin racing until she was a three year old and last year was a strong contender for Horse of the Year. She was awarded the Eclipse Award as American Champion Older Female Horse for 2008.
However the rap is that Rachel’s owner Jess Jackson says he won’t run on the “plastic” tracks out west where California’s racing surfaces are synthetic and Zenyatta’s owner Jerry Moss seems in no hurry to head east. I wrote about horseracing and spent a year working for a few trainers at the New Jersey tracks in the late 70s, when it truly was a male dominated sport. I was thrilled to get to know one of the few gutsy women trainers then and watch that era’s super filly, Ruffian. It was the same time that women were just beginning to challenge the status quo in the workplace as well as in sports.
I’m excited to see we’re moving to a new level this year. Although, as one sports writer put it, it seems that not even the sport of kings can get a pair of queens into the same race! Stay tuned, the story’s not over yet.