The strict definition of rivalry requires that two individuals or teams of equal ability face each other in competition for the same goal. In horse racing, this standard has produced such matches as Affirmed vs. Alydar, Sunday Silence vs. East Goer, Nashua vs. Swaps, Gallorette vs. Stymie and War Admiral vs. Seabiscuit. Rivalries have meant much to the sport over the decades. This decade is no different. Well, maybe a little different.
Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta have battled for the hearts of horse racing fans for over a dozen months and yet they have never met on the battlefield. Although their achievements reside in the public record, their rivalry exists in the realm of imagination. Admirers of each horse have projected their opinions onto conclusions; sides are drawn despite nothing to argue about.
At this time last summer, Rachel Alexandra stood alone at the top of all thoroughbreds, victorious against fillies in the Kentucky Oaks and against colts and geldings in the Preakness. By early September, Stonestreet Stables and Harold T. McCormick’s bay filly was finished and so too was her competition. By the time the sun set on Labor Day, Rachel Alexandra was a winner of one Classic Triple Crown race, eight races in all, three victories outside her gender and one – a Woodward for the ages - against older horses. Pundits determined right then that she’d be the Horse of the Year.
Meanwhile, left on the Left Coast, Zenyatta, although undefeated through three races in the interim, had been hardly heard from. People knew of the synthetic track specialist, of course. But they questioned her mettle. Then when Jerry and Ann Moss’s perfect mare made her frantic dash down the center of the Santa Anita stretch to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic, her fans considered that feat a crowning achievement.
Forgotten by all was the fact that Zenyatta beat a field absent Sea of Stars, the British champion that might have sidetracked her coronation. Dismissed by many was the notion that tracks of artificial composition produce artificial results. (Do they really?) Worshippers of the winner cried foul when, two months later, Rachel Alexandra, not her, took the ultimate honor.
In any case, two early losses this spring by Rachel Alexandra at the start of her third campaign and victories by Zenyatta at Santa Anita, Oaklawn and Hollywood in Grade 1 stakes have set the debate on edge again. Regardless, each of these wonderful runners has captured the fascination of the public for about the same stretch of time. In one sense, at least, for the calendar of May to May, the sport enjoyed two horses that were Horse of the Year, even though only one was official.
Given that both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta have ruled the roost already, is the insistence that they collide really necessary? The concept of rivalry might endure far beyond natural life expectancy if proponents for both horses are allowed their prejudices without interference from fact. Once either horse finishes ahead of the other, there’ll be reality to deal with. Holding the showdown, almost a year after it should have been held, will determine little.
Apropos to this argument, War Admiral and Seabiscuit met only once with Seabiscuit bettering the Triple Crown champion in a match race at Pimlico. Although Seabiscuit parlayed his victory over War Admiral into the 1938 Horse of the Year title, historians believe War Admiral was the better. If Rachel Alexandra does indeed meet Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and beats her, do you think for a second that Zenyatta’s legions will accept that their victress of 17 straight is the lesser? Concurrently, if the opposite occurred, what are the chances that Rachel Alexandra’s fans won’t contend that her defeat was a circumstance of timing?
Horses have difficulty holding their form over several seasons. Rachel Alexandra is proof that some top runners take long to come back once let down for a significant term. There were reports that Zenyatta’s two works before winning her third Vanity Handicap by rallying inexcusably wide were less than her conventional. It’s very possible that what everyone’s been waiting for – the eventual race that brings both horses together for the first time - might never occur.
There’s been talk that Saratoga might bring them together. But long gone are the days when owners would own racehorses in order to tempt fate. Today’s nouveau riche racehorse investors prefer managing their portfolios like bank accounts to basking in the shadow of sportsmanship. Horse racing has no governing body or organizing entity to negotiate a face-off. Proof that the sport often behaves against its best interests was offered last weekend when fillies and mares had four tempting opportunities to choose from.
That aside, whatever has kept Rachel Alexandra’s and Zenyatta’s respective owners from bringing their charges in direct confrontation may turn out to be good for the horses’ legacies. Posterity will honor their brilliance while dimming the reputations of the humans that are calling the shots for them. There is no doubt at all, at this point, who the villains might be and who the heroes are in this unrequited rivalry.
A lot has gone wrong with the sport in recent decades. But one of the most disturbing developments goes hand in hand with a trend that has blighted our country’s character. Taking the easy way out is the new definition of prudence. It may be impolitic, maybe old-fashioned, to say that men aren’t the men that they used to be. Nevertheless, if the trade-off for sensitivity is lacking a stomach for risk or embarrassment – the qualities that add spice to a life, it’s not worth it.
by Vic Zast
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