Saturday, July 4, 2009

Bad for the game

By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com

The chances that Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta will meet dwindled with the announcement that Zenyatta would race next in the Aug. 9 Clement Hirsch at Del Mar. Owner Jess Jackson never likes to tell anyone where he is going to run his horses until he makes an eleventh-hour announcement, but Rachel Alexandra's next start certainly won't be in the Del Mar race because it will be run over the dreaded "plastic." So, another month and another opportunity will go by without these two superstars meeting, and the sport is the worse for it.

Who's to blame? You can start with Jess Jackson.

His aversion to synthetic surfaces is ridiculous, particularly when it comes to Rachel Alexandra, who won on Polytrack at Keeneland. He should be pointing her toward the Breeders' Cup, where she would likely meet Zenyatta. Instead, Jackson has dug his heels in and has said his filly will not run over a synthetic surface, never mind that the Breeders' Cup is the defining championship event in racing, absolutely where a great horse like Rachel Alexandra belongs and the best and most logical spot for a Zenyatta-Rachel Alexandra showdown.

The best guess is that Jackson's hatred for synthetic surfaces is based primarily on one race, Curlin's disappointing performance in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic over the "plastic" Pro-Ride track at Santa Anita. Was the track to blame for Curlin's mediocre effort? I've never thought it was. Though he won the Woodward and the Jockey Club Gold Cup in his two prior starts, Curlin was not the same horse in the fall that he had been earlier in the year. There was nothing electrifying about his two wins in New York and, by the time he got to Santa Anita for the Breeders' Cup, he looked like a horse who was tailing off.

Even if Curlin did hate the synthetic track, that doesn't mean that Jackson should never run any of his top horses on the surface ever again. Curlin didn't like the grass, either. Why not, then, vow that he will never again run a horse on a turf course?

Even more mystifying is Jackson's contention that he is somehow protecting Rachel Alexandra by running her on dirt only.

"I just don't want to risk her," he said. "And you may think it's not a risk, but I saw what Curlin did and how he struggled. And I've seen four or five other horses that I've raced at Keeneland and on plastic, and they struggle."

Every study so far has shown that synthetic tracks are safer than dirt tracks. There's zero credibility to his claim that he's limiting the risks to Rachel Alexandra by keeping her off the synthetic tracks.

With a horse who has never run on a synthetic tracks, you can at least make the argument that surface is an unknown and, therefore, something to avoid. But that's not the case with Rachel Alexandra. When still owned by Dolphus Morrison, she trounced eight others last October in an allowance race at Keeneland. Clearly, she can handle synthetic tracks.

Jackson has the most to lose here. If Zenyatta runs the table and wins a Breeders' Cup race, there would be no justification for handing Rachel Alexandra Horse of the Year after she ducked the other filly in the year-ending championship event.

But Jackson is only one player in this mess. Jerry Moss, the co-owner of Zenyatta, has been a little too careful with his filly, as well. She has raced outside of California just once during an 11-race career that includes one boring win after another over the same group of horses.

Moss has a chance to step up here, take the high road and be the hero. Forget about pampering Zenyatta and go after Rachel Alexandra. Make the case that since Jackson won't come to them, they're going to leave town to challenge Rachel Alexandra because it's the right thing to do. After winning the Clement Hirsch in another yawner, declare to the whole world that you're coming to Belmont for the Sept. 12 Ruffian and dare Jackson to take you on. If Jackson ducks you, he will be lambasted as the biggest chicken in the game.

Perhaps there are some racetracks or industry organizations like the NTRA working to make this happen, but, if so, it's a secret. So, blame the pooh-bahs, too. Someone with some clout needs to get the two owners together and come up with a plan to make this work. That can include sweetening the purse of a race, getting a sponsor, attracting a television network to air the event, whatever. Just make it happen.

It would be a terrible shame if these horses never meet, which looks like a distinct possibility. We know this is a rudderless industry and that few owners look out for anything other than their self-interests. Still, giving racing fans what would be the most exciting, intriguing and memorable showdown in decades is something that has to happen. Sorry, but it's not too much to ask.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at wnfinley@aol.com.

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