SARAH BROWN: Down to the Wire
It's the most wonderful time of the year. And not just for the holidays.
On Jan. 18 at the 39th Eclipse Awards Ceremony in Beverly Hills, Calif., the champion thoroughbred racers of 2009 will be crowned.
Normally, the horse of the year honor goes to a male. But 2009 was a year for the ladies.
Two fillies, 3-year-old Rachel Alexandra and 5-year-old Zenyatta, completed the year with undefeated records, victorious against both male and female challengers.
They may never have burst out of the same starting gate, but they now face the ultimate showdown: Who will be 2009's horse of the year?
Rachel Alexandra captured the racing world's attention in May by crushing her female rivals in the Kentucky Oaks by more than 20 lengths in near-record time. Jess Jackson then bought the filly and entered her in the Preakness Stakes against the boys. Despite facing a field of 13 colts, Rachel proved best, defeating Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird by a length.
In August, she trounced Belmont winner Summer Bird, frontrunner for the 3‑year‑old male championship, in the Haskell Invitational.
Now considered the best American 3-year-old of either sex, Rachel was entered in the Woodward Stakes, a major event for older horses. No female had ever triumphed in that race, and no 3-year-old filly had even competed. Rachel led through fast fractions, turned back multiple challenges and still held on to win by a head.
This display of determination and heart capped Rachel's outstanding year.
Zenyatta, after winning 2008's older female championship, passed on retirement in 2009 unlike most Eclipse winners. She won her first four races of the year, but mediocre competition detracted from the victories.
Zenyatta regained the spotlight at the 2009 Breeders Cup World Championships at Santa Anita Park. She was entered in the Classic with a field that included many of the world's best males. Looking hopelessly beaten at the top of the stretch, Zenyatta inhaled the field with ground-eating strides, winning by a length. A slew of likely American champions, including Gio Ponti and Summer Bird, were left in her wake. Zenyatta's spectacular career ended with a nearly unprecedented 14-for-14 record.
So who will be Horse of the year? The new face or the proven champion? My head and heart want to vote for both.
Rachel, scheduled to race in 2010, will have another chance at the award. Also, she skipped the Breeders Cup, where champions are usually decided. Zenyatta's campaign, however, never ventured out of California or off of synthetic tracks.
Now it's all in the hands of the voters, a small percentage of the racing community. The racing world is virtually stalemated deciding who is best. Choosing either horse will leave millions disappointed.
Maybe the outcome isn't so important. These superstar females have made such an impact on a racing world dominated by colts that neither will be forgotten. Mere ballots won't proclaim one better than the other for me.
Going to Rachel, the award will be recognition of her unbelievable, history‑making achievements in 2009. Going to Zenyatta, it will be in honor of her Classic victory and a flawless overall record.
Sarah Brown is a junior at The O'Neal School. She rides out of Foxtrack Training Center in Southern Pines.
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