It was the match race that could have been that never was. In 2009, the racing world was hoping to see the eventual Horse of the Year, Rachel Alexandra, face off with the eventual Breeder’s Cup Classic winner Zenyatta.
I would have loved to have seen Smarty Jones face off with Afleet Alex, or Barbaro against Uncle Mo, but those horses did not race at the same time, whereas Rachel and Zenyatta’s racing careers did overlap significantly.
There was much debate in the racing world over who was better, and it would be one of the more intriguing matchups simply because of the two different styles. Rachel Alexandra was a frontrunner and Zenyatta was a closer. If it were agreed that the two were evenly matched on any surface, then common handicapping wisdom usually favors the frontrunner simply because the pacesetter can dictate slower early fractions, ensuring that they have plenty in the tank left in the stretch.
Who was really better? It is difficult to say – Zenyatta on the one hand won 19 out of 20 career races, her only loss being a half length loss in the 2010 Breeder’s Cup Classic to Blame. Rachel Alexandra won 13 of 18 career starts, and finished either first or second in 17 of those 18 starts, her only out of the money finish coming in her first career start at the short distance of 4 – furlongs in May of her two year old season, at time at which many two year olds are just in the early developing stages.
Very few would dispute that the Rachel Alexandra of her four year old season never quite recaptured the magnificent form she displayed as a three year old in which she beat three year old males twice, first in the Preakness and then in the Haskell, and then went on to beat older males in the Grade 1 Woodward.
Zenyatta beat older males only once, and that was in the 2009 Breeder’s Cup Classic at Santa Anita, though she did finish a gallant second in the 2010 Classic as mentioned above. Rachel has five Grade 1 races to her credit; Zenyatta has 13 Grade 1 races under her belt.
The largest margin of victory Zenyatta ever registered was 4 – lengths, which came on dirt in the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Stakes at Oaklawn in 2008. When Rachel Alexandra was on her game, she destroyed the competition, winning races by double digit lengths. In the 2009 Kentucky Oaks, she demolished six rivals by 20 – lengths, and in the Grade 1 Mother Goose later that year, she won by 19 – lengths.
Even as a four year old she had one really brilliant race in winning the Grade 2 Fleur De Lys by 10 – lengths. In Rachel Alexandra’s two races in which she won by about 20 lengths, she was absolutely cruising and under wraps the final 1/8 of a mile. Zenyatta rarely had races like this where the jockey sat motionless on her, never even urging her. Zenyatta often had spectators holding their collective breaths in anticipation whether she would run down the frontrunner by the time they hit the wire.
It should also be noted that Zenyatta won most of her races on the synthetic surfaces of Southern California, though she did win three races on dirt convincingly. It is hard to say what surface she was really better on, especially since she did so well in last year’s Classic on dirt.
My feeling is that since Rachel never raced on synthetic, the edge would have to go to Zenyatta over this surface, even if Rachel were allowed to set her own pace. On dirt, however, I think Rachel Alexandra in her prime was just as good as Zenyatta if not better. She won the Grade 1 Mother Goose at Belmont at 1 1/8 miles in a time of 146 and 1/5 seconds! – Just 4/5 of a second off Secretariat’s track record. Would Zenyatta really have run Rachel Alexandra that day and run 146 flat or below? I doubt it. The Rachel of her three year old season I think would defeat Zenyatta on dirt, but I would give Zenyatta the slight edge over synthetic simply because she is proven over that surface.
By becoming a VIP, you can simulate match races such as these at any distance over any surface type and at any track. Try matching up Zenyatta vs. Rachel Alexandra, or better still, Big Brownon the dirt at 1 mile, or matching them up in a 1 – mile race on the synthetic surface at Santa Anita Park. The possibilities are endless!
Horse racing is a sport of ‘what ifs’ and ‘what could have beens’. All horse racing enthusiasts are always comparing the past against the present champions. Playing them out in virtual races is a big part of what our game offers. What are your thoughts on who would win going the classic distance of 1-1/4 miles at Churchill Downs – Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra? We would love to hear your comments below.