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By Thomas Chambers
The stars of Thoroughbred horse racing will glitter brightly Monday night as the horsey set descends upon the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills for the 39th Annual Eclipse Awards, the game's own Academy Awards.
More than just the annual self-congrats, this year's quest for the small, heavy statue of the legendary 18th century racehorse and stallion, Eclipse, has reached epic proportions as voters must choose their Horse of the Year from two females (!), both with amazing achievements and historic deeds. Rachel Alexandra. Zenyatta.
The equines will be sending their Sasheen Littlefeathers to accept the awards on their behalf, but don't think it's a Brando protest sort of thing. They're horses. They don't care.
But we two-leggeds sure do. Either Rachel or Zenyatta singularly would be a remember-when story in the annals of racing, but together in 2009 they wrote one of the greatest sports stories of the young century and one of the greatest racing stories ever. Their keepers couldn't get them on the track together, so the rest of us have to simply declare who's better.
Both the local and national forums have been white hot in debate over the issue, both sides equally fervent. Too bad the general sports media, most noticeably absent ESPN and NBC, have not picked up on the story. Oh, well, we don't get much cricket coverage here either. TVG will televise the Eclipse ceremonies Monday.
Is it the undefeated career of Zenyatta, topped off by a magnificent performance as the first female to win the Breeders Cup Classic? Or is it Rachel Alexandra's stunning - and grinding - dominance throughout 2009, when she beat her classmates, and then the boys, and then the older boys, at tracks from Arkansas on east and under two different owners/trainers?
You know what I think about Horse of the Year. Unlike any nominated movies, I saw all these races.
Category: Two-Year-Old Male
Finalists: Lookin At Lucky, Noble's Promise, Vale of York
Who Will Win: Lookin At Lucky. The Bob Baffert horse won two of three Grade 1s and finished second in the Breeders Cup Juvenile - to Vale of York with Noble's Promise a close third. A win in the Juvenile usually nets this award.
Who Should Win: Lookin At Lucky
Category: Two-Year-Old Filly
Finalists: Blind Luck, Hot Dixie Chick, She Be Wild
Who Will Win: She Be Wild, the latest filly from Chicago training treasure Wayne Catalano. But watch out for an upset by Hot Dixie Chick, based on name recognition and gaudy speed figures, even though she had an abbreviated campaign that ended in September.
Who Should Win: She Be Wild after a gutsy rail ride to win the Breeders Cup Juvenile Fillies.
Category: Three-Year-Old Filly
Finalists: Careless Jewel, Flashing, Rachel Alexandra
Who Should Win: Rachel Alexandra. She most certainly did enough to win both this and Horse of the Year. But this category has cop-out written all over it if voters decided to give her this award and exclude her from Horse of the Year, figuring she will be running again in 2010. That would be wrong. Flashing's Gazelle win portends good things for this year.
Who Will Win: Rachel Alexandra
Category: Three-Year-Old Male
Finalists: Mine That Bird, Quality Road, Summer Bird
Who Will Win: Summer Bird. Many think Quality Road is a better horse, but after a fine run-up to the Breeders' Cup Classic, he spooked at the gate something fierce and had to be scratched. No one can argue with Summer Bird, who notched the very rare Belmont-Travers-Jockey Club Gold Cup trifecta in stunning fashion.
Who Should Win: Summer Bird
Category: Older Male
Finalists: Einstein, Gio Ponti, Kodiak Kowboy
Who Will Win: Kodiak Kowboy. The GPster is a great horse and he thrilled us here by winning the Arlington Million, but there's no way he belongs in this category, which is usually considered the slot for dirt or synthetic runners. In six straight Grade Is, Ponti went 4-2-0, including a game second in the Breeders' Cup Classic. But all of those except the last were on turf! He belongs, and is in, the turf division. Furthest Land should have had this nomination. Also, Kodiak Kowboy might better be termed a sprinter, but wins in the 6-furlong Vosburgh and then the Cigar Mile might have put him over the top for this award, especially with Gio Ponti nominated in the Male Turf division. Hope so. At 7, Einstein has had a tremendous career, but after a synthetic-turf back-to-back in the Santa Anita Handicap and the Turf Classic, he tailed off.
Who Should Win: Kodiak Kowboy in a fair-to-middling division.
Category: Older Female
Finalists: Life Is Sweet, Music Note, Zenyatta
Who Will Win: Zenyatta. She deserves this whether or not she wins the Horse of the Year award. Doing just what she needed to do to win her first four races in 2009, she topped it off with a scintillating roar-from-behind victory to become the first female to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. Fittingly, her hard-knocking stablemate, Life Is Sweet, won the Ladies Classic.
Who Should Win: Zenyatta
Category: Male Sprinter
Finalists: Dancing in Silks, Kodiak Kowboy, Zensational
Who Will Win: Zensational. After four straight wins including the Grade 1 Bing Crosby and Pat O'Brien, he was nearly able to overcome a horrible trip in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, finishing a close and closing fifth. Carla Gaines trained Dancing in Silks beautifully up to the BC Sprint, where he eked out a big payday for me. Kodiak Kowboy probably didn't show enough as a sprinting specialist to win this award.
Who Should Win: Zensational
Category: Female Sprinter
Finalists: Informed Decision, Music Note, Ventura
Who Will Win: Informed Decision. She beat Ventura in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint and that should clinch it for her, despite a loss to Music Note in the slop in the Ballerina. Ventura ducked the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic in order to garner an Eclipse Award through the BC F&M Sprint, probably one of the last major decisions the late Bobby Frankel made as a trainer. That blew it. Despite wins in the Ballerina and the Beldame, a short campaign won't be enough for Music Note. And keep her off the synthetic surface, please.
Who Should Win: Informed Decision
Category: Male Turf Horse
Finalists: Conduit, Gio Ponti, Presious Passion
Who Will Win: Gio Ponti. See above. He won on firm turf and worked his hindquarters off to win the Million on a very soft course. And he damn near held off Zenyatta in the BC Classic. He's all heart. But let's give Presious Passion a Thrill Award for opening up huge leads and daring the others to catch him. Sometimes they did, but sometimes they didn't.
Who Should Win: Gio Ponti
Category: Female Turf Horse
Finalists: Goldikova, Midday, Ventura
Who Will Win: Goldikova. She's the best female miler, if not best miler, in the world. She proved it by coming to America on her annual November trip and making mincemeat of the Breeders' Cup Mile. She was in a world of trip hurt in that race, but ran it up and down through her gearbox and actually made it look easy once she was in the open. Breathtaking. Midday won the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf, but the Britisher was kind of supposed to.
Who Should Win: Goldlikova
Category: Owner of the Year
Finalists: Godolphin Racing, Juddmonte Farms, Mr. and Mrs. Jerry Moss
Who Will Win: I don't care. Jess Jackson took Rachel Alexandra to new frontiers and conquered them after he bought her immediately after the Kentucky Oaks. He isn't even on this list. And for the Mosses to agree to rename the Lady's Secret Stakes the Zenyatta Stakes? Not cool, at all.
Who Should Win: Jess Jackson
Category: Trainer of the Year
Finalists: Steve Asmussen, Bob Baffert, John Shireffs
Who Will Win: John Shireffs, riding the Zenyatta Express.
Who Should Win: I don't like a lot of things just about all of these trainers do, but in context, it's Asmussen. He wheeled Rachel right off the 20-length Kentucky Oaks win to capture the Preakness two weeks later and then rested her just enough to get a 19-length victory in the Mother Goose. Then came the historic Haskell and Woodward wins. The horse is great, granted, but Asmussen had to be able to read her, especially after only getting her mid-season.
Category: Horse of the Year
Finalists: Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta
Who Will Win: Zenyatta. Why? Here in Attention Span America, hers was the most recent flash, a curiously strong peppermint twist coming at the end of a one-note campaign. And I wouldn't be surprised if there has been an Oscar-type campaign for her to win the trophy. Hell, California racing has been pushing it hard. As in renaming the Lady's Secret, kind of how they changed the East-West to the Ronald Reagan Tollway before his body was even cold. Of all the blogs and forums I have seen, the choice of Zenyatta is highly emotional, based on that Classic victory, and these people are unshakable. I just hope my cynicism here gets shot down.
Who Should Win: Rachel Alexandra. A three-year-old in a longer campaign doing more spectacular and varied things at different tracks. She made unique Thoroughbred history, by all historical measure. No-brainer.
Zenyatta is still in training! She has logged three workouts at Hollywood Park since a short rest after the Breeders' Cup. Conspiracy theorists opine that if she doesn't win Horse of the Year, they'll train her for something like the $10 million Dubai World Cup at Meydan Racecourse, the new synthetic-surface "much-more-than-a-" racing palace in the desert. They take it a step further by suggesting she might even take on Rachel Alexandra in some sort of match race or match series scenario. We can dream, can't we? Interestingly, the Mosses have not yet announced Zenyatta's arranged date for the mating cotillion.
Thomas Chambers is the Beachwood's man on the rail. He brings you Track Notes every Friday. He welcomes your comments.More from Beachwood Sports »
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