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TrackNotes: The Showdown Is Off

"The horse will tell us A) How he/she feels; B) When he/she wants to run."

Fine, horse whisperer. But it's not that simple.

It was a curious day Saturday, at least for Rachel Alexandra, who lost in the New Orleans Ladies at Fair Grounds. Twenty minutes later, super mare Zenyatta kept her record perfect at 15-0 in winning the Santa Margarita at Santa Anita.

But the antics of owner Jess Jackson and trainer Steve Asmussen and the seeming befuddlement of jockey Calvin Borel before and after Rachel's race begged two questions: If she's not ready for the race, then why is she running? Or, if she really just needs the race to get into shape, why not simply let her run, win or lose, to get in shape?

The indicators, cryptic as they are in owner- and trainer-speak, were there. Rachel had been off since September after running a grueling eight-race campaign last year. (Her previous owner once commented that she needs time between races.)

She had only begun training in February, and it wasn't going well. Rain supposedly interrupted her work routine, although she did record six published workouts since February 6. But they were all lackluster. Her last workout before this race, which I saw on video, did not look good. Her head was everywhere but straight ahead.

Her trials and tribulations were well chronicled. Wrote Marcus Hersh of the Daily Racing Form: "On Jan. 20, after a spirited gallop, Asmussen said he still wasn't sure whether Rachel Alexandra could be readied for a start during the Fair Grounds meet."

Even the rah-rah stories ahead of the race contained questions. "Her gallops have been not as controlled as last year," Asmussen said. "Right now, we need more control."

Borel contributed a classic doublespeak: "She's just a racemare. You've got to let her do her thing. In the afternoon, when the gates break, she'll run a sixteenth of a mile and then she'll let you do what you want." Huh? Which is it, let her run or control her?

This seemed a barn in some disarray.

Borel and Rachel were a good four or five lanes out from the rail around the first turn, giving the appearance that Rachel's connections did not want her too involved. At that point, Borel put on the handcuffs with a hard hold on the reins. Nevertheless, Rachel held just off of leader Fighter Wing in a medium, quality pace. After wrestling with Borel down the backstretch, head bobbing uncomfortably, Rachel took her typical quick shot to the lead on the turn.

All the while, Zardana sat in the back of the bus, waiting. She engaged Rachel coming into the stretch, and took a slight lead at 3/16ths. Rachel fought back to put a nose ahead, but by the time they passed the eighth pole, it was clear that Zardana's easy stride and momentum would carry the day. She beat the 2009 Horse of the Year by most of a length.

Her class and determination showing, it was a valiant effort by Rachel, but she just didn't have enough

In guiding Zardana to an out-from-the-weeds win, trainer John Shireffs and jockey David Flores appeared as if they had been studying Rachel as closely as Asmussen. How sweet must the win have been, seeing as Shireffs also trains Zenyatta.

Borel seemed puzzled by the whole thing, if not angry. Recapped Hersh: "Borel said he rode to instructions, and would have preferred to have let Rachel take the lead earlier. 'I wanted to go on past the speed horse early,' Borel said. 'I'd have got by her anytime and my filly could have gone on, but they wanted me to wait and not get into her until the sixteenth pole.'"

With the racing world still in some shock, just minutes later Zenyatta took her position at the back of the pack early in the Santa Margarita, reminding us of her Breeders' Cup Classic trip of last November. But she was running a helluva lot smoother than Rachel Alexandra had.

She made her typical rush up at the quarter pole, showcasing plenty enough run to win this race. But this time, Mike Smith chose to take her inside. Her position was fine for a flying wedge, but would the huge mare get enough space to shoot through?

Most horses would have checked up, but Zenyatta slowed up as if trying to control the stampede and began shaking her head, as in disbelief and/or an attempt to throw that idiot off her back. Instinctively trying to get to the outside, she abandoned the idea and in a Walter Payton-esque stutter step, ducked down to the rail in two steps, bided her time for a few strides, then downshifted and headed back outside to the three lane to pull away to win by about a length and a half. That she had weaved her way through the field and gotten free without so much as a bump was a testament to her sheer athleticism.

Once again, a magnificent performance.

Seemingly before either horse, or the racing world, could catch its breath, word shot out of the Rachel camp that she would not be making the trip to Hot Springs for the Apple Blossom.

I'm no expert, but I'll ask. If she just needed the race, she got it. So why not run her in the Blossom? Or, if she was just green all over again because of the long layoff, why commit her to the one prep and then the Blossom? Well, perhaps the five million smackers in the Apple Blossom purse had something to do with it.

I always believed that a Rachel Alexandra-Zenyatta showdown in the Apple Blossom was too ambitious. Why not let them get into a nice, easy 2010 campaign and have them meet somewhere down the line? Like perhaps at Churchill Downs in May. Now, a match-up at any time this year or in the Breeders' Cup seems a distant dream.

Zenyatta will be going to the Apple Blossom anyway. That's fine. It's a prestigious race. As for Rachel Alexandra, perhaps her horse whisperers will just listen to her.

Video Vexed
I alluded last week to the big hunt in trying to find live video of the two races.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association announced that they would stream the race live. But apparently their servers were severely overloaded and you were lucky if you saw a few pixels. I saw everything through the miracle of streaming video through my online betting services.

But the juvenile and shameful performance of TVG, the racing TV network and betting shop, surpassed even my snide predictions. Its childish we've-got-to-take-sides bias for Zenyatta is unbecoming, at best.

It started Friday on the half-hour Blinkers Off show when, in previewing the two big races, host Matt Carothers kicked off with Zenyatta's race. Rachel Alexandra was Horse of the Year and Rachel's race was first on Saturday. Hell, Rachel even comes first alphabetically.

To his credit, co-host Mike Watchmaker, national handicapper for the Daily Racing Form, gently but firmly called Carothers on it. Carothers tipped off TVG's corporate culture when he pleaded with Watchmaker to understand that the producers made him do it.

While other good TVG personalities like Bob Baedeker, Greg Wolf or former trainer and current bloodstock agent Frank Lyons usually prefer to clam up rather than ruffle corporate, Carothers has been one to give Rachel Alexandra her due and try to hose down the flames of Internet debate (my opinion is that Zenyatta's fans have been much more vitriolic) between fans of the two horses, in the interest of understanding the greatness of both. He appears an Obama fan on the set at Fox, so I give him a lot of credit for that.

But TVG was muddled all day Saturday.

With Simon Bray and Todd Schrupp on location in Tampa for the Tampa Bay Derby - acting as if it was one of the biggest days of racing in history - they commenced with :58 Flat, a quick-cut show with the "edgy" Carothers (and his 1992 haircut) hosting from the California studios. Well, Tampa was running some truly historic races, so old Matty didn't get much of a word in edgewise on his own show.

You have to understand that the internecine bickering in racing simulcasting is such that TVG did not have the rights to show the two big races, not even the track feeds, live. HRTV did.

So what does TVG do? They roll out Chris Kotulak, more often seen covering the quarterhorses, to "call" the two races. It was jaw-droppingly lame and classless as they insinuated themselves into the races with some sort of an entitlement they didn't have.

Kotulak's call of the New Orleans Ladies seemingly reveled in Rachel's loss. His call of Zenyatt'as races was full-on "what a great horse she is."

Then it turned ugly. At first, they seemed able to restrain their glee in Rachel Alexandra's loss, but when they cut to studio, the minions, who looked like they were ordered to gather and show some support for "our" Zenyatta, were flush with high-fives and shit-eatin' grins. A few of them held those pre-printed pink "Girl Power" placards we saw at both of Zenyatta's "retirement" parties.

TVG started in California and seems to be honing its West Coast bias these days. With some of the crappy and often unbettable synthetic racing we get from California, they should be more careful.

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Thomas Chambers is the Beachwood's man on the rail. He brings you TrackNotes every Friday. He welcomes your comments.

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Posted on Nov 26, 2021