Rachel Alexandra gets honor, and the potential to face rival

Two days ago, horse racing was jazzed about the nice party and big announcement it had planned. Lots of attention was coming to a sport that always needs it.

But by Monday night, when Rachel Alexandra was announced as horse of the year over Zenyatta at the Eclipse Awards ceremony in Beverly Hills, the sport was abuzz on several different fronts.

The only surprising element of Rachel Alexandra’s victory, in a vote of media members, was the 130-99 margin.

She had won the Preakness, the first filly in 85 years to do so, just two weeks after blowing away the field in the Kentucky Oaks by 20 lengths. Later in the year, she won impressively against male horses. Any other year, there would have been no question.

But her competitor, the celebrated Zenyatta, had been equally impressive, finishing her 5-year-old career with 14 wins in 14 starts, and making No. 14, her Breeders’ Cup Classic victory, one of the more memorable moments ever in racing. She was the first filly or mare to win that race.

Most saw this as a pick-'em. It featured two females for the first time, had great Eastern backing for Rachel and similar Western support for Zenyatta.

But while that debate will continue, it was fed by two other significant developments.

Saturday, owners Jerry and Ann Moss announced they had changed their minds and would campaign Zenyatta into her 6-year-old year. That, of course, created the possibility -- make that likelihood -- that Zenyatta would race against Rachel Alexandra, whose owner, Jess Jackson, had long ago said his super filly would run as a 4-year-old.

In some ways, that made Monday night’s horse of the year outcome less final, even less significant. Now, instead of a bunch of voting sportswriters deciding who was best, it could be settled on the track.

Jerry Moss said Saturday, before the Eclipse announcement, “We’ll run our campaign and they’ll run theirs and we could very well meet along the way.”

Jackson said his first reaction to Moss’ announcement was, “Great.” He even seemed to have a vision of how this might go. Beaming after being handed his third straight trophy for horse of the year -- the last two years for Curlin -- Jackson said, “I can see Rachel going out in front, then Zenyatta coming, with an almost beautiful ambush.”

So, two days ago, this was a rivalry in vote only. Then it became a rivalry of possibility. Then, early Monday afternoon, it even became a rivalry of possibility in Southern California.

Ron Charles, Santa Anita’s president, called off racing for the day Monday. The rain was coming, and boy, did it. Charles worried about the dangers for both horse and jockey on a synthetic surface that has, since its inception, been troublesome after rain.

Then Charles made the news much more significant. He said that, after Santa Anita ends its current meeting in April, it would install a new track surface. He didn’t say what the new surface would be, but you’ll get decent odds if you bet on the return of the traditional, time-tested dirt.

Some quick history is needed here.

After a 2006 Del Mar meeting with unacceptable horse fatalities, the California Horse Racing Board mandated that its tracks install some form of synthetic surfaces. Hollywood Park was the first to put it in, and Charles said Monday, “The first six months were unbelievably good.”

Not so since then. Santa Anita, Del Mar and even Hollywood Park have had less than anticipated results. Generally, owners, trainers and even jockeys have expressed dislike for the synthetics.

Charles said he had hoped to avoid announcing Santa Anita’s intention of a surface change Monday, but that the likelihood of more bad weather this week and more cancellations prompted him to come clean with the racing public now.

“I would have liked to announce this in about a month,” said Charles, who said the drainage problems and excessive sand from the initial Cushion Track installation, later converted to a more successful Pro Ride, could not be fixed, even after a full summer of work on it. He said that, after two straight successful Breeders’ Cups in 2008 and 2009 at Santa Anita, he thought the track might be good enough to keep.

“But then, we got a few days of rain in November, and it wasn’t draining,” said Charles, who said he expected no problem getting a waiver from the state board’s synthetic mandate.

The careers of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, and perhaps their fortunes in Monday night’s Eclipse selection, are intertwined with synthetics. Jackson and his trainer, Steve Asmussen, dislike them. They gave it a shot before the 2008 Breeders’ Cup, where Curlin faded to fourth.

This year, any Breeders’ Cup matchup between the two super females -- a logical showdown destination -- never had a chance because Jackson and Asmussen refused to race Rachel Alexandra on synthetics. Trainer John Shirreffs, who raced Zenyatta on the synthetics and said he kept her mostly in the West because “her fans out here deserved to see her,” may hate synthetics worse than Asmussen.

Asked his reaction to the likelihood that Santa Anita would do away with the synthetics, he responded with sarcasm.

“See this little crocodile tear in my eye,” he said.

Even though the new surface won’t be in at Santa Anita until the fall Oak Tree meeting, Jackson agreed that it is now conceivable that the two great horses could race at The Great Race Place.

“I can see repeated meetings between the two,” he said, “which would be very exciting for the fans.”

The coincidence of the timing of the Santa Anita announcement on the night of the Eclipse Awards was not lost on Shirreffs.

“A good question here,” he said. “Did synthetics cost Zenyatta horse of the year?”