The safest bet in horse racing right now is that 2009 will go down as the Year of the Woman. But which woman?
Female horses have dominated the season, with the hugely popular filly Rachel Alexandra and mare Zenyatta both cutting through the calendar with spectacular success and a combined record of 12-0 on the year.
Heading into this weekend’s Breeders' Cup meeting at Santa Anita, there are no other realistic candidates for the Horse of the Year award, a title held by only 11 fillies or mares stretching back 122 years.
Rachel Alexandra will not run in Los Angeles, her owner Jess Jackson refusing to risk her precious legs over Santa Anita’s controversial synthetic surface. However, her remarkable and historic campaign, winning the Preakness Stakes plus four other Grade I races, has spawned a surge of publicity and her fame has extended beyond the track and into the wider sports community.
Zenyatta, a stunning 5-year-old dark bay, has until now only run against her own sex, but will go head-to-head with the boys Saturday in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the $5 million showpiece event of the meeting.
Sitting on a perfect career record of 13-0, Zenyatta has a chance to sign off in style in what could be her final run. She will go down as an all-time great regardless, but victory this weekend would significantly bolster her legacy.
“When you get a horse that has continued success over a period of time you get that name recognition,” said John Shirreffs, trainer of Zenyatta. “It is like when you watch a basketball game and you recognize a name or a team and feel that sense of affinity.
“Zenyatta is an immensely popular horse, the people just love her. People who are coming by the yard always seem to have a friend with them who wants to see Zenyatta; she has definitely got her own fan club.
“Having the factor of two female horses doing so well in Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra has taken horse racing to a new audience and that is great for the sport.”
This weekend’s battle of the sexes storyline has captivated the public imagination and big crowds are expected to see if Zenyatta can better the boys.
Zenyatta is currently the favorite at 5-2, narrowly ahead of Rip Van Winkle and Summer Bird. Many feel that after the events of the year, having a female horse cross the line first would be a fitting conclusion to a dramatic campaign.
“It has been interesting to see how well the females have done,” said jockey Calvin Borel, who rode Rachel Alexandra to all her victories this year.
“People respond to any great horse but when you have two outstanding ones like these two it is an amazing thing and it doesn’t happen like that too often.”
While much of the focus has centered on the dazzling pair of lady thoroughbreds, an equally remarkable story is taking place in the training stables of Linda Rice.
Rice, 45, stunned racing by finishing as the champion trainer at the Saratoga meeting, despite her stable being only a fraction of the size of some of the leading names.
After years of toil things have clicked in 2009 for Rice, a third-generation trainer.
“I’ve been putting in the hard work for years so this year has felt like the payoff,” Rice said. “It is kind of funny that it has happened in the same year that females are doing so well on the track.
“It has not always been easy as a female trainer. There are some owners who would prefer to have their horses trained by men. But I do what I do and I want to be known as a great racehorse trainer, irrespective of me being a woman.
“With Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta winning everything and my horses doing so well doing it is inevitable that the girls-against-boys thing will come up, but I’m fine with that. It gives people something to talk about and a reason to get excited in racing.”
History has a way of evening things out and this year glut’s female success is more likely to be a glorious exception rather than a seismic shift in the sport’s powerbase.
But the positive vibes and enchanting subplots created have given a lift to racing at a time when attendance and sponsorship figures looked to be on the wane.
“Having these horses come to the fore and cross over to a mainstream sports audience has been the best thing racing could have hoped for,” said Eric Wing, spokesman for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. “The public loves to see champions and interesting stories. It doesn’t get much more interesting than a couple of girls sticking it to the guys.”