In the end, the conservative lobby prevailed in the off-course battle of North America's golden girls. It was the three-year-old Rachel Alexandra, winner of all eight of her starts last year, who was named Horse Of The Year at the 39th Eclipse Awards, not four-year-old Zenyatta, unbeaten in five in 2009 and 14 in her career.
The two superfillies have never met on the track, and there's the rub. Rachel Alexandra has done all her racing on the traditional Stateside surface, dirt; Zenyatta has favoured, with one exception, the modern artificial surfaces considered safer for horses but regarded with contempt by many in the US. The diehards include Rachel Alexandra's connections, who snubbed the most recent Breeders' Cup gathering on the Pro-Ride of Santa Anita, and with it a showdown with Zenyatta.
The build-up to the Eclipse Awards, the equine version of the Oscars, was as frenzied as it was fascinating and Monday night's MC at the glittering ceremony in Beverly Hills, National Thoroughbred Racing Association chief Alex Waldrop, milked it to its limit, extracting a standing ovation for both participants from the rapt audience before he opened the envelope.
California is Zenyatta's stamping ground, but the voting, conducted by turf writers and NTRA members, went 130-99 in the East Coast girl's favour. Both of them beat the boys at the highest level, but Rachel Alexandra's three defeats of males, including her defeat of Kentucky Derby hero Mine That Bird in the Preakness Stakes and her titanic Woodward Stakes battle with year-older Macho Again, found more favour that Zenyatta's extraordinary Breeders' Cup Classic victory against an international field.
The score may now be a notional 1-0 to Rachel but, happily, the real battle for supremacy may yet be resolved as both fillies remain in training this year. And members of both camps were gracious on Monday, in victory or defeat. "Either horse would have deserved this award," said Rachel Alexandra's owner Jess Jackson, "and we're hoping that each one, taking its course this year, may win its way to an ultimate match and maybe we can work toward that."
Rachel Alexandra gave her trainer Steve Asmussen an unprecedented third award, after two by the same owner's Curlin. The star's jockey, the Cajun journeyman Calvin Borel – who also won the Kentucky Derby – was shamefully ignored by those who drew up the short-lists, but not forgotten by Jackson. "It would be hard to accept this for the filly without sharing it with all the people who made it possible, including Calvin."
Jackson, sometimes outspoken, was a conspicuous absentee from the nominations for owner of the year, but Zenyatta's owner Jerry Moss did not even have that consolation; the accolade went to Godolphin for its seven US Grade 1s during the year. He, like Jackson and every other racing fan, looks forward to the head-to-head between the fillies, a prospect every bit as gripping as Kauto Star v Denman.
"Zenyatta's perfect," he said, "Nobody's beaten her on the racetrack so they beat her by proxy as far as I'm concerned. I congratulate the Jacksons, who have a great horse. Someday we'll meet, and we'll know at that time who is the best."
Of the European horses involved in the Eclipse ceremony, Breeders' Cup Turf winner Conduit was passed over for the grass horse title by versatile Classic runner-up Gio Ponti, but Goldikova deservedly took the female turf title.
Closer to home, the reigning John Smith's Grand National winner Mon Mome, who became the fifth 100-1 winner of the famous marathon last April, is set to resume his road back to Aintree in the Peter March Chase at Haydock on Saturday, an outing which may be followed by a final prep in the Gold Cup itself. "The Cheltenham race isn't a target as such, but an entry gives us an option," said trainer Venetia Williams yesterday.
"Like everyone else, we've been held up by the weather and missed some races we'd planned for, but we're hoping to get him to Haydock this weekend. The ground sounds like it is going to be pretty testing but over three miles on a flat track he needs it soft so they don't go too quick, which would mean he'd lose his confidence."
Turf account: Sue Montgomery
Lovers Causeway (3.05 Lingfield) A small field will allow him to take the race to his rivals, tactics which worked at today's track 11 days ago, when he repelled all comers with a little in hand.
Wheels Up (3.15 Newbury) Has produced two creditable runs for the application of a tonguestrap, including over this course and distance last month, his best effort since his transfer from an Irish stable.
One to watch
Qaspal (P Hobbs) has made steady staying-on progress in each of his three novice hurdles outings, most recently at Huntingdon on Saturday, and looks poised to start his handicap career on a fair mark.
Where the money's going
Support from each-way backers took Fix The Rib from 20-1 to 16-1 for Saturday's Victor Chandler Chase with the sponsors.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Wishfull Thinking (2.05 Newbury).Reuse content