Team Rachel raises stakes

Owner ducks Oaklawn run against Zenyatta but issues best-of-three challenge

Even when the sparring remains merely verbal, it is great box office. What will it be like when they finally step into the ring together?

A proposed $5m (£3.2m) bout between Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, whose competing claims as the greatest filly in American Turf history remain contingent on the showdown they have so far avoided, was yesterday rejected by Jess Jackson, sticking scrupulously to his script as pantomime villain. But Rachel Alexandra's majority owner, who notoriously refused to run his filly in the Breeders' Cup Classic last November, insisted that he would come up with something even better instead.

A racecourse in Arkansas, Oaklawn Park, had promised a tenfold prize-money boost for one of Zenyatta's early targets, the Apple Blossom Stakes on 3 April, if Rachel Alexandra showed up as well. But Steve Asmussen, trainer of the latter, has now decided that the race will come too soon. And Jackson promptly announced that he is negotiating a best-of-three series with the National Thoroughbred Racing Association – to the evident surprise of Zenyatta's own connections.

Jackson issued a characteristically portentous statement. "The fans have spoken," he said. "The media has spoken. Everyone wants to see Rachel race against Zenyatta, including me. In fact, I want it to happen several times. We have been in discussions with [the NTRA], with the hope of co-ordinating training schedules, racing schedules, purses and all ancillary factors, so that we can all agree upon three dates and venues for what will be a racing series to rival the Triple Crown."

He is probably not wrong about that, though Jerry Moss, co-owner of Zenyatta, professed himself mystified. "I have no idea what he's even talking about," he said. "Which three races? And where? And when?"

Moss added that he was sorry Rachel Alexandra would not be going to Oaklawn. "In the meantime, there's some plan here, which we're supposed to respond to, and we haven't even been consulted about it," he said. "So I don't know what I'm supposed to say."

For now, all he could confirm is that his unbeaten champion, sensationally brought out of retirement during the winter, was on course to reappear at Santa Anita on 13 March. But he did reiterate that he wanted her to end up back at the Breeders' Cup, which this year returns to the dirt surface favoured by Jackson, at Churchill Downs. "The Breeders' Cup is something I honour," he said. "I believe that's where championships are decided."

Closer to home, there is a no less momentous duel on the horizon at Cheltenham next month. Denman goes to Newbury tomorrow for a final rehearsal before his Gold Cup stand-off with Kauto Star, and happily the course management was yesterday sounding extremely positive that the weather will not intrude.

Paul Nicholls has asked Ruby Walsh to surrender the mount on Denman to Tony McCoy, in readiness for their Festival date. But yesterday Walsh reminded the champion jockey who comes first for the champion trainer by showing up unexpectedly at Huntingdon to claim the mount on Sang Bleu in the Chatteris Fen Juvenile Hurdle. Walsh had been due to ride at Thurles, but dashed for a plane when that meeting was abandoned. Sang Bleu made his efforts worthwhile.

Turf account: Chris McGrath


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