At the best of times, January is the slowest month of the racing calendar – never mind when the jumps programme is petrified by frost. On the other side of the Atlantic, however, its numbest days will always be thawed by a good argument.
Admittedly they went to uncommon extremes at Philadelphia Park last week, when two jockeys livened up a race by exchanging punches in the back stretch. But proceedings may prove scarcely more civilised a week today, when one of the fiercest debates in Eclipse Award history will be ended by the naming of either Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra as Horse of the Year.
The Eclipse Awards are a seriously big deal in the United States. Mike Smith had only just pulled up after the Breeders' Cup Classic when a mounted interviewer asked if Zenyatta should now be acclaimed Horse of the Year. "No," replied Smith, quick as a flash. "She's Horse of the Decade," he said. As yet the Cartier Awards, our nearest equivalent, cannot pretend to anything like the same status. This year, however, America's choice of Horse of the Year will have unusual pertinence for all but the most parochial of European observers.
Both Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra treated colts in a way that had few precedents, or none. Infamously, however, these two captivating fillies never squared up on the racetrack. Instead their only showdown has been entrusted to the various professionals eligible to vote for Horse of the Year. Their decision will be highly instructive of the way the wind is blowing.
In refusing to run Rachel Alexandra on what they disparaged as "plastic" at the Breeders' Cup, her connections significantly retarded the American sport's painful journey towards a more humane racing surface. A year previously they had embraced the same gamble with Curlin – and done so pointedly, too, for the good of the sport. After his defeat, which may or may not have revealed him to be less formidable on a synthetic track, they got their retaliation in first with Rachel Alexandra. At the very moment when her story was beginning to intrigue a broader public, they vowed she would never set foot in Santa Anita and would instead reserve her Breeders' Cup debut for the dirt at Louisville in 2010.
In the no less regrettable absence of Sea The Stars, the great carnival faced a crisis – rejected by the champion three-year-olds of both Europe and America. And then along came Zenyatta, whose sensational performance turned everything on its head. Where the Breeders' Cup had seemed diminished by the absence of Rachel Alexandra and Sea The Stars, suddenly the reverse seemed true.
While it was undeniably a "home game" for Zenyatta, her connections had been just as bold as Rachel Alexandra's had claimed to be with Curlin. With a record unbeaten career on the line, she could have lapped her rivals in the Ladies' Classic. Instead, with the stakes at their highest, they took on all comers and showed the spirit of adventure required to overcome powerful vested interests in American bloodstock.
For now, the anguished schism between conservatives and pioneers will doubtless be replicated among Eclipse voters. Significantly, Jess Jackson, who campaigned both Curlin and Rachel Alexandra, has not even been nominated for Owner of the Year. But the big one will surely be close.
There will be an East Coast bloc, cherishing Rachel Alexandra as a modern great in the traditional theatre of dirt; and Californian voters will register their admiration for Zenyatta, a poster girl for the obligations they sense to the welfare of the breed, and the integration of its different cultures. Bystanders over here will be united in the hope that a majority bring themselves to see the bigger picture.
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Kickahead (4.0 Wolverhampton)
Twice a beaten favourite off a low Flat rating since posting improved form over hurdles, but had excuses on both occasions.
Keenes Royale (2.15 Kempton)
Good pedigree, and glimpses of better to come in three maidens last year, notably in a fair race at Nottingham on her final start.
*ONE TO WATCH
Blue Lyric (L M Cumani) came off worst in a four-way photo when seeking her hat-trick at Wolverhampton last week, but had probably gone too hard too early.
*WHERE THE MONEY'S GOING
Betfair's market on whether there will be a resumption of jump racing during the next seven days yesterday stood at 8-11 "yes" and evens "no".