This week, a race that never happened, and why that’s a good thing. What’s stupid is that it will take examples of four races to make that argument. So now then…
In recent years, where I come from, the biggest argument in sports in recent years has been which is the better horse – Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra? Oh, you likely don’t know me or where I’m from. I’m TheInfantTyrone; in addition to being a pretend person on the internet who comments on Deadspin, I’m a horse player, a degenerate gambler, and surprisingly, I'm single. Where I’m from: grew up at the racetrack and casinos. Now I spend my free time at the OTB and my work time trying to post just one good joke on Deadspin — at the rate I’m going I’ll likely lose my job first, but I did make one really under-appreciated, overlooked joke about a ladder once.
The greatest horse race that never happened was the 2010 Apple Blossom at Oaklawn. Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta were finally set to square off in the race that would end all the tired arguments of which horse was better. This race drew so much action that when Rachel Alexandra was taken off the card Oaklawn offered to up the purse from 500,000 dollars to 5 million dollars. Still, Rachel Alexandra did not run and Zenyatta won her 15th consecutive race. The speculation of a meeting between the two echoed throughout the remainder of the racing season, but it never did happen.
Maybe all for the better, unless you like resolution. Thing with horseracing is it’s arguably the most random and unpredictable of all sports. Having one race determine the better horse is probably the worst way to arrive at that decision. Take the 1989 Breeders’ Cup Classic, where the better, faster horse actually took second:
Now, Easy Goer ran a faster race then Sunday Silence (and as any fan of Easy Goer will tell you, all speed metrics prove this), but he like I said, came in second. Over twenty years later, those on Easy Goer’s side will tell you that jockey Pat Day held Easy Goer back too long – I agree with this assessment (if you watch the race it’s hard to tell where exactly – in relation to the rail – Easy Goer ends up after the final turn, nearing the quarter pole, but it looks like there’s a line to take inside, but Easy Goer is way the hell outside the next time you see him. Also, at the top of the final turn, Lord only knows what Pat Day is doing and this is where Day loses the race. Take a look, Easy Goer is right there with the lead pack, 4 lengths back and primed to make a late charge for the win, but instead, Pat Day drops him even farther back from the lead. This is likely where he earned the nickname 'What are you doing Pat!?') Easy Goer was capable at the top of the final turn to win this thing and really should have.
Throughout their careers Sunday Silence and Easy Goer raced four times, with Sunday Silence winning 3 of 4. Complex mathematics tells us that Sunday Silence had a 75% success rate against Easy Goer, which is statistically significant, except that it is not. Fans still argue to this day, that Pat Day cost Easy Goer the race. Let’s pretend for a moment that Easy Goer wins that race and the two horses end up 2 to 2 against each other. Only mathematically are these two horses equal. Okay, enough of that. Point being, four races between the two horses and racing fans still argue over which horse is better. Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta didn’t even race each other once and people won't shut-up about it.
With Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta all you have is speculation which seems fitting for this sport.
Taking a closer look at these two horses and you won’t find two horses more different.
Zenyatta is a wonder to behold. She’ll make even a nun swear. Good Lord. Zenyatta will be in last place 200 lengths back and somehow overcome that distance in the last quarter mile and win. If you’ve never seen her race before, she is likely the most exciting horse this fine sport has ever seen. You don’t even have to know anything about horseracing to get excited by Zenyatta. So long as you understand the concept of a race, you’ll likely fall in love with her. Here’s her most exciting race, but not her best:
Wow! That was a-something. That brought Zenyatta’s career record up to 19-0. Now, that’s a 100% rate of victory over the course of 19 races. That’s what you call in the industry ‘a good ass horse.’ What sucks about that is nobody at the track, besides the owner and trainer are making a dime off of her – but that gets into betting and we’re not going to do that. Watch that race again, and watch Hall of Fame Jockey Mike E Smith navigate Zenyatta throughout. If you’d like I’ll even help. First, out of the gate, Zenyatta and the 4 horse, Satan’s Quick Chick, run into each other, yet the announcer claims Zenyatta broke well from the gate. Yes. This does happen a lot in horseracing, sometimes resulting in disqualifications, but it really has to be a hell of a crash to make an impact on the race. Basically don’t pay attention to anything until the horses come to the final turn; except for these two things: 1) Smith is doing the right thing by riding her dead-ass last and 2) take note to how high up he is on Zenyatta compared to the other jockeys and their horses. This sounds silly, but once the horses reach the top of the final turn, watch Mike Smith’s ass position and how it slowly goes from basically above his head to down on the saddle and then with his head creates a parallel line with the track. That’s about as perfect a job you can do when ‘letting a horse run.’
In Zenyatta’s next race, The 2010 Breeder’s Cup Classic (a race Zenyatta impossibly won a year earlier) (spoiler alert) Zenyatta takes second, but that was a much better race and really, a race Zenyatta had no business even taking second in (at one point she was so far out of the race I forgot she was even there). That race was against the best horses in the country (and even the world really). Hell, it’s fun to watch. Take a look, then we’ll talk more:
Seriously! Every time I see that I think she’s going to win. It’s the absolute most ridiculous race I have ever seen. She tracked down the best horses in the world within a quarter of a mile from 20 lengths back. Granted she took second, but it gives you a good idea of how special Zenyatta really was.
Now, Rachel Alexandra. She’s a completely different type of horse. She’s a frontrunner and watching her race, why, she’s a thing of grace. Hardly looks like she’s even trying. Her race at Pimlico in the 2009 Preakness is one of the most beautiful races I’ve seen:
“I got this.” That’s what I imagine Rachel Alexandra saying as she runs this race. So cool. A lot was made about Mine That Bird running the Preakness that year. Rightly so, he had just won the Kentucky Derby, but for reasons I won’t get into now, Mine That Bird is not a ‘real ass horse.’ I have a love/hate relationship with the Kentucky Derby, don’t worry, I’ll keep this part short and it is relevant. It’s too crazy really. 20 horses. It creates far too much randomness to be considered a decent barometer for judging a horse. Qualifying for it is another story. How it pertains to why Rachel Alexandra is a good horse is Calvin Borel. Borel won the Kentucky Derby in 2009 on Mine That Bird (a race in which Rachel Alexandra did not run) and given the opportunity to ride Mine That Bird again in the Preakness (the second leg of the Triple Crown) Borel passed to ride Rachel Alexandra. Why? Because Borel, the magnificent asshole, wanted to ride a horse that he knew would win. Going into the Preakness with a chance to take both the first and the second leg of the Triple Crown he opted out. I cannot tell you why, I’m really only guessing, but it’s, in my opinion, a conclusion easily reached. Rachel Alexandra was clearly the better horse and Borel knew that. With fewer horses in the field at the Preakness quality has a better chance of overcoming randomness which, not to belabor the point, made for an easy decision for Borel. As you saw, Borel and Rachel Alexandra won that race easily. Borel, one of the greatest jockeys in history (along with Mike Smith), said that he learned not to hold Rachel Alexandra back, that he just let her run, unlike Smith and Zenyatta, where holding back was essential to winning. Rachel Alexandra was as determined and collected I've ever seen a horse and that's why Borel loved to ride her and knew she would win. Borel and Rachel Alexandra would go on to win 9 races together.
Now, about that race that never happened. I’ll admit that I wanted to see it happen. It would have been exciting. I can’t imagine it would disappoint. They’re both horses that know how to win and race such different styles I can’t see them cancelling each other out in the field. If they had raced though, you’d end up with another tired Sunday Silence v Easy Goer debate. I mentioned it earlier as dismissive more than anything else, but three out of four races? How many more do you need? All the metrics say Easy Goer is the better, faster horse, but the record says otherwise, convincingly (except because it’s horseracing it’s not convincing at all). What if Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta ran? That would have been great, but for a sport that’s so random, so bonkers, and yes, so corrupt, it’s best that these two never raced. I can think of no better answer to the question ‘what if these two had raced,’ than ‘what if.’ ‘If,’ after all is what the entirety of the horseracing world is based upon.