Rachel Alexandra vs Zenyatta ­- U.S. Champions prepare for battle!

Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, set to go head to head
Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, set to go head to head

The possibility of a match up between these two superstar horses have been a burning topic of discussion since May of last year. Fuel was added to the fire after Rachel Alexandra was awarded Horse of the Year honors over the undefeated and reigning Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Zenyatta, also last years Breeder’s Cup Classic winner.

“The race is a go,” Charles Cella, Oaklawn Park president exclaimed in a recent Associated Press telephone interview. “Both parties have signed off on it. I feel like we’ve been through the ringer on this thing. Now, we’re really excited about it.

“This is truly a race for the ages.”

On February 4, 2010 Oaklawn Park president Charles J Cella announced that the purse for this year’s Apple Blossom Handicap would be increased to $5 million if both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta start the race. Cella started his work on the dream race in October of last year. It seemed as if everything was on track for the epic matchup until February 10 when Rachel Alexandra’s trainer, Steve Asmussen, said his 4 yr old filly would not be in top form by the April 3rd date of the Blossom and would pass on the offer. The race appeared dead.

In an aggressive, last ditch effort to save this historical opportunity, Cella worked the phones from Wednesday evening till Thursday morning to make his race a reality. After countless conversations with racing officials in Arkansas, Cella agreed to move the date back 6 days from Saturday April 3rd to Friday April 9th –­­ the day before the Arkansas Derby, Oaklawn Parks signature race, and a prep for the Kentucky Derby. He then contacted Rachel Alexandra’s co­owner, Jess Jackson, and Zenyatta’s owner Jerry Moss (left). The deal was sealed and the race is on.

“I understand the concerns of all competitors in needing a prep race and properly preparing for a race of this magnitude, especially in light of the weather we’ve been experiencing recently around the country,” Cella said. “Both parties want this to happen when their champions are at their absolute peak. This date makes that possible.”

“We are delighted that the race is on for April 9 and want to especially thank Charles Cella and Oaklawn for moving the date,” Jackson said.

Jackson also stated he had been in talks with Alex Waldrop, the president and chief executive of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, in the interest of creating a three­-race series between this spring and November for Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. Prospects for a second race have not been announced.

Alex Waldrop, president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, commended Oaklawn for “striving so aggressively” to bring about the race.

“This is the matchup that every fan wants to see,” he said. “Assuming that each horse remains healthy and fit, a showdown between these two great champions on April 9 in the Apple Blossom truly could live up to its billing as a race for the ages.”

Jerry MossSteve Asmussen, who trains Rachel Alexandra, and John Shirreffs, who trains Zenyatta, were both pleased with the announcement Thursday.

Zenyatta’s owner, Jerry Moss (right), has said his unbeaten mare is scheduled to race in the Grade 1 Santa Margarita Handicap at Santa Anita on March 13 and with a healthy return, would point for the Apple Blossom.

Mike Smith, the rider of Zenyatta, can’t wait.

“The world wants to see this race, and if they both show up, it’s going to be an awesome race,” Smith stated in a quote from the New York Times Thursday after riding at Santa Anita. If a race like this doesn’t bring more fans to the game, I don’t know what will,” Smith said. “It will be like watching Ali and Frazier box.”

“At a 1 1/8 mile, Rachel will likely be loose on the lead” Smith said. “I will be at the back of the pack and and we’ll try to run her down. Hopefully, we’ll see them both run their races. It could make for a heck of a stretch duel.”

“I don’t know what the plans are after this one,” Smith said, “but this should be a great one. I know I wouldn’t trade places with anyone else.”

Oaklawn Park is an appealing choice for both owners, as Jackson has made no secret of his disdain for synthetic surfaces, and Moss, has made mention of Zenyatta’s memorable performance in the 2008 edition of the Apple Blossom, the only race in her 14 victorious attempts that was not conducted on a synthetic surface. Rachel is 2 for 2 in Hot Springs with wins in last years running of the Grade 2 Fantasy Stakes and the Martha Washington, winning both in impressive fashion.

Rachel winning the 2009 Woodward at Saratoga, above, romping in the Oaks, center and winning the Haskell Invitational, below
Rachel winning the 2009 Woodward at Saratoga, above, romping in the Oaks, center and winning the Haskell Invitational, below

Zenyatta’s owner, Moss, has said his unbeaten mare is scheduled to race in the Grade 1 Santa Margarita Handicap at Santa Anita on March 13 and with a healthy return, would point for the Apple Blossom.

After a six month vacation, Rachel Alexandra’s first start of the year is also scheduled for March 13 in the 1 1/16 mile $200,000 New Orleans Ladies, conducted at Fair Grounds Racecourse and Slots, located in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Rachel’s 2009 Horse of the Year campaign consisted of 8 wins from 8 starts, including historic performances against the colts in the Preakness Stakes, Haskell Invitational, and Woodward Stakes. Her other five races were nothing to sneeze at either with record setting victories against her filly counterparts by 20 1/4 lengths in the Kentucky Oaks, and by 19 3/4 lengths in the Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont Park. She also scored impressive victories earlier in 2009 with a win at the Fair Grounds in the Fair Grounds Oaks, and two wins at Oaklawn Park in the Martha Washington, and Fantasy Stakes.

Zenyatta winning the Breeders Cup
Zenyatta winning the Breeders Cup

Zenyatta’s record also speaks loudly: She starts her 6 yr old campaign while undefeated in 14 career starts, and is coming back from her most impressive performance to date, the November 7th Breeder’s Cup Classic. Many clerics of the sport called her performance in the race, “The most impressive Breeder’s Cup Classic performance in its 26 year history.”

Now that the race is on, Cella declared, “It sets up spectacularly. It’s East (Rachel Alexandra) versus West. It’s the 2009 Horse of the Year (Rachel Alexandra) versus No. 2. It’s a horse who has never lost (Zenyatta) versus a horse who didn’t lose in 2009.”

“We’re really excited about it. I’m not sure we will believe this is happening until after it’s over.”

The financial details for the increase of purse for this race continue to be sorted out.

“We’ve done an expansion at Oaklawn park, so the track did not have money for this race,” the 73 old Cella said.

A philanthropist, who made his money in real estate and finance, Cella, has “personally guaranteed” the purse money, putting up $4.5 million of his own money to make this race happen.

Cella predicts a significant field, not a tiny group of two or three challengers.

“We’ve made it very attractive,” he said. “The last­place finisher gets $100,000. Hardly chicken feed.

Oaklawn Park

Oaklawn Park (above), located in Hot Springs, Arkansas, has launched its own website for the race, www.appleblossominvitational.com, which includes information on tickets, Hot Springs, lodging, transportation, the race, and the track.

Oaklawn offers general admission for $2 with seating available on the track’s apron on a first-­come, first­-served basis similar to other tracks, including Keeneland Race Course. David Longinotti, assistant general manager at Oaklawn, said the track also would open the infield to general admission on both Apple Blossom and Arkansas Derby (G1) days April 9-­10.

“All of our apron seating is free, and we plan to expand into the infield,” Longinotti said. “We are looking into items to add to the infield experience for the comfort of our guests.”
Longinotti said that Oaklawn will not set post times for the Apple Blossom card until finalizing television coverage for the feature race itself, but he expects the first­-race post time to be around 1 p.m. CDT, with gates opening no later than 10 a.m. and probably at 9 a.m. or earlier.

PHOTOS BY: Rick Buckley and PhelpsSports.com file photos

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