July 30, 2010

Dear Diary,

The New York Racing Association catches a break.


In a year when for the most part the news has been bad or worse, when NYRA’s neighbors to the south have been grabbing all the headlines and some of its horses, too, the locals finally won one.

And so two days before Monmouth Park stages their Haskell Invitation, the centerpiece of their summer meet and the consensus three-year-old race of the year to date, Saratoga grabbed the national headlines.

Said NYRA President Charlie Hayward in a NYRA press release, “We’re delighted that Mr. [Jess] Jackson has decided to race Rachel Alexandra in the Personal Ensign on August 29...With Travers Day on August 28, that weekend is lining up to be one of the best in this racetrack’s storied history.”

And if Zenyatta decides to show up, what then?

As this is written, there’s been no official word from Zenyatta’s owners as to whether the big mare will be joining Rachel and friends in the Saratoga starting gate.

It’s not likely that Mr. and Mrs. Moss need the money but a little incentive might be appreciated. In the official release, the amount of the purse was not disclosed, leaving room for negotiations with the Zenyatta and Rachel camps, or both.

The good news is that it will be Jerry Moss who makes the final decision to ship to Saratoga or not. If it were up to trainer John Shirreffs, the news for those anticipating a first ever meeting is not good.

“No way,” Shirreffs told Tim Wilkin of the Albany-Times Union shortly after the announcement was made. “We’re committed to running in the [Clement] Hirsch.”

“Is there anything that the NYRA could do to tempt you to change your mind?” Wilkin asked.

“No,” Shirreffs said.

Is this the real start of negotiations between the NYRA and the Zenyatta camp? Maybe, maybe not.

But if Zenyatta’s people want to add to her legacy and ultimately be regarded as the best horse of all time of either sex, there are at least four reasons to ship to Saratoga, especially if they think that Rachel’s effort in the Lady’s Secret wasn’t all that.

The second reason to come is 10 furlongs, a distance at which she became the first female winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Third is the fact that the big mare doesn’t care for the Del Mar synthetic surface, and she loved dirt when she raced at Oaklawn Park.

Fourth, there is no longer a detention barn in New York. Shirreffs said several years ago that he would never ship to New York again after having had a bad experience with Giacomo, or Tiago, or both, in what euphemistically has been referred to as “Little Guantanamo.”

Or maybe she’s ducking Delaware Handicap heroine Life At Ten?

(Note to Z Zealots: This is what’s called an attempt at humor).

If Zenyatta doesn’t show up at Saratoga this summer, it’s probably for one reason, and one reason only.

As a horseman posited one morning on the Saratoga backside over coffee, it has all to do with the mare herself.

What’s become known as the Zenyatta dance is more than a quaint equine show-and-tell trick. What it is is this tremendously hot kettle getting ready to boil over at any moment.

The theory here is that it’s been Shirreffs’ genius that has prevented it from happening already. He’s managed to keep the lid on for almost four full years of racing, and now that it’s closer to the end than the beginning, there’s no sense in tempting the racing gods at this point.

If that’s true, Shirreffs should just come out and say so. If Jackson owed the NYRA an appearance of his star filly at Saratoga, doesn’t Shirreffs, or the Mosses, or Dottie Ingordo--anybody--ought to tell racing fans why.

This isn’t an East vs. West thing: It’s a sport of thoroughbred racing and its loyal fans thing.

Whether Zenyatta shows up or not, August 29, the day after Travers, will be a celebration. You’d have to speculate that every person that was on hand for last year’s bombastic Woodward will return. In all probability, it will be the last time Saratoga fans and visitors get to see the Horse of the Year 2009 in competition at Saratoga Race Course.

And that will have to do, and that would be pretty good enough. Congratulations to Rachel’s camp for making the decision quickly following her Lady’s Secret effort. There was no talk of after the next workout, or of the lingering effects of racing when the Heat Index read 104.

“Rachel feels very much at home among great Saratoga fans,” said Jackson in a prepared statement. “It’s an historic race named after a great champion. The timing is right for Rachel.”

And it couldn’t have come at a better time for New York racing, either.