November 10, 2009

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Nov. 30. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.There's something to be said for perfection. Horse racing fans got to see it twice this year, in undefeated campaigns by the 5-year-old mare Zenyatta (who has won all 14 of her starts) and the 3-year-old filly Rachel Alexandra (who won all eight of her starts as a 3-year-old). Both horses are champions, and both will go down in the record books alongside the greatest horses of their gender -- horses such as Twilight Tear, daughter of legendary stallion Bull Lea, who won 11 straight races in 1944 to become the first filly to be voted Horse of the Year, and the great Personal Ensign, who caught Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors at the wire in the 1988 Breeders' Cup Distaff to become the first major horse in 80 years to retire undefeated. For everybody who says that thoroughbred racing cannot produce a star outside of the Triple Crown, it was a year to eat their words, and a year for history.

That's why both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta are my choices for Sportsman of the Year. There will be time later to discuss which one is more worthy of Horse of the Year honors. (The Eclispe Awards dinner will be held on Jan. 18 in Beverly Hills.)

Zenyatta only raced five times in 2009 (always on the synthetic surfaces that she favors) and mostly against fields of inferior fillies and mares. She won the Ladies Classic at last year's Breeders' Cup, but trainer John Shirreffs and owners Jerry and Ann Moss decided to test her against older males this year for racing's grand prize: the Breeders' Cup Classic. Breaking last out of the gate, as is her habit, she ran in back for most of the 1 ¼ miles. In the last turn, jockey Mike Smith, who had been saving ground on the inside, swung Zenyatta wide and inhaled the leaders just before the wire. It was a wonderful performance, and it not only brought the crowd at Santa Anita Park to its feet, but reduced many watchers, including her trainer and owners, to tears.

The immediacy of the November event has suddenly overshadowed Rachel Alexandra --who was barely mentioned during ESPN's two-day Breeders' Cup broadcast. Her most memorable moment came in the spring at the Preakness. After dominating her division in three races over the winter, she crushed her six rivals in the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs on May 1, galloping under the wire more than 20 lengths in front. Two weeks later in Baltimore, she faced colts for the first time and bested a field that included Derby winner Mine That Bird. She did the same at the Haskell Invitational in August. With no other challenges in front of her, she stepped up against older males at Saratoga last September in the Woodward and won again.

Rachel's connections -- trainer Steve Asmussen and owner Jess Jackson -- had been burned in the Classic a year ago when their great colt Curlin, the 2007 Horse of the Year, floundered on the Polytrack at Santa Anita and finished a listless fourth. Asmussen and Jackson kept Rachel Alexandra at home for this year's Classic. The duo felt she had already done enough to prove herself worth of Horse of the Year honors. We shall see.

Beyond the question of who was better, it seems to me to be quite enough to revel in how truly great both ladies proved to be. In a sport that gets unfairly knocked for being all about the Triple Crown, Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta showed us all that there's much more to their sport than just kings. In 2009, thoroughbred racing was the sport of queens.Agree with this selection? Give us your pick for Sportsman here.

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