Arkansas track aiming for Rachel-Zenyatta showdown |

Arkansas track aiming for Rachel-Zenyatta showdown

AP Sports Writer

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (AP) – The stage is set for the first ladies of racing. Now all Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta have to do is show up.

Oaklawn Park threw some serious money at the two champion females who have yet to meet, enticing them with a $5 million purse for the Apple Blossom on April 3 – a race that would certainly be one of the most anticipated in years.

Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta were unbeaten last year, taking on males and females. Rachel Alexandra was the first filly to win the Preakness in 85 years; Zenyatta became the first female to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Rachel Alexandra beat Zenyatta for Horse of the Year.

“This is an event of a lifetime,” Pat Pope, Oaklawn’s racing secretary, said Thursday. “We’re going to do everything to bring them to the state.”

The Apple Blossom purse would be 10 times greater than usual for the race. If the meeting fails to materialize – at a track where both horses have raced – the purse reverts to $500,000.

Oaklawn president Charles Cella said the owners of both horses are receptive to the idea, but there no commitments yet.

“If she is in top form and it fits in our schedule, we will be there,” said Jess Jackson, principal owner of Rachel Alexandra. “As you have heard me say many times before, a number of factors must be considered when deciding where to race a horse – the No. 1 factor being the condition of the horse. Rachel will tell us when she is ready to start her 2010 campaign and we humans must agree she is in top form.”

Oaklawn said if both horses enter, the field would be restricted to 10 fillies and mares, 4 years old and up. Regardless, the distance has been increased from 1 1-16 miles to 1 1-8 miles.

Rachel Alexandra, a 4-year-old filly, is training at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. Her first race this year is undetermined. She went 8-0 last year, including the Preakness and two other wins against male horses.

Zenyatta had been set for retirement after capping a 14-0 career with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic in November. But now the mare is back to race as a 6-year-old and might run in the Santa Margarita Handicap at Santa Anita on March 13.

Both horses were in contention for The Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year in 2009. Zenyatta finished second to Serena Williams. Rachel Alexandra was seventh.

Zenyatta is owned by Jerry and Ann Moss, and trained by John Shirreffs. Rachel is owned by Jackson and Harold McCormick and trained by the nation’s top trainer Steve Asmussen.

Rachel Alexandra raced against the girls in the Kentucky Oaks and won by an eye-popping 20 1/4 lengths.

Because of her late-closing style, Zenyatta has never won by more than 4 1/2 lengths. Her back-to-front stretch runs are every bit as spectacular as Rachel’s routs.

Rachel Alexandra skipped the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita. Jackson dislikes synthetic track surfaces and Rachel has raced on one only once. Zenyatta, however, has raced outside California only once. She won the 2008 Apple Blossom in her only start on dirt.

“It’s a race we’ve won before, so she likes that track,” said Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs, racing manager for Zenyatta’s owners and Shirreffs’ wife. “We’ll do our best to make the race, but obviously, it all depends on Zenyatta and how she’s doing.”

This year’s Breeders’ Cup is on dirt at Churchill Downs, so it’s possible the two could face off there.

Oaklawn is no stranger to talent. Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex and Curlin prepped for their Triple Crown campaigns there, and Rachel Alexandra won twice on the track last year.

In 2004, Oaklawn offered a $5 million bonus for any horse that could sweep the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn and then win the Kentucky Derby as well. Smarty Jones did just that.

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 3 in the Apple Blossom truly could live up to its billing as a race for the ages.”