Let the hype machine begin!
This morning Oaklawn Park announced an increase to the purse of the Grade 1 Apple Blossom on April 3rd from $500,000 to $5 million if both Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and Breeders' Cup Classic champion Zenyatta enter. Oaklawn also announced that the distance of the race will also be lengthened from 1 1/16 miles to 1 1/8 miles and that entries will be by invitation only. The purse increase, while likely to entice both Rachel and Zenyatta to enter, should also ensure that a host of other fillies and mares enter for the chance (albeit unlikely) to win the richest race ever run for fillies.
The question now becomes: will the two show up in Arkansas? It seems to me that Oaklawn officials must have a sense that they will otherwise why make even make an announcement like this?
News surrounding Zenyatta indicates that the mare will target the G1-Santa Margarita at Santa Anita on March 13th as her comeback race. If Zenyatta were to run at Santa Anita, that would leave her with three weeks prior to a potential match-up with Rachel in the Apple Blossom. Some commentators have argued that there will not be enough down time following that race to prepare for the Apple Blossom. However, the reality is that Zenyatta will most likely dominate whatever field she faces in the Santa Margarita and I seriously doubt that race will tax her to any extent.
Rachel Alexandra just recently returned to the track to begin serious training for her upcoming campaign. As of yet there are no indications as to where the filly will make her initial start of 2010 but if her connections decide to get a race in her prior to the Apple Blossom they are gong to have to choose that spot fairly soon.
There will be plenty of time to dissect this possible match-up in the future but I want to add one thought: the history of horse racing is littered with great match-ups on the track. Whether it's Alysheba and Ferdinand, Affirmed and Alydar, Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, or countless others, the big race transcends the sport because it's why we watch. The chance to see the best of the best face each other on the track does not come around all that often; there are many "big" races but there are very few "great" ones. Rachel against Zenyatta could be one of the all-time great races.
Now we wait.