Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Mattress Mack @ the Track

Setting up a match race is like engaging in shuttle diplomacy or some kind of elaborate fan dance (or perhaps some strange hybrid of the two, actually.)

It all starts off with the tendering of an offer: A purse, a track, some other inducements, perhaps. Next both parties must be approached in a fashion not unlike meeting HRH Queen Elizabeth. One approaches, one says hello and tenders said offer...but handshakes are not guaranteed and protocol dictates that one must never turn one's back on Her Majesty, either. Okay, this may (or may not) be slightly above and beyond, but it's not so terribly far off course, really. While the movie Seabiscuit glossed over it, the intricate and labyrinthine negotiations that brokered the Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race are well-documented. There are a lot of yes-buts, as in, yes, we'd be fine with X, but Y is a deabreaker. Both sides have to assess and see where compromises can be made. And who can blame the owners of any horses who are fortunate enough to find themselves in this happy situation? I can't. Both sides need to do what suits their horse best, of course, but it'd be swell if in the process they could help out the racing industry as well.

This brings me to the business at hand. While many of us out here in the horse world (myself included) would love to see a Zenyatta-Rachel match race, it seems unlikely in the near future. All that said, though, a Houston business man, Jim McIngvale--locally known as Mattress Mack, a philanthropist and furniture store owner--has suggested Sam Houston Race Park as the possible site for a match race between the wonder-girls, Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra. Racetrack officials have expressed their interest and Mr. McIngvale has offered to put up a $2 million purse, with $1.2m going to the winner.

I'd guess that level of purse would be a kind of enticement, neither of these owners really need the money, but it's nice to have of course, and is part of these kind of deals. There will hopefully be several offers for the connections of Rachel and Zenyatta to consider, make pro and con lists for, turn down flatly, etc.

It all seems like it should be so easy, but this is precision business, and match races are pretty few and far between--meaning that since they are rare, they carry a lot of meaning and they also can have lasting impact. Seabiscuit v War Admiral was a classic David and Goliath battle, with The Biscuit, clearly America's horse, taking the race and everyone's hearts. The Nashua v Swaps (with the great Willie Shoemaker in the irons on Swaps) race was an easy win for Nashua and his jockey Eddie Arcaro after they successfully kept Swaps in the poorest part of the track. And then there's The Great Ruffian. Her final race, the match race at Belmont against Foolish Pleasure ended in tragedy. I cannot imagine in those early years after 1975 that anyone even wanted to hear the words match and race in the same sentence. The race didn't cause her breakdown, but it was a heartbreaking end to an incredible and beloved athlete. Ruffian's shoes are big ones to fill (she was nearly 17 hh) and I think both Zenyatta and Rachel can be the heirs to her legacy.

Who knows if or indeed when any of this could happen. It is, as I've said, great fun to speculate. But even as things stand now, we have some great horses to watch and two of them are head and shoulders above the rest. Would a match race be fun? Absolutely, any competition between the two horses would be a thrill. If, however, we never see them run against one another, it doesn't at all lessen what they've accomplished or how much enjoyment they've given race fans--most especially little girls all over the country who like to cheer on a 'sistah.'

Read Hal Lundgren's piece for the Houston Chronicle HERE. Watch a cool video (with some narration by Eddie Arcaro himself) of the Swaps-Nashua race HERE.

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