Oaklawn Park almost hosted a horse race that would have made Hot
Springs the center of the sports world for at least one day.
But Rachel Alexandra dropped out of her showdown against and
Zenyatta in the Apple Blossom Handicap on April 9, leaving only one
of racing’s leading ladies in the field and taking all of the
luster out of what might have been the race of the year.
Oaklawn owner Charles Cella had put up a $5 million purse to
attract owners of both of the champion thoroughbreds. The purse
structure, with $100,000 going to the last-place finisher, was
expected to attract a quality field.
Zenyatta, the undefeated mare, is still on the card.
Rachel Alexandra, the filly who won the Eclipse Award as horse
of the year for 2009, withdrew after losing the March 14 New
Orleans Ladies Stakes at the Fair Grounds to a stablemate of
Zenyatta’s named Zardana. The Apple Blossom purse then dropped to
its original $500,000. That’s still an attractive prize, but
there’s no payday assured for bottom finishers.
“It’s not easy to fill up the field against Zenyatta,” Oaklawn
spokesman and track announcer Terry Wallace said Monday. “There
are a lot of options (around the country) for people to run fillies
Invitations are to go out Wednesday for the 1 1-8-mile race for
female horses at least 4 years old. About 40 fillies and mares were
nominated, and Wallace said Oaklawn will keep going down the list
if the first 10 owners don’t agree to bring their horses.
“The question is, Will they come for $500,000 and the right to
be picked off by Zenyatta?” Wallace said.
Zenyatta, a 6-year-old owned by Jerry Moss, has a following at
Oaklawn, having won the Apple Blossom in 2008. Her return will also
mark her attempt to match the modern record of 16 consecutive
victories, held by Cigar and Citation.
“It’s still a great race, but oftentimes it’s hard to get a
full field for great races. She’s carrying 123 pounds. She just won
in California with 127 pounds,” Wallace said, alluding to
Zenyatta’s win in the Santa Margarita Invitational at Santa Anita
Park, run on the same day Rachel lost in New Orleans.
Rachel Alexandra, who impressively won two stakes races at
Oaklawn in 2009 before an historic win against the boys in the
Preakness Stakes, still has her own backers in Oaklawn’s
As far as the city’s role in promoting the race, Hot Springs’
tourism director says all was not lost when Rachel pulled out.
“We got millions of dollars of publicity for a race that never
happened,” said Steve Arrison, director of the Hot Springs
Advertising and Promotion Commission.
The city was preparing to accommodate a crowd of 100,000 or
more. Now, the airport has canceled its request for a one-day air
traffic controller and the city won’t run the remote parking lots
and shuttle buses that were planned for Rachel vs. Zenyatta.
April 9 falls on a Friday and is the day before the $1 million
Arkansas Derby, a key prep race for the Kentucky Derby that
regularly draws more than 50,000. Had Rachel and Zenyatta been
running, the attendance record of 72,484 for the 2006 Arkansas
Derby may well have been broken.
Arrison said the weekend could still set a two-day record.
“We had a glass that was overflowing, but now it is just
full,” Arrison said.
After the Rachel-Zenyatta matchup was announced on Feb. 11,
$2.50 tickets for grandstand seats were selling online for $250.
Even free passes that only guarantee admission were selling on the
Internet. Perhaps drawing the most attention were Internet listings
for local houses up for rent for as much as $35,000 for the big
“I think very few of those (home rental) deals were made prior
to Rachel canceling,” Arrison said.
Arrison ordered 50,000 trading cards, 25,000 each of Rachel
Alexandra and Zenyatta, to help promote the race. When free
distribution began on March 3, a damp 37-degree morning, 250 people
were lined up before the tourism office opened. The cards were also
given out at Oaklawn Park that week, as well as other race
The office still had about 2,000 of the cards Monday, free to
anyone who stops by.
Interest in the cards could be reinvigorated if Rachel Alexandra
owner Jess Jackson reconsiders.
“The offer is out there,” Wallace said. “People can always
change their mind.”
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