They were indelibly linked in the minds and hearts of Thoroughbred racing fans, even if they never did get to settle heated debates of supremacy on the track. They shared all-time brilliance, transcendent charisma and the undeniable fact that they were superior members of their generation regardless of sex
It is only fitting that champion racemares Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta will have their plaques hung in Racing’s Hall of Fame in the same year.
The 2009 and 2010 Horse of the Year honorees, respectively, never met on the racetrack but will be joined in immortality as they headline the class of 2016 Hall of Fame inductees. Joining Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta in becoming a first-ballot pick is trainer Steve Asmussen, who conditioned the former for the final nine starts of her career, and jockey Ramon Dominguez, who won 4,985 races from 1996 to 2013 before suffering a career-ending injury.
A maximum of four candidates with the highest vote totals — provided they receive majority approval (50.1 percent) of the voting panel — are elected with this year’s induction ceremony taking place Aug. 12 in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Jockey Victor Espinoza, who guided American Pharoah to his Triple Crown sweep last year and is the regular rider for 2014 Horse of the Year California Chrome, was among the finalists that did not get elected.
“To be able to go in with Rachel is quite special,” Asmussen said Monday. “She’s amazing and then some, she’s indescribable is what she is.”
There was zero question whom at least two of the inductees would be.
Bred by Dolphus Morrison and originally trained by Hal Wiggins, Rachel Alexandra put together a campaign in 2009 that will likely not be duplicated by a 3-year-old filly anytime soon. The daughter of Medaglia d’Oro had many calling her the best sophomore runner of either sex after she won the Kentucky Oaks by 20¼ lengths under jockey Calvin Borel. She went on to solidify that claim with a historic string of victories over her male counterparts.
After being sold by Morrison to Stonestreet Stables and Harold McCormick following her Oaks triumph and transferred to the barn of Asmussen, Rachel Alexandra was wheeled back in the Preakness Stakes where she became the first filly since 1924 to win the middle leg of the Triple Crown. The bay filly again defeated males handily in the Grade I Haskell Invitational before becoming the first sophomore filly to top older males in the Grade I Woodward Stakes in September 2009.
Her Woodward win capped a season in which Rachel Alexandra won all eight of her starts, a campaign that was superior enough to have her defeat Zenyatta for Horse of the Year honors in 2009.
Rachel Alexandra retired with 13 wins from 19 starts and $3,506,730 in earnings.
Already an Eclipse Award winner in 2008 as champion older female, Zenyatta captivated the sport with her near flawless come-from-behind running style and her ballerina-like pre-race strut.
Trained by John Shirreffs and owned by Jerry and Ann Moss, Zenyatta won the first 19 starts of her career, including three straight editions of the Grade I Lady’s Secret and Grade I Vanity Handicap, and became the first and only female horse to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic when she ran down fellow champion Gio Ponti in 2009.
Zenyatta’s lone defeat came in her career swansong in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic, when she fell a head short of champion Blame beneath the lights at Churchill Downs. Despite the loss, Zenyatta was named Horse of the Year and earned her third straight Eclipse Award for champion older female.
Zenyatta concluded her career with 19 wins from 20 starts and $7,304,580 in earnings.
Asmussen, 50, ranks second all time in career wins (7,286 through April 21) and fourth in earnings ($241,026,551) in a training career that began in 1986 after a brief stint as a jockey. The Eclipse Award winner for outstanding trainer in 2008 and 2009, Asmussen has led all North American trainers in wins nine times and earnings three times. He has ranked in the top 10 in both wins and earnings every year since 2000. In 2004, Asmussen won 555 races to surpass the single-year record of 496 that had been held by Jack Van Berg since 1976. Asmussen broke his own record in 2008 with 621 wins and topped it once again with 650 wins in 2009.
In addition to training Rachel Alexandra, Asmussen also conditioned Hall of Famer Curlin to Horse of the Year honors in 2007 and 2008.
“It’s a great celebration of family and friends,” Asmussen said. “I’m an extension of them and this is their accomplishment as well. I think what is beautiful about it is it is such a shared thing with the barn and with everyone who is involved in it.
“If you’re in racing, you’re a dreamer. If you’re going to chose to do this every day, you’re a dreamer. Everybody sees themselves getting it done.”
Asmussen was a finalist in 2014 but was removed from the ballot when the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and New York State Gaming Commission launched investigations into allegations by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that the group had evidence of Asmussen mistreating horses in his care.
He was cleared by the Kentucky commission in January 2015 when the commission announced it found no evidence of rule violations. The New York State Gaming Commission ruled in November that the most serious allegations were “unfounded.”
To be eligible for the Hall of Fame, trainers must have been licensed for 25 years, while jockeys must have been licensed for 20 years. Thoroughbreds are required to be retired for five calendar years before becoming eligible. Due to his injury, Dominguez had the 20-year requirement waived by the Executive Committee.
A three-time Eclipse Award winner for outstanding jockey (2010, 2011 and 2012), Dominguez, 39, compiled $191,620,277 in earnings during his career and led North American riders in earnings each of his Eclipse-winning years. He set an earnings record of $25,639,432 in 2012 and led all jockeys in wins in 2001 and 2003. He won a total of 20 individual meet riding titles on the New York Racing Association circuit, including a record 68 wins at Saratoga in 2012.
Dominguez won a total of 44 Grade I races in his career, including 25 from 2010-2012. He won three Breeders’ Cup races: the 2004 Turf (Better Talk Now), 2011 Juvenile (Hansen) and 2012 Turf (Little Mike).