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Breeders' Cup 2017

Ranking Rachel and Zenyatta All-Time

How do Rachel and Zenyatta rank with the greatest females of all-time?  

Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta are without a doubt two of the best horses in the history of racing. Each has done things that have never been done before, but where do they rank among the best females of all time? This is very hard to say and certainly subjective to personal opinion. It’s very hard to compare horses throughout time, and say one was better than the other. I considered trying to do so, but many of these top horses are separated by very little. Saying one is better than the other just isn’t fair. Let’s take a look at some of the top fillies and mares in the history of racing. They are listed in no particular order. I’ll let you decide for yourself who is the fastest.

Ruffian - “As God as my witness, she may even be better than Secretariat”. That quote was said by Lucien Laurin, trainer of Secretariat. Perhaps Ruffian was better than Big Red. The daughter of Reviewer stood nearly 17 hands tall and led at every call in every race of her career minus her ill fated match race with Foolish Pleasure. While her competition wasn’t as good as some of the other great horses, she demolished all comers and in solid times. Her past performances say things like “easily” and “speed to spare”.  She is one of only eight fillies to sweep the Triple Tiara series which is composed of the Acorn Stakes, Mother Goose Stakes, and Coaching Club America Oaks. All are Grade I events.  Ruffian had some of the best early speed of any horse that ever lived. She was different from most horses in that her early speed was also late speed. She just kept on going!

Personal Ensign - The daughter of Private Account never lost in 13 trips to the track. Jockey Randy Romero piloted her in all but one race. She took down two very tough males in the Whitney Handicap when she powered home past King’s Swan and Gulch. She was a Grade I winner at the ages of 2, 3, and 4. Her best wins came in the Beldame Stakes (twice), and the Breeders Cup Distaff. Her win in the Distaff came over Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors. The finish was very exciting with Personal Ensign just barely getting up in the nick of time over the speedy Kentucky Derby winning filly. If you haven’t watched this race, I highly suggest doing so. It is counted among the best of all time.

Bayakoa - This mare won the Breeders’ Cup Distaff twice and took over the older female division after the retirement of Personal Ensign. It would’ve been incredible if they would’ve been able to race. Bayakoa won 29 of 39 career starts for trainer Ron McAnally. The Argentinean bred mare began racing at two, but didn’t really blossom into a champion until she reached the age of 5.  Other than her Breeders Cup triumphs, her best wins came in the Grade I  Apple Blossom Handicap and the Grade I Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap.

Azeri - Trained by Laura de Sourux and then D. Wayne Lukas, this filly was Horse of the Year in 2002 and Champion Older Female in 2002, 2003, and 2004. She won the Grade I Apple Blossom Handicap a record three times. She beat top mares Spain, Sightseek, and Take Charge Lady, but wasn’t able to get a win against the boys. Trainer Laura de Sourux had this to say about Azeri: “She didn't let anyone down, and she did it in great style. She's simply the fastest filly in the world now. You can't catch her early, and you can't catch her late.” 


Genuine Risk - What is the best race that not only a filly, but a colt can win? The Grade I Kentucky Derby of course! This daughter of Exclusive Native became just the second filly to take the Run for the Roses in 1980. Piloted by Jacinto Vasquez, she won 10 of 15 career starts and never finished off the board. She would go on to take the Grade 1 Ruffian Handicap after the Triple Crown.

Below is a list of other great fillies, many of whom were on par with the ones we just discussed:

  • Ashado (2004 Kentucky Oaks &  2004 Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner)
  • Busher (1945 Horse of the Year)
  • Go For Wand (Winner of 10 of 13 races, including the 1989 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies)
  • Lady’s Secret (1986 Horse of the Year)
  • Paseana (Winner of 1992, 1993 Apple Blossom Handicap and 1992 Breeders’ Cup Distaff)
  • Princess Rooney (1983 Kentucky Oaks & 1984 Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner)
  • Rags to Riches (2007 Belmont Stakes winner)
  • Serena’s Song (Winner of 11 Grade I races)
  • Twilight Tear (1944 Horse of the Year)
  • Winning Colors (1989 Kentucky Derby winner)

Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta have both put together spectacular resumes. Rachel Alexandra crushed the competition in the Kentucky Oaks by 20+ lengths. She beat the boys in the Preakness Stakes, Haskell Invitational, and Woodward Stakes. Zenyatta has NEVER lost and closed with a powerful rush to become the first mare to win the Breeders Cup Classic. I’ll remain silent on who I think would win for impartiality sake. They are set to face each other in the 2010 Apple Blossom Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Both horses are already legends, but the winner will probably be mentioned in the conversation with Secretariat, Citation, and Man O’ War as the best ever. I don’t know about you, but April 9 can’t get here fast enough for me. Until then let’s relish the buildup to what promises to be one of the greatest races in the storied history of our sport.   

By Ryan Patterson - GradedStakes.com,  Special to HorseRacingNation.com 


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Older Comments about Ranking Rachel and Zenyatta All-Time...

Actually, as of now, Zenyatta ranks 33rd and Rachel Alexandra is 43rd. That's out of all horses all time, including males
Friend works at the Saratoga National Racing Hall of Fame and often states: During times when there is no greatness to be had, very good is p0ushed upward to fill the gap. Greatness perspective takes time.
In the modern era of racing right now, I don't think that we'll see Zenyatta beaten in what's left of her racing career. Or at least certainly not beaten by another filly or mare. That said, Ruffian is the one filly that I've seen through my years of watching thoroughbred racing that really did have enough of the combination of speed and stamina that she potentially could have been the filly that could withstand Zenyatta's closing onslaught. Achievement wise, I think you'd have to say that Zenyatta has eclipsed Ruffian. But in all fairness, Ruffian's brilliant career was cut tragically short. Who knows how many races that Ruffian could have gone onto win had she not tragically broken down against Foolish Pleasure in 1975? As for rating Rachel Alexandra against Ruffian? Rachel, IMO, doesn't rate against Ruffian. Rachel Alexandra's running style is much like Ruffian's was. But, IMO, Ruffian would have destroyed Rachel Alexandra on the front end of a race. Plus, Ruffian often drew further ahead, to draw away from the competition in her win's. Not just barely hung on to win by the slimmest of margins. TJMO.
invasor, Excellent call on Goldikova, IMO. I think she's long overdue her proper notoriety as one of racing's great champion fillies.
I'm old enough that I've seen all of the fillies on this list from Ruffian on up race in their careers. Although each is uniquely different in their racing style, the one common denominator among all of the fillies that I saw race that are on this list is a "tremendous will to win." No quit in any of these fillies, that's why they're on this list. As far as just pure, blinding, front-running speed and ability, Ruffian for me easily surpasses them all. She would bolt out of the gate, go straight to the lead, and never relinquish it, during all 10 for 10 of her completed races. She tragically broke down in her 11th start in the 1974 match race against 74' Kentucky Derby winning colt "Foolish Pleasure." A race she was leading until she broke her leg. I also, for my money, don't think there's any question about that Zenyatta is the greatest on this list for a deep closer. As great as Ruffian was for a confirmed front runner, Zenyatta is just as equally great as a deep closer. I've never seen another filly/mare that possesses the size, strength, and a stride length that enables her to make up so much ground so quickly, that she has won nearly all of her 14 lifetime starts by taking the wide, overland route. Remarkable. The best filly on this list for distance, as a stayer, for me is Genuine Risk. She more than proved that in 1980 by beating colt's at 1-1/4 in the 80' Kentucky Derby. Came right back, finishing 2nd to Kodex at 1-3/16 in the 80' Preakness. Then cemented that legacy by racing, and again finishing a game 2nd to the colts at 1-1/2 in the 80' Belmont Stakes. The greatest one single race, that showed the most heart for a filly on this list would be, for me, Personal Ensign's triumph in the 1988 Breeders Cup Distaff. I say that only because she was racing over a muddy, sloppy track. Against another great filly in 88' Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors, and at the 1/4 pole, Personal Ensign looked like a filly who's undefeated record would suffer it's first blemish. But digging into that Churchill Downs mud, and showing the "heart" of a champion, that she was, Personal Ensign summoned the "will to win", ultimately nailing Winning Colors at the wire. She overcame terrible track conditions, and a very high quality competitor in Winning Colors, and ultimately prevailed. That's my take on 4 of the fillies on this list. It's all only the way I saw them. I'm sure everyone did not see it through the same eyes that I saw it through.
Great look back at some of the greatest fillies and mares of all time. It's terrific for the sport of racing to have two stars like Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta that embody greatness and capture the imagination of so many fans and we are here to witness it. By the way, I'm going to have to add Goldikova to the all-time list of the greatest fillies and mares.

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