Thursday, November 12, 2009

Memories of Rachel Alexandra

There are so many wonderful memories of Rachel Alexandra's 2009 campaign. Racing eight times at seven different tracks, the darling daughter of Medaglia d'Oro took racing fans on an exhilarating journey.

Rachel Alexandra and Calvin Borel swarmed at The Spa

It seems so easy to dismiss Rachel Alexandra's first three races of 2009.

1. An eight-length win at Oaklawn Park to open the books in the Martha Washington Stakes leaving Afleet Deceit and eventual Arlington Oaks winner Peach Brew in her wake.

2. A first Graded win in the G2 Fairground Oaks leading all the way through the slop. Flying Spur and Our Dahlia struggling to keep pace.

3. An 8 3/4 length barnstormer to win the G2 Fantasy at Oaklawn Park. Just Jenda, who would go on to win the G3 Monmouth Oaks, no match for the emerging super filly.

And then Rachel Alexandra exploded into the national spotlight stomping to victory in the G1 Kentucky Oaks by twenty lengths as jockey Calvin Borel held on for dear life.

It was the start of a very good weekend for Borel who, a day later, launched a dramatic rail run aboard Mine That Bird to win the Kentucky Derby by 6 3/4 lengths.

Following the Derby victory, when asked, "Which one would you ride?"

"Oh, I'd ride her, " shot back Borel. "I think she's the best horse in the country right now."

In an unprecedented move, the cagey Cajun shocked the racing world by hopping off a Kentucky Derby winner to ride Rachel Alexandra in the second leg of the Triple Crown.

Stop the presses!

* * *

It's at this point, for me, that the memories of Rachel Alexandra begin.

On the weekend of the Preakness Stakes, I was visiting Belmont Park and
a week later, I had a chance to reflect on the Preakness Stakes.

"While visiting Manhattan, I was very impressed with the horse racing awareness in the city. Hopping into a cab, I was bombarded with news of Rachel Alexandra's potential Belmont appearance on Taxi TV's sports ticker...

...While at Belmont, I had the pleasure of meeting writers Dan Lauletta and Anthony Affrunti. Together, we stood in the press box and cheered Rachel Alexandra to victory in the Preakness. Standing with us was online journalist Teresa Genaro of Brooklyn Backstretch."

The discussion and excitement generated by Rachel Alexandra was incredible. By winning the second leg of the Triple Crown, it seemed as though she had accomplished the impossible. Horse racing was the talk of the town.

As much as Rachel Alexandra's first four races established dominance over her female colleagues, the Preakness win shattered any confidence punters had of the three-year-old males.

The high hopes heaped on Friesan Fire, Pioneerof The Nile, Big Drama, Musket Man and others crashed and burned.

Historical importance? First filly to win the Preakness in 85 years. First horse to win it from post 13.

Hindsight? What if Jess Jackson had purchased Rachel Alexandra before the Kentucky Derby.

A smoooooch for Jess Jackson

* * *

Rachel Alexandra skipped the Belmont Stakes which was won by Summer Bird. Still, Rachel Alexandra would have her Belmont moment.

On June 27, Rachel Alexandra contested the Grade 1 Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont Park. Having scared off all her competition, Rachel Alexandra won the first leg of the Triple Tiara against just two other entrants by 19 1/4 lengths.

It wouldn't seem all that memorable except for the fact that in the process, Rachel Alexandra broke the stakes record covering a mile and an eighth in a time of 1:46:33. She also broke the record margin of victory of 13 1/2 lengths set by Ruffian in 1975. Despite being eased in the stretch, her time was less than a second slower than Secretariat's 1973 track record of 1:45 2/5.

That's pretty decent company a three-year-old filly is keeping.

* * *

With nothing left to prove against her own kind, Rachel Alexandra completed her 2009 campaign with two memorable races against the boys.

And if you're keeping track - Rachel Alexandra has now raced six times on the year and is still going strong.

On August 2, Rachel Alexandra traveled to Monmouth Park for the G1 Haskell Invitational. Rachel Alexandra splashed speedily through the slop trouncing Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird by six lengths in a time of 1:47.2. The race earned Rachel Alexandra a Beyer Speed Figure rating of 116 which is the highest Beyer number of any horse in North America this year.
(If you must compare, Zenyatta earned a 112 defeating Gio Ponti in the Breeders' Cup Classic.)

So, she's the best three year-old on the continent - either gender. But could she beat older males?

* * *

When it was confirmed that Rachel Alexandra would make her way to Saratoga for the Woodward Stakes, I immediately packed my bags.

The day before leaving for Saratoga Springs, I joked on this blog:

In case you haven't heard, Rachel Alexandra is racing at Saratoga on Saturday. All of this publicity can only be a good thing for horse racing and the coverage is staggering to say the least. A Google search on "Rachel Alexandra" this morning returned more than five million hits. Saratoga's gates will open at 7AM on Saturday and the first 25,000 fans will receive a Rachel Alexandra button. It is incredible to see this kind of publicity for horse racing outside of the Triple Crown.

Fans dressed up in their finest Rachel Alexandra gear

Over the course of the weekend I snapped a thousand photos, maybe more.

Rachel Alexandra bravely held off Macho Again to win the Woodward. In the hyperbole of the moment, I gushed as follows:

There will be countless articles wrapped around the mystery of whether or not Rachel Alexandra is better than Ruffian. Many fans still want to see Rachel Alexandra take on Zenyatta. But what about the European greats? Could Rachel Alexandra have triumphed over the great, now retired, filly Zarkava? How does Rachel Alexandra compare to hot European colt, Sea The Stars?

Until this past Saturday, the best filly I had the pleasure to see race live was French champion
All Along who won the 1983 Rothmans International at Woodbine Racetrack. I would rather not detract from that childhood memory by stating Rachel Alexandra is better than an Arc de Triomphe winner. I much prefer to count the number of racing greats I've witnessed than attempt to rank them. Why tear others down for the greatness of one? This is a time for racing fans to acknowledge that we are in the presence of greatness and enjoy the ride for as long as it lasts.

Nervous fans clung to the rail at the Spa

I wrote a follow-up post, with more photos to try and capture the mood of the crowd that Saturday at the Spa.

The tenth race arrived more than five hours after the first race ended but it felt like only minutes had passed the anticipation was so overwhelming. The bell rang marking 17 minutes to post and the pressure cooker that was Saratoga heated up even more. Sam The Bugler stepped onto the dirt track and played Billy Joel's, "She's Always A Woman To Me" as the crowd began to whistle and cheer for the big filly to arrive. I was tucked underneath the rail at the finish line holding my camera amazed at what was unfolding around me. Fans pressed up against the fence calling out Rachel Alexandra's name. A man with a Southern drawl heckled the salty group of Grade One winners with, "You're gonna get beat by a girl!"

It was such a brave effort by Rachel Alexandra. Of all the photos I took, two stand out in my mind.

1. A shot of Rachel Alexandra STILL in front after the wire.

2. A post-race Rachel Alexandra staring me down, legs neatly crossed.

She owned The Spa that weekend.

* * *

Four days after that Woodward win, I had a chance encounter with trainer Steve Asmussen at Woodbine Racetrack. It was surreal to run into Rachel Alexandra's trainer considering the weekend I'd just experienced.

TDH. Has it sunk in yet how great Rachel Alexandra is?
SA: It's funny, I was standing up at the rail this morning and I texted my wife, "Rachel won", just because I was thinking about it so fondly. It's just such a great moment to relive. She's so special and I'm so proud of her.

Asmussen, still glowing days later

TDH: Her spot in history is cemented. In a perfect world, what more would you like to see her do?
SA: To this point it has worked perfectly. It's so hard to put into words just how it feels, but I just think of what other people say leaving the races. We went back to the barn and Julie (Asmussen's wife) and the boys were in the car and they said it was like the movie Dreamer only it really happened. The build up, the coverage of it, it felt so surreal that it really happened.

TDH. I wrote in my blog that after Rachel won the race it was like a spaceship landed. People were wandering about the track asking, "Did you SEE that?"
SA: That's one of the things that's exciting to me. I've never seen that many people happy leaving the races. It was a great moment. I read about the race afterwards and someone said, "She had ten reasons to lose and she didn't use any of them." I've been very fortunate to be involved in racing and I've never been anywhere that many people were on one horses side.

TDH Is there a favourite moment?
SA: You can think of so many different little things. When we walked back (to the stable) after she won and she walked down the track the opposite way. The crowd smushed up against the fence and it looked like a wave. It was 20 or 30 deep. It was amazing.

* * *

I have no desire to tear down a champion like Zenyatta to make a case for Rachel Alexandra as Horse of The Year. We should simply enjoy them both for the champions that they truly became in 2009.

It's next to impossible to gauge which horse is "better".

Rachel v Zenyatta at Santa Anita going a mile and an eighth: Head bob?

Rachel v Zenyatta at Santa Anita going a mile and a quarter: Zenyatta going away?

Rachel v Zenyatta at Churchill Downs going a mile and a sixteenth: Rachel in a romp?

I really don't care about the hypothetical result. I don't want to know.

What I do know is this: Zenyatta had one memorable race out of five in 2009; Rachel Alexandra had a solid half-dozen dazzlers. In my mind, it's no contest.

Thanks for the memories!


SaratogaSpa said...

Nice post mine mind as the dust settles and people have time to reflect..I think it will become a little more clear (at least to this east coast dweller) that both horses are truly special, but Rachel had the better year.

Ernie said...

You're bringin' back chills for me, Keith. What a year