Rachel Alexandra Wins Woodward Stakes by a Head

By Andrew Beyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 6, 2009

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y., Sept. 5 -- Rachel Alexandra has become America's most celebrated thoroughbred with her raw speed and superior talent, but today she had to win the toughest race of her life with sheer guts.

From the moment the gate opened for the Woodward Stakes, seven older male rivals subjected the 3-year-old filly to intense pressure. In the stretch, they bore down on her, and jockey Calvin Borel had to crack her with the whip more than 20 times. The stretch-runner Macho Again drew almost abreast of her a few strides from the wire. But Rachel Alexandra fought off the challenge, winning by a head -- the climactic moment in one of the greatest seasons ever by an American filly.

The 31,171 people who packed Saratoga -- many of them sporting pink "Rachel" buttons or Rachel T-shirts -- may have expected that this Woodward would be a runaway. After all, the filly had won all seven of her starts this season by a combined total of 65 lengths. But her trainer, Steve Asmussen, knew otherwise, as did fans who understood how rare and difficult it is for 3-year-old fillies to challenge older males. Only once in the 55 previous runnings of the Woodward had a 3-year-old filly even dared to try. Her victory today virtually assured her of the horse-of -the-year title and a place in history. She is widely being hailed as the most brilliant thoroughbred of her sex since Ruffian, and her achievements dwarf those of the legendary filly who died tragically in 1975.

The prelude to the Woodward had looked ominous for Rachel Alexandra. She was recalcitrant at the start of the post parade, and bucked Borel off her back. Observers might have wondered if this demanding campaign was beginning to take a toll on her. But as soon as the race began, she was the consummate professional.

Past the Point hustled to the lead from his outside post position, and Da' Tara showed speed from the rail, with Rachel Alexandra between them. Borel didn't back off from the challenges. He let the filly go head and head with Da' Tara -- the front-running winner of the 2008 Belmont Stakes -- and they sped through the first quarter mile in a swift 22.85 seconds. "There's no free ride for Rachel Alexandra," track announcer Tom Durkin exclaimed. "They've pushed her through a punishing quarter mile."

When the filly repelled Da' Tara on the backstretch, Past the Point tried to launch a challenge, but she brushed him off, too. She had set an enervating pace, running six furlongs in 1 minute 10.54 seconds and as she turned into the stretch, all of the stretch-runners were revving up. Bullsbay and Asiatic Boy launched abortive moves, but as Borel went to the whip, Rachel Alexandra maintained a tenuous lead. Then Macho Again -- a powerful finisher and a Grade I stakes winner -- launched his challenge. Jockey Robby Albarado saved ground on the turf, angled to the outside and made his run. In the final yards, he appeared to have the momentum necessary to catch the filly, but Borel professed afterward to be unworried.

"She would never let him go by," he said. Albarado felt the same way. "I never thought I had her," he said. "I was hoping that at some point she would tire, but she's great. What can I say? She's great. She has beaten older horses, [horses] her own age, it doesn't matter. No matter what they throw at her, she'll beat them."

Rachel Alexandra completed the 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.29, a moderate time compared to some of her previous victories, and perhaps the demands of this campaign are beginning to take a toll on her. Owner Jess Jackson said he might decide to make the Woodward her last race of the season and give her plenty of rest before her 4-year-old campaign. In any event, she will have difficulty topping the drama she provided Saturday.

Durkin captured the spirit of the day when, after the Woodward, he was obliged to recite the scratches and changes for the routine events that followed.

"If your heart can take it," he informed the crowd, "we've got two more races."

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