Rachel Alexandra isn't quite herself as she loses Personal Ensign Stakes in the stretch
Sunday, August 29, 2010; 11:35 PM
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y.
It was one year ago that Rachel Alexandra beat males in an electrifying Woodward Stakes at Saratoga, completing a historic 8-for-8 campaign and clinching the horse of the year title. Since that memorable day, the filly has looked decidedly mortal, and America's racing fans have been wondering for months: Will we ever again see the great Rachel Alexandra?
That was the compelling question when she returned to Saratoga as a 4-year-old for Sunday's Personal Ensign Stakes, and the question was finally answered definitively. When the 21-to-1 shot Persistently rallied past the tired champion in the stretch, it was clear that Rachel Alexandra's glory days are over.
This Grade I stakes had been billed as a worthy test of Rachel Alexandra because of the presence of Life at Ten, the winner of her past six starts. The other three entrants in the field hardly belonged in this exalted company. So the jockeys on the two contenders rode as if it were a two-horse race.
When Calvin Borel and Rachel Alexandra popped quickly from the gate, John Velazquez hustled Life at Ten to press her. As they went into the first turn head-and-head, announcer Tom Durkin cried, "The race is on!" They sprinted more than 14 lengths away from the rest of the field, setting a swift pace.
On the final turn Rachel Alexandra - still running with apparent ease - took command. For a moment this looked a runaway in the making. But then Persistently - a filly who had never been in a stakes race before - launched a strong move on the turn, took aim at the leader and ran her down to win by one length. The final time for the 1 Â¼ miles was a dismal 2:04.49, and Rachel Alexandra's Beyer Speed Figure of 93 was by far the worst in her past two seasons of racing.
The contrast with last year's Woodward couldn't have been more telling. On that day, with thousands of people sporting pink "Rachel" buttons and roaring their encouragement, the filly delivered a heroic performance. She was subjected to intense pressure from quick older males, raced those rivals into abject defeat, and then held resolutely when the powerful finisher Macho Again made a late run at her. Sunday she couldn't cope with the early pressure of a lesser filly nor withstand the stretch run of an obscure allowance-class animal.
What has happened to her from 2009 to 2010? There are only guesses and theories, but some history may be relevant to Rachel Alexandra's case. Racehorses often improve when they reach maturity as 4-year-olds; Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew and Affirmed were even more dominant at 4 than they were at 3. But many of the greatest 3-year-old fillies have failed to progress this way. The last two fillies to win the Kentucky Derby, Genuine Risk (1980) and Winning Colors (1988) did not win a race of consequence as 4-year-olds. Perhaps the demands of an ultra-strenuous campaign take more of a toll on fillies than on colts.
Few filly dirt runners have ever faced the challenges that Rachel Alexandra did in 2009, beating males in Grade I company three times. She had earned a rest and surely needed a rest - probably a longer rest than she got. The racing public was clamoring for a showdown between Rachel Alexandra and the undefeated Zenyatta, and when Oaklawn Park offered a $5 million purse to lure them in April, owner Jess Jackson felt obligated to accept the challenge. Trainer Steve Asmussen tried to gear up Rachel Alexandra by giving her one prep race in New Orleans, but she lost as the 1-to-20 favorite. The plans to send her to Oaklawn were immediately scrapped, and her 4-year-old season had been disrupted from the outset. She lost her second race of the season, too, then won two stakes against moderate competition before suffering Sunday's debacle.
Jackson and Asmussen will have a difficult decision to make about their filly's future. The trainer would only say that he and the owner will "evaluate who she is and where she's at." Her main objective, supposedly, had been the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs and a showdown with Zenyatta, but that seems utterly unrealistic now. Aiming her for the Ladies' Classic would seem beneath her dignity if Zenyatta does challenge males in the main event.
But the disappointments of her 2010 season do not in any way tarnish what Rachel Alexandra accomplished last year. She was as good as any American female racehorse ever - including the legendary Ruffian. Her poor showing Sunday doesn't mean that her achievements were in any way a fluke. Her loss only demonstrates that she is flesh and blood, not a running machine.