While selecting my single favorite race of Rachel Alexandra cannot be done, I can tell you with certainty that there was no race that I loved any more than the 2009 Haskell. In that I viewed many of her races live and in living color, the Haskell, a race I was unable to attend, might seem like a strange choice. Let me try to explain.
Nearly a thousand miles away, and in a small OTB outside of Chicago, I was joined by one of my favorite racetrack buddies that afternoon, my brother, Dave. He knew how I felt about Rachel, and he was there to see her run with me. Already with stronger feelings for this three-year-old princess than any horse in many years, it was one of those special moments that racing has given me on occasion for as long as I can remember. The anticipation for the big race to finally come was exhilarating, and at the same time, agonizing.
Her amazing winning streak had already reached seven by that time, and there was an aura surrounding her that was electrifying the sport. Her wins in the Kentucky Oaks and Mother Goose were historic for their domination. Her courageous effort in the Preakness from the outside post was also one for the history books. No one could say that no filly since Nellie Morse had won racing’s middle jewel ever again. With each passing race, I fell for her more. 40-years-old at the time, I am not ashamed to admit that she was my hero.
She was already Rachel Alexandra the Great, but in the Haskell she was to face a new challenger in Summer Bird. Well on the way to becoming the best male of the crop, the son of Birdstone had proven his rapid development with a powerful score in the Belmont Stakes. Throw in the very fast Munnings, and a few other talented colts like Duke of Mischief and Papa Clem, and Rachel was in store for a major test. It was the girl against the boys, and it was drama at its elemental best.
Tested she was. Munnings set the early pace and tried to carry her a bit wide on the first turn. Summer Bird was surprisingly closer to the early lead than usual, from his inside position, on the sloppy racetrack. Back at the OTB, my pulse was rapid, and my breathing was irregular as my body tensed into two minutes of excruciating ecstasy.
Calvin Borel had her in perfect position on the outside as Munnings rattled off a quick first quarter, and that is where Rachel would stay until her confident rider said, “go mamma.” 1:09 and 4 for the first six, but Rachel had just begun to run. Munnings and Summer Bird were trying hard, but she suddenly exploded on the far turn. A neck in front instantly turned into two lengths. A mesmerizing twirl of whip at the top of the lane was all I needed to exhale and smile and scream. As she strode down the Monmouth Park stretch, lengthening her advantage all the way, I am not sure if her hooves ever touched the ground. I know my feet didn’t. The big bad boys came to the Jersey Shore to test her, but it was them who had no answers for Rachel Alexandra at her glorious best.
She had toyed with them with shocking ease, and there could be no doubt that she had ascended to the highest peak of horse racing. The particulars of the race will show that Rachel Alexandra won the Grade 1, million dollar plus race by six lengths in a time of 1 minute and 47.21 for the nine furlongs, but it was much more than that.
Another of my favorite racetrack buddies, Ernie Munick, remembers the race this way, “Most of us Rachel fans at Monmouth waded through tension all afternoon. She hadn't been particularly Rachelesque in the slop in New Orleans - Monmouth was pummeled by rain. Came then an unfounded rumor, early afternoon, of Rachel scratching - don't know who made that up. Had her previous races sapped her? Could she deal with Munnings' early heat? I mean, Summer Bird, a Triple Crown winner in his own way, Belmont Stakes - Travers - Gold Cup, stood to benefit...Scott Blasi, visibly, intensely nervous, watched at the rail, near the finish line, as many of us did, and she was just...Rachel. Monmouth embraced her in total unabashed love.”
Unabashed love, that is what I felt for her from afar that afternoon, and that is what so many of us continue to feel for our hero, Rachel Alexandra. The Haskell brought together the finest three-year-old from each gender, and really it was no contest at all. After seeing champions like Secretartiat, Ruffian, and Spectacular Bid years before, I knew exactly what I was seeing that summer … Greatness.
When I close my eyes, especially today, and especially this week, I can still see the intenseness in her game-eyes, and the poetry of motion in her stride as she galloped down the lane of many of America’s most important races. Spirit like that may have its down days, but it can never be extinguished.
Get well soon, Rachel … I love you!