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HRN Original Blog:
Zipse At The Track

Remembering … Rachel Alexandra

02 AUG 2009: Preakness winner Rachel Alexandra with Calvin Borel beats the boys in the 42nd edition of The Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, Oceanport, NJ
I have written a lot about Rachel Alexandra in the last few years, and with good reason. I can honestly say it is because of her that I started writing about the sport that I loved for the better part of 40 years. Because of what Rachel gave me, I have had the pleasure of meeting many wonderful people connected to racing that I now call friends. This is just part of the reason why I owe Rachel a debt of gratitude. The other being that she was the one horse fantastic enough to revitalize my passion for racing to new heights. Don't get me wrong, I never stopped loving thoroughbred horse racing, but even I must admit that there were times when my interest waned … and then came Rachel. Like a shot to the heart of pure adrenalin, Rachel enlivened my senses and showed me again everything horses and racing mean to me. So I hope you will pardon me if this Remembering piece walks the tightrope between recollection and love letter, for Rachel is my favorite.
The first time I ever saw her was in the Debutant Stakes at Churchill. She finished 2nd that day in her 3rd lifetime start, but there was something there. I was a fan of her sire, Medaglia d'Oro, and I liked the overall looks of the filly with the interrupted blaze. There was a brief respite for the promising juvenile, before trainer Hal Wiggins brought the daughter of Lotta Kim back in an October allowance at Keeneland. Despite an outside trip, Rachel dominated the full field of well bred fillies. After the race, I was struck by a comment from her experienced trainer, who said this was the best horse he has ever had. Boy was he right, but still strong words for a filly yet to win her first stakes.
I was disappointed with her next race when she finished 2nd in the Pocahontas Stakes. Not disappointed with her, but rather with the miserable ride she received. The classy Sara Louise would win the race, while Rachel would soon have a new rider. Making the trip down to Churchill for the great Thanksgiving weekend of racing, Rachel was the one horse I was excited about betting after seeing the trip she had in the last race. She would not disappoint. With Calvin Borel in the saddle for the first time, we got a glimpse of Rachel Alexandra the Great for the first time. She dominated Sara Louise and the rest of the Golden Rod field with remarkable ease. It was the most impressive juvenile filly race I had seen that year, and that was saying a lot considering what Stardom Bound was doing in California. She may have only won 3 of 6 starts at two, but it was clear that she would be a force to be reckoned with.
Excited by what I had seen in person in Louisville, I made sure to watch each of her early sophomore races as they were run, from my home in Suburban Chicago. With each race my feelings for her grew, and the belief that she was something special, also grew. The Martha Washington in Arkansas was a runaway. In the Fair Grounds Oaks, Borel was so confident in her abilties, that he stopped riding her at the sixteenth pole. He took some heat from Wiggins for the showboating, but it was evident to all how much the best she was. It was back to Oaklawn next for the Fantasy, and another tour-de-force performance. I have been ranking the Kentucky Derby horses since the time I could first write, and after Arkansas, Rachel Alexandra became the first filly I ever rated #1 before the Derby.
As the Kentucky Derby rolled around, Wiggins made it clear that owner Dolphus Morrison had no interest in running his star filly against the boys. It made sense, less than 12 months removed from the Eight Belles tragedy, but I was disappointed nonetheless. With the prestigious Kentucky Oaks as a good alternative, a whole new audience would be introduced to a superstar. When Justwhistledixie was scratched, Rachel was made a prohibitive favorite in the female version of the Derby. What transpired was more than awesome. Rachel waited on a good speed horse named Gabby's Golden Gal, who would win the Acorn in her next start, for as long as Borel could hold her back. When given just a bit of reigns, Rachel exploded past her competition. Every effortless stride saw her pull farther and farther in front. Rachel Alexandra had just won the Kentucky Oaks like no other horse had done in the long and storied history of the race. Not many who saw it could help from believing that she was the best horse running that Derby weekend.
Things happened quickly after the win, not long after her owner Morrison had said that fillies belong running against fillies, word of a sale was in the works. Sure enough Jess Jackson of Stonestreet Farm had made an offer for Rachel too good to refuse. She was transferred from the Hal Wiggins barn to the large operation of Steve Asmussen. Now in the primary care of assistant Scott Blasi, it was announced that she was headed to the Preakness and then would still be ridden by Calvin Borel. Which in turn caused great controversy as Borel would do the unthinkable by leaving the Derby winner, Mine that Bird, to ride the filly.
“The Preakness is not won that way!” I exclaimed to anyone and everyone within earshot. Rachel had done it. She had come from the far outside post and contested a taxing early pace with a talented speedster we now call sprint champ, Big Drama, to spurt away from the field, before holding off the hard charging Derby winner by a length. I now knew she could not only romp against the fillies, but she had the heart and grit to dig down and beat the best of her generation. No filly had won the Preakness in 84 years, and Rachel Alexandra was as fitting a filly to end that streak as could possibly be.
Next came the Mother Goose and some sort of super-heroine performance in which the rest of the tiny, but select, Belmont Park field was left in the wake of a 1:46.33 mile and an eighth that saw Rachel eased down to win by 20 lengths. Just Rachel being Rachel. That scary performance proceeded what would prove to be my favorite race of all of hers. As a native of New Jersey, the Haskell rates among my very favorite races, and when I found out that she was going to face a top field of colts, I was more than excited. Due to family obligations, I was unable to be at Monmouth that day. But, I was not about to completely miss this huge race. Slipping away to the local OTB with my brother, I felt the intense nerves that a horse owner must feel before a big race, as I watched Rachel enter the Monmouth Park starting gate. Stalking the impressive early speed of Munnings, Rachel looked great on the outside, but so did the Belmont winner, Summer Bird, on the inside.
As the field approached the stretch, I watched with eyes wide open in anticipation of the Rachel burst. Just then it came. Rachel exploded on the sloppy track as Calvin twirled his whip, and the talented colts Summer Bird and Munnings, Papa Clem and Duke of Mischief began to fall away. I believe I began screaming at the closed circuit television and pumping my fists. As the voice of Larry Collmus reached a fever pitch, she splashed home easily the best, as the soon to be three-year-old male champ, Summer Bird, won the battle for 2nd. I only know this because that is what the chart of the race told me. It was all about Rachel. Even as a young fan of Ruffian, I had never seen anything like this. I didn't know how she could possibly top this, but I vowed to follow her wherever she would end up going for her next start.
The Woodward was surreal in many ways. I drove my family out to Saratoga for several days to see Rachel run. It was my wife's first visit to Saratoga, and my 1-year-old daughter's first ever visit to the racetrack. In a holiday weekend filled with great horses and great races, it was all about Rachel. I was not in the minority in my feelings. Rachelmania had hit Saratoga hard. In maybe the best place to see a horse race in America, Rachel was like a shooting star. That is exactly how the older male graded stakes winner treated her.
They tried to burn out her flame in every furlong of the nine furlong Woodward. One by one they ran at her, never giving the younger, female star a second to breathe. For their efforts many of them never were the same after the race. Given every reason to wilt under the intense spotlight of the prestigious race, Rachel persevered. She simply would not let anyone by. She became the first filly ever to win the Woodward, and the moment was not lost on the Spa. In all my years of seeing numerous big races at Saratoga, I had never seen anything like it. It was pandemonium. Race caller, Tom Durkin went bonkers ... seemingly everyone went bonkers. I remember talking with fellow Rachel maniac, Ernie Munick after the race in some sort of amazing awe, total relief, yelling, sweating, love for Rachel induced haze. To this day, I have no idea what either of us said to each other.
Rachel's four-year-old season was one largely of frustration. Things were different right from the start. Her preparation for a big match-up with Zenyatta at Oaklawn Park was hampered by balky weather. She had gained weight during the off-season, and was fitted with a figure-8 noseband for the first time. In her long awaited return she was bested by a lesser mare running a career best named Zardana, and was declared not ready for the Zenyatta showdown. She improved in her 2nd start, but was edged by the eventual BC winner, Unrivaled Belle at Churchill Downs. Her 3rd start of the year was finally the Rachel of old. She dominated the Fleur de Lis that day with all the power and grace of the filly that I had fallen in love with. Standing out on the track, watching the great horse come back to the winner's circle, I had no idea it would be the last time I would see her race in person. My memories of those minutes are etched in my brain and in my heart, and there they will stay until my final breath.
Two more races were in store for Rachel, a facile score in the Lady's Secret Stakes at Monmouth Park in the most oppressive heat of the New Jersey summer, and then a race at Saratoga. In what would be her final race, she ran her eyeballs out to put away her streaking, classy rival, Life At Ten. It was vintage Rachel, problem was she had worked so hard to beat the horse she had to beat, that she had nothing left for the final sixteenth of the 1 ¼ mile grade 1 race. Persistently ran by her late, in a result that seemed too unjust to be reality. But alas, that's horse racing. It is also horse racing when a great horse leaves the sport that allowed them to demonstrate all the qualities that made them a champion. And so it was for Rachel. The announcement of her retirement was matched with no explanation. She had just looked great in a workout; rumors abounded. It did not matter, Rachel's magnificent racing career had come to an end.
Rachel Alexandra finished her career with 13 wins in 19 starts and did not finish worse than 2nd after her career debut, but it will always be that magical season of 2009 that sets her apart from the rest. Rachel took on grade 1 males three times, and dominated her peers like no other. She was rewarded by becoming the only three-year-old filly to be named Horse of the Year in 64 years. In a word, it was perfection. That is how I will always remember the greatest of fillies. Rachel raised the rafters. She is one for the ages. She is Rachel Alexandra the Great. I am not sure if there will be another quite like her, or another that will mean as much to me, but I will never stop searching for the closest thing. I hope to see you soon at Stonestreet sweet girl. I remember you Rachel.

 

 

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Older Comments about Remembering … Rachel Alexandra ...

I can just imagine what her flank looked like back in the test barn.
Woodward: watch a good one almost flogged to death right before your eyes...Statement is NOT mine but from a friend who was there.................But I agree wholeheartedly.
Brian, Your love for Rachel is very evident. Her post-foaling surgery, awaiting news, must have been horrible for you. Hopefully, you will get to visit her again soon and have a happy reunion.
After reading your excellent article I went back and watched a replay of Rachel's victory in the Woodward. Once in a great while I get teary eyed watching an old race. This was one of those times.
Beautifully said Brian, just..something about Rachel, her looks, her heart...courage. When just being in her presence brings you to tears, and makes you quiver with excitement...she is just beyond special..so far beyond.
Thanks Brian, for the wonderful words and the great tribute to one of Thoroughbred's finest fillies. I first saw her at Belmont in the Mother Goose, and from there on I was hooked on this champion. I tried to attend every race she entered in the East, the Lady's Secret at Monmouth, the Woodward at Saratoga, and what was to be her final competition at the Spa, the Personal Ensign. I loved this horse so much I was willing to travel almost any distance to see her. No human could make me do that, except maybe the Pope. Thanks for the wonderful memories and helping me to relive the excitement and the awe of Rachel's Woodward win.
Beautiful Brian and oh how I remember all her 3 yo races too. Really don't think I missed a single race, from the time she won the Oaks.
great article
Hands down the greatest filly of the modern era IMO. She accomplished things most males could not do. My only regret is that I believe she was retired too soon. The PE was, as Brian called it an unjust result. Only three horses over the past several years have been able to wire a grade one rout race at Saratoga. One of them was Rachel and the other two were Fleet Indian and Commentator. Rachel almost did it again in the Personal Ensign, on a track that had become extremely deep and tiring over the last decade, producing progressively slower times. Had Rachel been allowed to run in the Beldame I think we would have seen the Rachel of old, crush her opposition with ease. Then I'm sure whatever race in the BC she would have entered would have been a show to witness as well. However, what she accomplished as a 3yr old will not be topped for generations, if ever. She was one in a million and we will be lucky to ever have one like her again.
  • juststacey · After her HUGE effort in the Woodward, if Rachel had run in the Beldame I think she would have been lucky to FINISH the race. Running her would have been nothing short of abuse. And Woodward or no Woodward, Rachel was never going to Santa Anita for the BC. Jess Jackson made that very clear from day one that she wasn't going to run on the "plastic".. · 1300 days ago
My cousin and I drove down to Monmouth from Boston in a horrific rain storm to see Rachel at the Haskell. At one point the rain was coming down in a steady sheet and we had to pull over because I couldn't see the road. I had my cousin contact her buddy Larry Colmus to see if he'd heard if she'd been scratched, because I was ready to turn around and head home even though we were over half way there.. He texted back "She's running". So as soon as the rain let up enough, we were back on the road and headed for the Jersey Shore. And, man oh man, am I glad we finished that trip. I screamed like a crazy person, something I don't recall ever doing at the races before in my life. She was simply awesome. She won so easily it was crazy and her final time, in the slop, when Calvin stopped riding and started his "show boating" about 10 strides out, just a half a whisper short of both the track and stakes record - wow, just wow! After the race, up in the announcers booth, Larry Colmus was still buzzing. Not even the Yankee Fan heckling my
  • juststacey · Crap, oops. Not even the Yankee fan heckling my Red Sox cap and Larry's Red Sox items in HIS "office" could kill our mutual buzz. What a day... what a day... It was one of those moments that just exemplifies what makes horse racing such an exciting and emotional experience. Pure bliss. And it just so happens that I'm wearing my Rachel Alexandra: Monmouth Park t-shirt at this very moment! :-) · 1300 days ago
thanks for the memories
Amazing story for an amazing horse. It was amazing to see her in person in action - loved every minute of it and never forget the roar of the crowd when she won.
A very worthy tribute - long may she run. And keep keepin the flame alive...
Excellent Brian, it brought me right back to 2009! That Woodward was beyond words...the entire season!
Outstanding account of one great filly and how she was able to inspire a terrific writer and racing fan
I met Rachel and what an honor ..saw her at Saratoga right before she was retired..thank you Brain for writing what my heart feels about this great Lady!
Very nice article.She was one of the special ones to me. Thanks
I loved Ruffian, and I love Rachel even more. I was compelled to see her Woodward race too, and knew I was witnessing history. What an awesome ride!
Thank you Brian!!! I felt like I was reading my own words! I remember being at many of her races and my hands were shaking so much just from her presence that most of my pictures were blurred. She truly was the GREATEST of all time. Not the greatest FILLY, but the GREATEST. THANK YOU BRIAN for bringing me back to 2009!!!!
Thank you, Brian! This is a beautiful testament to the most beautiful and talented of fillies. I saw Rachel in person at FG. She came in 2nd. that day, but it didn't matter. It was a privilege just to watch her run. Your article brought me to tears, as did Rachel every time she raced...

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Meet Brian Zipse 

Brian has been a passionate fan of horse racing since birth. Taken to the races at a very young age, he has been lucky enough to see all the greats in person from Secretariat and Ruffian through Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. Before coming to the Nation, Brian displayed his love for the sport through the development of his horse racing website, which quickly became one of the most popular blogs in the game. 
  
As Managing Editor of Horse Racing Nation, Brian authors a daily column as Zipse at the Track, or ZATT for short, and adds his editorial flare to the overall content of the website. Brian also serves on the the Board of Directors of ReRun Thoroughbred Adoption and is a Vox Populi committee member. 
  
A graduate of DePaul University, Brian lives in Suburban Chicago with his wife Candice and daughter Kendra, where he is a professional golf instructor when he is not following the horses.