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.