With the 49th Eclipse Awards in the rearview, it is worthwhile to reflect on the greatness this sport witnessed a mere decade ago.
The 2009 season was a magical one, with Zenyatta in the midst of a record-breaking campaign. And an unknown 3-year-old colt from New Mexico, Mine That Bird, became one of the longest shots to win the Kentucky Derby, then prove he was no fluke with placings in two other legs of the Triple Crown. But no story could compare to the magic of Rachel Alexandra.
Bred by Dolphus Morrison and named after his granddaughter, the filly was foaled at Heaven Trees Farm in Lexington, Ky. Morrison was so unimpressed with her that she was considered for the 2006 Keeneland November sale as a weanling and then withdrawn when X-rays revealed a minor imperfection in her development. The following summer, Rachel Alexandra was sent to Jimmy Dodwell’s Diamond D Ranch in Lone Oak, Texas, about an hour northeast of Dallas. The plans were to get her ready for sale, but when Dodwell saw rare traits of speed and a long stride, he advised Morrison against that. Heeding the advice, Morrison turned Rachel Alexandra over to trainer and family friend, Hal Wiggins.
Rachel Alexandra’s beginning on the race track was not auspicious. She lost her debut, opened 1-for-4 at Churchill Downs and 2-for-5 overall. A change in rider to Calvin Borel seemed to spark a run, and she turned the tables on Pocahontas (G2) winner Sara Louise in the Golden Rod (G2) to begin a career-defining winning streak.
The momentum continued in Oaklawn Park’s Martha Washington Stakes, her 3-year-old debut, while the trainer Wiggins hinted at the possibility of his horse “taking on the boys” in the Rebel Stakes or possibly even the Kentucky Derby. Those plans were put on hold by the owner, Morrison, who kept Rachel Alexandra against her gender for victories in the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) and Fantasy Stakes (G2). Then the Kentucky Oaks awaited.
Rachel Alexandra knew the Churchill Downs track well, even if she hadn’t always won over it. Borel, her rider, also loved it under the Twin Spires. They combined to completely dominate, with Rachel Alexandra a 20 1/4-length winner that truly set off a special campaign.
Rachel Alexandra’s new owner (Jess Jackson) and trainer (Steve Asmussen) followed through on thoughts of facing males two weeks later when Rachel Alexandra won the Preakness Stakes. And as her legend goes, the filly also won the Haskell (G1) and then Woodward (G1) over older competition
It’s often suggested that Rachel Alexandra was a disappointment at age 4. However, just about anything would have been anti-climactic after the type of sophomore season she had, garnering all 242 votes for champion 3-year-old filly and a strong majority of the Horse of the Year nods. She won two more stakes from five starts and didn’t finish out of the exacta.
Upon her retirement, Rachel Alexandra went to Jackson’s Stonestreet Farm on Elkchester Road, just down the street from her birthplace at Heaven Trees Farm. She had come full circle, and the superstar breeding matchup between Bernardini and Rachel Alexandra resulted in Grade 1 winner Rachel’s Valentina. A health scare has since ended Rachel Alexandra’s breeding career. Now, she just enjoys being a horse, leaving us to reflect on her magical 2009 campaign.
Rachel Alexandra is arguably the best progeny of Darley stallion Medaglia d’ Oro. Granted another Medaglia d’ Oro daughter, Songbird, was a two-time Eclipse champion who won 10 Grade 1 races. But she never took on or beat the boys and wasn’t a Horse of the Year finalist, let alone a winner. Talismanic scored in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. Vancouver (AUS) was named champion 2-year old colt after winning the Golden Slipper (G1) and recording the fastest time by a juvenile down under in the Todman Stakes (G2). Bar of Gold won the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. New Money Honey won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf. And the list goes on for Medaglia d’Oro.
But, again, Rachel Alexandra taking on the boys sets her apart. Looking at previous female Horse of the Year winners, we have the likes of Lady’s Secret, Zenyatta and Havre De Grace, plus Champion Older Female Personal Ensign, who won impressively against males. But their efforts were also as older females, and they stepped out of the division once. Rachel Alexandra beat males three times. In 1983, All Along did it four times, but she was an older turf female who took the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe before crossing the Atlantic Ocean to win the Rothmans International Stakes, Turf Classic and Washington, D.C. International Stakes.
On dirt, however, to match Rachel Alexandra one must go all the way back to 1945 and 3-year old filly Busher’s remarkable run, when she took on the males six times and won four races, including the Washington Park Handicap against open company over older gelding Armed (champion older male in 1946 and 1947, and Horse of the Year in 1946). In 1944, the 3-year old filly Twilight Tear also won three times against males.
Rachel Alexandra keeps some good company in that respect. Her career highlights:
• Wins the Martha Washington Stakes in 1:36 2/5s, a full second faster than what Derby hopeful Old Fashioned did in the Southwest Stakes (G3) on the same card.
• Still holds the record for margin of victory in the Kentucky Oaks at 20 ¼ lengths.
• Fifth filly to win the Preakness Stakes since Nelly Morse in 1924, and only filly to do so at the current distance of 1 3/16 miles. In the last 10 years, only War Of Will and California Chrome finished it faster. She also became the first horse to win from the 13 post.
• Set the stakes record for the Mother Goose Stakes at 1:46.33 at Belmont Park in a race-best 19 1/4-length win.
• Ran the second-fastest Haskell on record at 1:47.21, only bested by Bet Twice and Majestic Light who both ran it in 1:47 flat.
• First female and only 3-year old filly to ever win the Woodward Stakes.
• Only Triple Crown race-winning filly to defeat the winners of the other spring classics that season: Derby hero Mine That Bird in the Preakness, and Belmont winner Summer Bird in the Haskell
Following Rachel Alexandra’s incredible 2009 season, two other females captured the Horse Of the Year title in consecutive years, Zenyatta in 2010 and Havre de Grace in 2011, for the only three-year run by females in the award’s history. Havre de Grace also beat the boys in the Woodward, a fitting finish to the females’ run that started a decade ago with Rachel Alexandra.
Todd Sidor, an attorney by trade, has produced equine law seminars, and has long belonged to multiple racing partnerships. His more than two decades passion and respect for the sport of horse racing will always make him first and foremost a racing enthusiast.