Commentary

Defining greatness

Updated: September 2, 2009, 3:32 PM ET
By Paul Moran | Special to ESPN.com

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- "We try to give her hurdles," Jess Jackson said. "It's the process of defining her greatness."

Since acquiring the seemingly invincible filly after her jaw-dropping 20 -length demolition of the Kentucky Oaks on the first Friday of May, the hurdles with which Jackson has confronted Rachel Alexandra have been cleared with mesmerizing speed and aristocratic aplomb, engagements with history rarely attempted by a 3-year-old filly: The Preakness, the Haskell Invitational, races in which she humbled males of her own age, and, on Saturday at the Spa, the Woodward.

She will open at odds of 1-2 with weight allowances for age and sex totaling eight pounds, which at this point seem almost superfluous. The $750,000 purse and a history at Saratoga that embraces the defeats of great horses -- Man o' War and Secretariat among them -- have prompted the entry of seven males, some quite accomplished. Three are Grade I winners. Three others are Grade I placed.

"I'm not discounting any horse in this race," Jackson said. "It is further definition of Rachel if she faced older, male horses. Rachel is not yet fully defined. She's only halfway through her career. But I think she's one of the best of all time."

If she wins the Woodward, it will be difficult to dispute Jackson's assessment, which will be widely shared. This race provided a critical juncture in what Jackson calls, "her definition."

All three Triple Crown races have been won by fillies, though Rachel Alexandra's Preakness was the first since Nellie Morse in 1924. She beat a field no stronger in New Jersey than the one she dispatched at Pimlico. No female of any age, however, has won the Woodward.

According to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame's resident historian, Allan Carter, Summer Guest is the only 3-year-old filly who has competed in the Woodward, which was run for the first time in 1954. That filly, trained by Elliott Burch and ridden by Laffit Pincay, Jr., finished second to entrymate Key to the Mint in 1972, but was disqualified and placed third. The Woodward, then run at Belmont Park over 12 furlongs, is now run at nine.

Rachel Alexandra's immediate hurdle is one on the other side of which the ground is hallowed. The roll call of Woodward winners echoes in rarified air: Sword Dancer, Kelso, Forego (four times), Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, Seattle Slew, Alysheba, Easy Goer, Cigar (twice), Skip Away, Mineshaft and Ghostzapper won the Woodward en route to the Hall of Fame. Her accomplishments to this point of her career surpass those of the immortal Ruffian, who until a fateful, dark afternoon in July, 1975 at Belmont Park did not face males. Without disrespect to Ruffian's memory or her historical importance, Rachel Alexandra's 3-year-old campaign is unprecedented. Undoubtedly, she is the best 3-year-old filly since Ruffian to race anywhere in the world.

She is the star for which the game has long waited in vain, the transcendent horse most though would emerge from the Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown, Until now, that horse was expected to be a male. But the 3-year-old male heroes of springtime have disappeared quickly in recent decades, swept away in a wave of money, offers beyond refusal. Given the sport's economics, we may never again see a Kentucky Derby winner, save the occasional gelding, race beyond the age of three. Racing has for decades awaited a hero without realizing that what it really needed was a heroine.

"We need this," said Terry Finley, president of West Point Thoroughbreds, the colors of which will be borne by Stephen Foster Handicap winner Macho Again in the Woodward. "She's come along at the right time. No doubt, it's a thrill for our 17 partners to be in against her. It's raised the excitement level. We're all blessed just to be part of this, to be in the position to watch this filly run."

Rachel Alexandra completed her preparation for the Woodward with a half mile work on Monday, a move during which she was under stern restraint at every stride and appeared ready to -- and fully capable of -- running through the bridle. Jockey Calvin Borel, who has been astride for each of Rachel Alexandra's eight consecutive victories  races won by a total of 69 lengths -- watched the exercise.

"This has to be the toughest race for her, stepping up to older horses," Borel said. "But the filly's doing good and she's ready right now. I watched her work Monday and I'd never thought I'd say that she's better than when I went on her in the Oaks but, I just think she's just gotten better. She's the best horse I ever rode, by far. She's nothing but heart. She jumps so far and covers so much ground and she keeps it on."

Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He has also been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul maintains paulmoranattheraces.blogspot.com and can be contacted at paulmoran47@hotmail.com.

• Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award among several other industry honors. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby.
• You can email him at pmoran1686@aol.com