Cheers to Rachel
More than 31,000 in attendance at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday are now forever bound by unique experience, the memory of a tremendous roar that followed the best 3-year-old filly racing has seen in decades as she bore down on the wire with two older males, first Bullsbay, then Macho Again in futile pursuit, and a shared eyewitness to true greatness in a racehorse.
The roar enveloped the "Graveyard of Champions," in tribute to her defiance of history, the Spa's mystique and a race that in its development conspired against her, against any horse.
Rachel Alexandra, forced to run far too fast early, kept on running late. Her early tormentor, Da' Tara, the 2008 Belmont Stakes winner, pulled up before finishing and probably paid with his career. Bullsbay, the Whitney Stakes winner who was first to run at her in the stretch, was unable to sustain the bid beyond the furlong pole and stopped abruptly as the filly ran on. Macho Again, winner of the Stephen Foster Handicap, mounted a final bid that fell a neck short at the wire and probably appeared more threatening to the eye than it was in reality. "I never thought I had her," jockey Robby Albarado said. "No matter what they throw at her, she'll beat them."
Rachel Alexandra takes no prisoners.
No one present at Saratoga on Saturday will ever forget the 108.29 seconds it took Rachel Alexandra to become the first female of any age to win the 56-year-old Woodward, and the first 3-year-old female ever to win a Grade 1 against older males on dirt since the system of grading races began in 1973.
Ruffian set or equaled track records every time she ran, but Rachel Alexandra has accomplished things that Ruffian never attempted. Rachel Alexandra's autobiography-in-progress is becoming Regret-esque and Regret may have been the best filly of all time.
"When [principal owner] Jess Jackson has been presented with options, he's chosen the toughest one every time," trainer Steve Asmussen said in the lingering afterglow of a shared euphoria that followed the crowd through the gates, into the streets and the nearby restaurants and bars. Glasses were raised in her honor and praises voiced loudly by people who realized fully that they had just witnessed a moment of unmistakable history, would savor it for as long as possible, a story for grandchildren unborn and reminiscence years away.
"She ran hard, cooled out, drank plenty of water," Asmussen said on the morning after, a blanket of pink carnations draped outside the superstar filly's stall. "She's a professional. She puts in the work. That's what gives you so much confidence about her. She doesn't just take the day off."
With most of four months remaining in 2009, Rachel Alexandra has won the Kentucky Oaks and Mother Goose Stakes by a total of almost 40 lengths. She has won the Preakness and Haskell Invitational over 3-year-old males, defeating the Kentucky Derby and Belmont winners, and won a Grade 1 over older males. Eight wins this season have come at seven different tracks from New Orleans to Saratoga -- all venues with dirt surfaces. A race over the synthetic track at Santa Anita is not in the cards. So, now what?
Perhaps nothing until 2010, a year in which, Jackson said, the Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs is in the long-range plans.
The Oct. 3 Beldame at Belmont is a possibility, a race to which she and the undefeated West Coast mare Zenyatta have been invited to confront one another with the pot sweetened by TVG-Betfair, which will raise the purse to $1 million if both start.
Jackson is considering both.
"She's run more races than Zenyatta's run, and Zenyatta's a 5-year-old," Jackson said. "You can't expect a youngster -- she's only 3 and she just ran against older horses -- to keep going all the time. You have to give them a break, and we'll talk that over very seriously."
The second option is largely dependent upon Rachel Alexandra's recovery from what was the sternest test with which she has been confronted to this point of her career and specifically dependent upon the willingness of Zenyatta's connections to ship cross-country for a race she cannot possibly win. Without Zenyatta in the Beldame, there will be no Rachel Alexandra.
Zenyatta is an undefeated champion, quite possibly a two-time champion if she can manage a repeat win the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic but she is not in Rachel Alexandra's league. No horse alive in 2009 -- sex and distance notwithstanding -- is in Rachel Alexandra's league. She has made the sport her own.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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