Commentary

In a league of her own

Updated: September 7, 2009, 11:03 PM ET
By Ray Paulick | Special to ESPN.com

Rachel Alexandra first hit my radar screen in a big way on March, 14, the day she won the Fair Grounds Oaks in Louisiana by "only" 1 lengths. I was sitting in the press box at Oaklawn Park, getting ready for an afternoon of big prep races for the Kentucky Derby -- the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn, the San Felipe at Santa Anita, Tampa Bay Derby from Tampa Bay Downs, and Louisiana Derby from the Fair Grounds.

While I was poring over the past performances for those races, an old friend, handicapper Paul Skelton, quietly said across the table we were sharing , "You might want to take a look at this filly running in the Fair Grounds Oaks."

"Who's that?" I asked.

"Rachel Alexandra," he replied. "She's something really special."

At that point in her career, Rachel Alexandra had won four of six starts, the biggest in the Grade 2 Golden Rod Stakes at Churchill Downs in late November. She'd had just one start in 2009, winning the ungraded Martha Washington at Oaklawn by eight lengths. Though it was just a $50,000 stakes against a nondescript group of overmatched fillies, Skelton was impressed. She was stabled at Oaklawn, and he'd seen enough of her in the morning to consider Rachel one of the best fillies he'd ever seen.

I went back to my Racing Form as the field for the Fair Grounds Oaks left the starting gate. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see on the television monitor that Rachel Alexandra had bounded to the front over a very sloppy track. I looked up from my Form as the field hit the top of the stretch. Calvin Borel, never one of my favorite riders, looked almost like a cartoon character sitting atop the filly. He was looking behind for some competition, twisting his head every which-way like a contortionist, almost turning around completely in the saddle to survey the landscape behind him and taunt the competition to come and get him. Rachel Alexandra just galloped on. Inside the final sixteenth of a mile, the jockey was gearing the filly down, seemingly trying to pull her up as the wire approached. She probably could have won by 20 lengths.

I was impressed, but this race was run over very sloppy racetrack and the quality of the competition was dubious. I needed to see more. Little did I know that this incredible running machine was just getting warmed up.

Rachel Alexandra returned to Oaklawn Park and made short work of her foes in the Grade 2 Fantasy, the track's top race for 3-year-old fillies, winning by 8 lengths as the 1-10 favorite. The rest, as they say, is history.

What Rachel Alexandra has done between the first Friday in May, when she won the Kentucky Oaks by a mind-boggling 20 1/4 lengths, and the first Saturday in September, when she defeated older male horses in the Woodward at Saratoga, is a campaign for all the ages.

There were still a few skeptics who felt the field for the Kentucky Oaks was subpar this year. So, after Jess Jackson bought her from breeder Dolphus Morrison for an amount that some have said is in the $10-million range, Jackson turned her over to trainer Steve Asmussen and sent her out in the Preakness. Her toughest opponent would prove to be Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, who won the Run for the Roses by the biggest margin of any horse since Assault in 1946. She answered that bell, showing incredible early speed from the far outside post and had enough stamina to hold off the late-running Bird to win by a length.

Then it was back to a soft spot: a Grade 1 race against her own sex, in the Mother Goose at Belmont Park. She handled that assignment without drawing a deep breath. Borel was back to his old tricks, taking the opportunity to blow kisses to the crowd the length of the stretch as the daughter of Medaglia d'Oro cruised to the wire 19 lengths ahead of her two hapless opponents.

Then came her six-length crushing in Monmouth Park's Haskell Invitational of Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird, who flattered the filly when he came back to win the Travers Stakes. My reaction when she pulverized the Monmouth field was simply, "Are you kidding me?"

Jackson then decided to double-jump his filly into some tougher competition, skipping the normal route into the older filly and mare division and instead taking on older colts and geldings in the Woodward, an historic race won by some of the game's biggest names ever.

Remind me not to get into a poker game with ol' Jess. He doesn't seem to be the bluffing type.

Rachel Alexandra "proved her mettle," as Jackson said after her diminishing head victory over the fast-closing Macho Again in the Woodward. If she ever got a breather in the nine-furlong race, it wasn't a very long one. She was hooked early and pushed to fast fractions by the 2008 Belmont winner, Da' Tara. Those fractions took their toll -- on Da' Tara, who was eased. Rachel kept going and going, hooked next by Past the Point, then by Whitney winner Bullsbay, and she still had enough left to hold off Macho Again, a Grade 1 winner whose big stretch run carried him to victory at Saratoga in last year's Jim Dandy.

I don't care if Rachel Alexandra runs again this year or not. She's done enough to be Horse of the Year no matter what the unbeaten Zenyatta does. I think she's in a league all her own.

And one more thing: the next time Paul Skelton tells me to look up from my Racing Form to watch a race, I'll be sure to do it.

Ray Paulick is a Lexington, Ky.-based journalist who publishes the Paulick Report. (www.PaulickReport.com). Paulick served as editor-in-chief of The Blood-Horse magazine from 1992 to 2007, and in the past 25 years has covered Thoroughbred racing, breeding and sales on six continents and in more than a dozen countries. He has appeared on numerous television and radio news programs offering his expertise on the industry. Contact Ray at ray@paulickreport.com.

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