Rachel's performance for the ages

Updated: September 5, 2009, 11:58 PM ET
By Claire Novak | Special to ESPN.com

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- They came to watch the filly run, pressing up to the iron gates of Saratoga Race Course early that morning; sleepy-eyed kids with tousled hair and savvy bettors with Racing Forms in hand, middle-aged mothers toting picnic baskets and husbands laden with lawnchairs, coolers. There was a chill in the air and the first signs of autumn were showing in the leaves that floated gently down, still green in the middle but browning, curling at the edges. Three days until the end of the season and this filly was everything, anything you could dream of.

The guards opened the gates at 7, command coming down from the head of security, walkie-talkies crackling, "Open 'em up!" as 31,171 racing fans flooded the grounds. There were old men jogging, frat brothers sprinting, women teetering along in heels and skirts and late-summer dresses. Ten minutes past the hour and the picnic area was awash in brightly-colored tablecloths, every spare space taken. The rise and fall of happy voices flooded out into the street, where track-bound traffic continued to ebb and flow. And on everyone's lips the name of the runner -- Rachel. Rachel. Rachel.

***

In a barn beside the Oklahoma oval, she stood in the silence. Horses circled the walking ring, steam rising from wet shoulders, blending with the morning mist. Her trainer looked on and saw that it was good; he smiled and laughed and his assistant, unbuckled helmet strap flapping, leaned over the rail near the shedrow and relaxed. They had gotten her to this point in safety. The earnest countdown had begun.

Everywhere across the racetrack, trainers sent out their workers and watched horses gallop and philosophized on her chances. First time against older males, sure. But such a weight allowance, eight pounds less than all the boys! Demolishing 3-year-old males in the Preakness and Haskell, she had nothing left to prove against them. If she was a wonder horse, she'd show it here.

Could she be beaten? They wondered, and painted scenarios as to how she might -- if the jockey lost his cool, or a speed horse hooked her on the front end, or if it just wasn't her day. Graveyard of Champions is the Saratoga slogan. Would it happen yet again?

***

And so the day began and continued, with figures so familiar to the picture falling into place. The owner, Jess Jackson, in a clubhouse box. The trainer and his assistant, Steve Asmussen and Scott Blasi, back at the barn. The exercise rider, Dominic Terry, making an on-air appearance on local TV. The jockey, Calvin Borel, hopping aboard a few starters early in the card.

In the press box, reporters planned their worst- and best-case scenarios. If she wins, talk about her greatness. If she loses, talk about how we never thought it would happen.

The first Grade 1, the Forego, went off with little fanfare. Reporters saw a sprinter's run from last to first, scooted from the winner's circle as soon as he crossed the line. The paddock was the place to be in the prelude to history.

5:23 p.m., and the masses pressed close up to the paddock rail, cameras poised, craning for a view. Security guards tightened down the perimeters, banishing impostors with ruthless abandon. Watch your tripod. No flash on the cameras, please. Step back on the grass.

Arrival of the field was heralded before it could be seen, the ripple of applause carrying on down the line. The horses were coming, a hodgepodge order led by the No. 7, prancing, the 4, the 5. But already people were saying her name, and the crowd began to cheer, and those watching marveled as she strolled into the ring with the poise of a champion, without turning a hair.

Inside the paddock, all was refined silence and the gentle murmur of the crowd, and the practiced, steady movements of all pre-race preparations. Under the shaded awnings of the saddling stall, Asmussen buckled the girth, stroked the filly's neck with a sponge and water. She looks beautiful, someone whispered, as they led her out into the sun.

The field circled the paddock twice to give the fans a chance to see her, snap pictures, gaze in awe. Rachel and the other runners. The tension in the air was palpable, heightening with every passing second as they stepped out onto the Saratoga oval, where history was waiting to be made.

***

It will all be written tomorrow. The way her rider popped off when she wheeled in the post parade, thankfully didn't lose her. The way she pranced down to post 3 in the starting gate, ears pricked, ready to run. The way the crowd roared when those gates sprung open and her perfect trip unfolded in front of her. The way we all got what we wanted and then some when the boys ran at her and she turned them back and came roaring down the lane -- the first 3-year-old filly to beat older males in a Grade 1 route dirt race in New York since 1887.

The chart says it this way: "RACHEL ALEXANDRA drifted out a bit while moving up to contest the pace on the first turn, moved up in hand while well off the rail to take the lead ... set a rapid pace while being pressured from both sides for five furlongs, opened a clear advantage nearing the three-eighths pole, extended her lead a bit under strong urging in upper stretch, dug in when challenged inside the sixteenth pole, fought gamely under steady right hand encouragement into deep stretch, and was fully extended to hold off Macho Again in the closing strides."

The crowd said it this way: with a massive roar that began when she hit the top of the stretch -- Come on, Rachel! -- and engulfed the grandstand, sweeping down to the clubhouse, carrying over to the backside, and closing out one of the most memorable days in racing history, courtesy of Rachel Alexandra.

***

She was tired in the winner's circle, flanks heaving, nostrils flaring, coat drenched in sweat and water from the buckets of her jubilant grooms. "That was something special!" screamed her jockey, and he threw the blanket of flowers over his shoulders and jumped from the saddle in jubilation.

They walked her down the track in a wild celebration, couldn't stop patting her shoulder, her neck, couldn't stop reliving the magic. And we relived it too, as we reveled in her performance for the ages.

Because we knew we had just witnessed a great Thoroughbred, with the heart and determination of a champion, born to run.

And it doesn't get any better than that.

Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse Magazine, The Albany Times Union and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.

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