NEW ORLEANS -- Mardi Gras came Tuesday, and yesterday was Ash Wednesday, meaning this is Lent, a period for quiet reflection and sobriety. Nobody, apparently, bothered to explain all this to Rachel Alexandra.
Rachel had her fourth timed workout of the winter Thursday morning at Fair Grounds, and it was a doozy. She broke off like a shot at the five-furlong pole, whipped around the far turn, and scarcely slowed through the stretch run, with clockers timing the five-eighths drill in 1:00.20. For good measure, Rachel galloped out six furlongs in 1:14.40, gliding smoothly around the clubhouse turn before pulling up on the mid-backstretch.
Her work was the second-fastest of 19 five-furlong breezes on the morning, eclipsed only by the fast sprinter Silver City's dizzying five furlongs in 58.80 seconds. Only one other horse worked faster than 1:01 Thursday.
Rachel Alexandra came onto the track through the half-mile gap at about 6:40, later than usual, ridden by Dominic Terry and accompanied by assistant trainer Scott Blasi on a pony. Rachel backed up the wrong way (clockwise) at barely more than a walk until about the eighth pole, stood for a few seconds, then turned the right way (counter-clock wise) and jogged past the grandstand, nipping away at the mane of Blasi's pony. Blasi turned her loose just past the finish wire, and Rachel instantly picked up her pace to a gallop. She broke off powerfully and aggressively at the five-furlong pole, turning in a fast-early, slower-late move while posting furlong splits of 12 seconds, 23.80, 35.60, and 47.60 on the way to her final clocking.
"She was overly aggressive today," said trainer Steve Asmussen, who still was satisfied with the work. "She wants to be in a rhythm. Not letting her do much last week" - when Rachel worked in the slop - "made her faster today. She was very aggressive all week, and she worked accordingly. There's still time to get exactly where we want to be. Once she got into her work, she settled down nicely."
Rachel will work three more times before she starts March 13 in the New Orleans Ladies here, Asmussen said. She will have two major drills, including a six-furlong move on Wednesday, before doing something less taxing the Monday before her comeback race.
Rachel, in a word, looks fabulous. Not exactly skinny at 3, she definitely tended to the narrow over the thick, but that is not the case now. It was suggested that Rachel might weigh 100 pounds or so more than she did last May, and Asmussen, eyes twinkling, shook his head. "I'd say that estimate is low," he said.
"She's carrying very good weight," Asmussen said. "We want over the next month to change just a little bit where she's carrying it. Right now, she seems to be very strong."
Asmussen, relaxed and generous all week, faces a daunting training challenge: Bringing a horse back from a six-month layoff, then having her ready to turn in a peak performance 27 days later while facing Zenyatta, one of the best horses in the world, in the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park. It is because Asmussen must walk such a fine line in Rachel's training that the Rachel Alexandra camp successfully lobbied to have the Apple Blossom moved from April 3 to April 9. A six-day change might appear minor from the outside, but it affords Asmussen far more flexibility in Rachel's tight schedule than would otherwise have been the case.
"We don't want to be faced with a position that doesn't benefit her mentally and physically," said Asmussen. "The extra six days allows you to be extremely confident with what you do."
Rachel's spirited Fair Grounds workout was reminiscent of the breezes turned in here two winters ago by Curlin, as he prepped for his trip to Dubai. But where Curlin worked in company sometimes, Asmussen said he has never worked Rachel with another horse, and has no plans to do so. Rachel wants to run fast every day, and gets so much out of her morning work that a partner is not required.
"Curlin was so blue collar. He had a job," Asmussen said. "She's a complete show-off and diva."