Expectations of a champion

Updated: August 29, 2010, 10:39 PM ET
By Claire Novak | Special to ESPN.com

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Here's the thing about a runner like 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra -- about any athlete, really, who has accomplished the extraordinary.

We don't want the magic to end.

We don't want Lance Armstrong to face another round of doping charges or Brett Favre to grow older and struggle to play. We don't want Andre Agassi to retire after losing the U.S. Open, or Tiger Woods to go winless through nine tournaments. We are idealists, and in life and especially in sport, we embrace perfection, the pursuit and attainment of it.

As jockey Calvin Borel said Sunday at Saratoga Race Course, "Everybody expects a lot out of a winner."

But the story rarely goes according to script.

Persistently (left) caught Rachel Alexandra at the wire on Sunday.
Horsephotos.comPersistently, left, caught Rachel Alexandra at the wire on Sunday.
Thirty minutes earlier, Borel was in the saddle aboard Rachel Alexandra, a filly who captured the hearts of racing fans last season with her stirring romps against girls in the Kentucky Oaks and over boys in the Preakness, Haskell and Woodward Stakes. Together, they tried to make a comeback. They tried and they failed, beaten by one length by a 21-1 shot named Persistently.

There had been a tremendous buildup, the New York Racing Association promoting "The Return of Rachel." There were posters and buttons and a crowd that turned out in the hopes of a stirring performance. It was not unlike anything you'll see in tennis, golf, basketball, football -- a former champ laying it on the line, everyone hoping that champ would deliver.

Instead, in the aftermath, Rachel Alexandra's connections finally admitted what many people have been thinking. She's just not the horse she was last year.

"She's a tremendous mare [but] she isn't exactly where she was," said trainer Steve Asmussen, who conditions the 4-year-old thoroughbred. "Hopefully she can get back there."

***

The $300,000 Personal Ensign was supposed to be that race, a Grade 1 event in which, finally, Rachel Alexandra would face a foe worthy of her reputation. Life At Ten was riding a six-race winning streak into the mile-and-a-quarter event. The Todd Pletcher trainee seemed foreboding, unlike any of the competition that had alternately trounced and succumbed to Rachel in earlier races of the season. Beat Life At Ten going longer than she'd ever gone before, and Rachel would have gotten back some of the respect that she deserved.

When the talented filly who won Horse of the Year honors in 2009 came back in 2010, it was after a long rest following her historic score at Saratoga, where she became the first female to take down older males in the Woodward Stakes. That race was in September. She didn't run until March and it was obvious when she lost to Zardana by three-quarters of a length in the New Orleans Stakes, an event Fair Grounds Race Course had created specifically with her in mind, that she wasn't ready.

There was another loss, this time by a head to Unrivaled Belle in the Grade 2 La Troienne at Churchill Downs on April 30. For any other horse it would have been an improvement. Not for Rachel. This was the 20-length winner of the Kentucky Oaks, Preakness Stakes victress, Haskell Invitational dominatrix. This was excellence, star power, talent. Not second-place finishes. Not failure to deliver.

Two victories followed, in the Fleur De Lis at Churchill and the Lady's Secret at Monmouth Park, but against second-rate company and in puzzling fashion. Talk was that the filly's best days were behind her. Still, Borel felt they were on their way back.

"Her last race, I thought, was pretty impressive," he said. "If you look at today I'd say no, [she's not coming back to form], but I thought her last race she had me where I wanted at all times and I thought she was coming back to herself. And now we just kind of stepped back today."

They stepped back after looking as though they had stepped forward, for as Rachel Alexandra hit the final turn she was in front by 3 lengths and had put away Life At Ten with a tidy performance. She hit midstretch with a solid lead, but Persistently cut into it with every stride. They hit the wire in a final time of 2:04.49 after reasonably slow early fractions, a quarter in 23.66 seconds and a half in 47.73.

"You're watching the race and it looked like she had [it]," Asmussen said. "When she moved on away from Life At Ten, that was what you were hoping to see today. And then she got ran down late which was, you know, for whatever reason. Who's to say? There are lots of things. You never run over the exact same surface, you never run over the exact same track, you never run from the same spot. It's always different."

Borel said his urging in the final strides got no response.

"The last eighth of a mile, she didn't finish," he said. "I was letting her clip along, very comfortable, and it was just a matter of when I was gonna squeeze on her and how far she was gonna go. Then when I did, she didn't go nowhere. And I knew I was in trouble. She was going good -- I know her like the back of my hand and she was comfortable -- but from the quarter pole home, I don't know what happened. I had no horse left."

***

The winner won the race, and you don't want to take anything away from that. For trainer Shug McGaughey and Phipps Stable, this score will go down as one of the best in their history. The family owned Personal Ensign, for whom the race is named, and McGaughey conditioned that Hall of Fame runner, herself a dazzling, crowd-pleasing filly. But as Persistently -- who won a July 30 allowance optional claiming race last time out and paid $45 on a $2 win ticket -- galloped back to the winner's circle, applause was not for her. It was for Rachel.

"She runs her heart out every time," said McGaughey. "We were just lucky enough to pick up the pieces."

Now people will dissect her performance and wonder if a front-running place with pressure from Pletcher's filly caused the loss. Or if the mile and a quarter was simply too far. Or if there was something, anything, Borel could have done differently. Her connections may wonder silently, but to the public they defend last year's superstar.

"I'm very disappointed that she lost but I am always very happy with Rachel," said Asmussen. "It hurts to lose and you're disappointed for it, but you just think of how happy she's made you and all the things that she has done. We took it when they told us how great they were, we've gotta take it when they're saying the opposite."

***

The thing about a racehorse is, it can't tell you what's wrong. You won't get the Favre admission of occasional aches and pains, the Agassi realization that a good run is finally over. Instead you get physical symptoms, performances not up to par. You head back to the barn and evaluate the replay and you hope for a clean veterinary examination, but you also hope that something might explain the reason for losing.

"We're just worried about her well-being," said Rachel's trainer.

Borel agreed.

"I just wish she comes back fine and nothing's wrong with her," the jockey remarked. "There's always tomorrow. I just hope she's OK. She felt fine, you know; tomorrow might be a different thing, but today I couldn't pinpoint [why she didn't win]."

In the following days, Rachel Alexandra's team will try to find the answer. And while they worry and wonder, they will also remember what the filly has already done.

"I'm never disappointed in Rachel, believe me," Borel said. "She's been my dream horse and you've gotta take the losing with the winning, or you don't belong in the game."

And Rachel Alexandra's owner, Jess Jackson, will determine what to do with her next.

"She is still a superstar in our hearts and minds and the old sports adage applies," he said. "On any given Sunday, anything can happen."

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 Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.