Countdown to the Cup: Three, two, one...Phht
by Steve Haskin
Date Posted: 8/4/2009 12:41:08 PM
Last Updated: 8/8/2009 2:07:54 PM

Rachel Alexandra
Photo: Bill Denver/EQUI-PHOTO

A story about Rachel Alexandra seems out of place in a column about the Breeders’ Cup, but who cares. That’s between Jess Jackson and the Breeders’ Cup decision makers. Even though there will be no launching of the Rachel rocket on Nov. 7, it’s still fun to “count down” to the imaginary blast off.

Of all the comments about Rachel and the running of the Haskell Invitational (gr. I), a rather innocuous one from Calvin Borel stood out, because it brought to mind one of my favorite proverbs, which aptly described the electricity that rippled through Monmouth Park and the emotion-packed moments before and after the race.

Discussing his ride on Rachel Alexandra, Borel stated, “She was going at a good clip and had her ears pricked. When she does that she’s so relaxed, she’s automatic. I was just watching her ears.”

That comment, combined with the almost-ethereal atmosphere following Rachel’s other-worldly romp, made me think of the Arab proverb: “The air of heaven is that which blows between a horse’s ears.”

No one knows from what heavenly source blows the air between Rachel Alexandra’s ears, but there is no doubt it produces an intoxicating effect. And you don’t have to be on her back to feel it.

On Sunday, it brought a feeling of euphoria to Monmouth Park, as the crowd of over 36,000 on a rainy, humid afternoon let out a resounding cheer at every sighting of Rachel Alexandra — walking to the paddock, walking in the paddock, walking in the post parade, and walking into the gate — and every mention of her name by track announcer Larry Collmus, who got caught up in the excitement by bellowing as Rachel strode to the wire, “Here’s a filly for the ages…a Haskell legend.”

Just outside the winner’s circle were signs that read, “Girl Power” and “Robust Rachel Alexandra.” Next to them was a girl wearing a tiara, adorned with the words “Celebrity Queen.” Two young girls held up more elaborate signs that read, “Rachel Alexandra the Great, Conqueror of the Boys,” and “Yeah, I Run Like a Girl. Try to Keep Up.” Merchandising T-shirts, reading “Runs Like a Girl,” were sold out by 12:30.

Although the anticipation of witnessing history was high throughout the day, Rachel’s six-length victory over Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Summer Bird and the brilliant dual stakes winner Munnings was so spectacular it left people, especially those close to the filly, stunned for a few seconds.

Lisa Funk, Borel’s fiancée of eight years, stood by the rail, and as Rachel opened up in the stretch and crossed the finish line, Funk could only stand there motionless, her hands up against her cheeks. Then it all sunk in and the tears began streaming down her face.

“It’s amazing,” she said, barely able to speak. “I never thought Calvin would ever get a horse like this. I’m more emotional this time, because I wanted this one so badly for her.”

A short distance away, assistant trainer Scott Blasi also seemed stunned. “She’s unbelievable; absolutely unbelievable,” he said. “There are no words to describe her right now. She is THE best horse in America.”

Trainer Steve Asmussen, with a slight grin on his face, said very little as he made his way on to the track. Walking over to owner Jess Jackson, he simply asked, “Is she incredible?”

Then came Rachel’s triumphant return and the expected rousing ovation from the crowd, which seemed to cut right through the humidity.

Later on, Funk was able to gather her thoughts. “I think I have my emotions in check now,” she said. “You just can’t believe she does the things she does. Your jaw drops, because it’s not supposed to be that easy. For Calvin to wind up on a horse like this, who they’ll be talking about 30 years from now, is unbelievable.

“Calvin has always been in love with this filly. She was all he kept talking about after he started riding her. Then, when she was sold after the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) and Calvin didn’t know if he’d be riding her in the Preakness or if Steve would go to his main rider Robby Albarado, he kept having dreams about her and talking in his sleep. He’d blurt out, ‘Filly…boys…Baltimore...I don’t know…lead…rate…Robby.’ Then, once he knew he was going to ride her he felt better.

“He’s just crazy about her. After the Mother Goose, we went out to dinner and had a bottle of wine, and we were laughing, and I said, ‘So, is it me or Rachel?’ It was like Sophie’s Choice. ‘If I had to leave or you had to get off Rachel, which would it be?’ He said, ‘Don’t make me choose.’”

The Haskell, which Monmouth bumped up to $1.25 million this year, drew a classy, competitive field, including Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Summer Bird; Munnings  , who was coming off back-to-back stakes victories in the seven-furlong Woody Stephens (gr. II) and Tom Fool (gr. II) against older horses, run in 1:20 3/5 and 1:21, respectively; Arkansas Derby (gr. II) winner Papa Clem  ; Iowa Derby winner Duke of Mischief  ; and Long Branch winner Atomic Rain, who had been recently purchased by Godolphin.

Rachel Alexandra was vanned down to Monmouth from Saratoga two days before the Haskell and was schooled in the paddock at 3 o’clock that afternoon. Even on a Friday afternoon, a large crowd gathered around the paddock and applauded the filly’s every move. Despite the hot weather, Rachel never turned a hair and never sweated, remaining calm and professional the entire time.

At the start of the Haskell, Rachel Alexandra, favored at 1-2, bobbled slightly coming out of the gate, but quickly got into a good rhythm, sitting right behind Munnings on the sloppy, sealed track. With Munnings cutting out a brisk pace of :22 4/5 and :46 2/5, it was surprising to see Summer Bird, a confirmed closer, right up there in third along the rail and just inside Rachel Alexandra. The pace remained strong, as Kent Desormeaux started nudging Summer Bird, who moved into second, with Rachel still settled and relaxed in third. Borel continued to bide his time, as he did in the Mother Goose, just waiting to pounce on the two colts, which she did after three-quarters in a sharp 1:09.92. In the world of Thoroughbred racing, this was a lioness taking down a pair of male wildebeest in one fell swoop.

Rachel, as she has done so often, quickly separated herself from the others, while still on cruise control. She turned for home with a clear lead over the dueling Munnings and Summer Bird and kept extending it, opening up a five-length advantage at the eighth pole, as the ovation began. Borel hit her four times right-handed in the final furlong to keep her mind on business.

“I gave her a few taps at the sixteenth pole, that’s it,” Borel said. “I just wanted to keep her focused.  She started looking around at the crowd, so I just kept her busy to the wire.

“This filly is just unbelievable. I can’t say how good she is, because I don’t know. I really didn’t ask her for much run. We have not gotten to the bottom of her, that’s for sure.  She’s an amazing athlete, and I’m glad I’ve been given a chance to ride her.”

At the wire it was Rachel Alexandra by six lengths, with Summer Bird battling gamely to take second, one length in front of Munnings, who was three-quarters of a length ahead of Papa Clem.

Rachel stopped the clock in 1:47 1/5, which was one-fifth of a second off Bet Twice’s stakes record set 22 years ago and two-fifths off Spend a Buck’s track record. Bet Twice won his Haskell by a neck over Alysheba and Lost Code in a three-horse photo, while Spend a Buck set his record in the 1985 Monmouth Handicap (gr. I), winning by a nose in a stretch-long duel.

Rachel has now defeated the winners of the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes, as well as the winners of the Arkansas Derby, Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), Louisiana Derby (gr. II), Illinois Derby (gr. II), Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III), Iowa Derby, and Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I). Her victims also included the first three finishers of the Kentucky Derby and the first- and third-place finishers of the Belmont Stakes.

In her eight consecutive victories, beginning last November, her average winning margin is 8 3/4 lengths, and that’s with Borel easing her in the final furlong in five of those races.

And so, the Rachel Alexandra legend continues to grow, as does her popularity.

“It’s amazing how everybody everywhere I go asks me about Rachel,” Asmussen said. “I think it’s fantastic and Rachel is very deserving of the admiration. I can’t remember the last little girl I’ve met that didn’t ask how Rachel was doing.”

Later that evening, well after the crowd had cleared out, Summer Bird was grazing, as trainer Tim Ice, accompanied by the colt’s owners Drs. Kalarikkal K. Jayaraman and his wife Vilasini Devi, fed the colt carrots.

“I thought he ran great,” Ice said. “They can’t say now that he doesn’t have speed. It looked like the other horses were going to go right by him, but he fought back and dug in and pulled away for second. I’m as proud of him now as I was a month ago at Belmont. We’ll take a look at the Travers. If Rachel is in there, she’s in there. But I’m not going to invite her. I’d rather not run against her if I don’t have to.”

Over at Barn 8, Rachel Alexandra was full of life, virtually ripping her hay net apart. Remarkably, the race appeared to take little out of her.

“She’s unbelievable, isn’t she? Asmussen said. When it was mentioned that Rachel is so good it’s scary, Asmussen disagreed.

“It’s just the opposite,” he said. “When you see something you don’t expect, that’s scary, because you know it’s not going to happen again. But she’s so consistent. I don’t think this race was better than her Kentucky Oaks or her Preakness or her Mother Goose. It’s just more of the same and that’s what’s so comforting about her. It’s just beautiful to watch such a tremendous talent. You see her in the paddock and on the track. Nothing seems beyond her. It’s not lightning in a bottle; that’s just who she is. The way she acts, the way she looks…Wow!

Asmussen Express keeps rolling

Rachel Alexandra’s Haskell victory put the finishing touches on a remarkable weekend for Asmussen, who also took home the Jim Dandy (gr. II) and West Virginia Derby (gr. II) in a span of six minutes. On opening day, Asmussen won the Schuylerville (gr. II) with Hot Dixie Chick, who ran her opponents off their feet, winning by 6 1/4 lengths.

The West Virginia Derby was an odd race that actually may have provided runner-up Big Drama with an excellent prep for the seven-furlong King’s Bishop Stakes (gr. I) and third-place finisher Mine That Bird an excellent prep for the Travers (gr. I).

But as far as this race, it’s probably best to just toss it when analyzing Big Drama’s and Mine That Bird’s performances, and chalk it up to a learning experience for both horses and their connections. The winner, 23-1 shot Soul Warrior, is an improving colt who showed promise early in his career, and he, too, may have learned from this race. He’s been fairly close up in his previous races and for the first time was forced to come from a dozen lengths back.

The reason to forget about the result of the West Virginia is if you don’t and feel the race was a true bill, then you have to explain why the Kentucky Derby winner couldn’t take advantage of a final three-eighths in a sloth-like :41 (:26 3/5 and :14 2/5). You have to explain why Big Drama, who looked Rachel Alexandra in the eye for the first 1 1/16 miles of the Preakness Stakes after acting up and stumbling badly at the start, bounded to a 10-length lead through three-quarters in a sizzling 1:10 2/5 when he could have had everything his own way on an uncontested lead, regardless of how fast or slow he went.

He was like a Japanese fighter pilot who had plenty of ammunition to sink a battleship, but decided to go on a kamikaze mission instead and self destruct. This race will take the spit and vinegar out of him and give him enough bottom dropping back to a sprint to allow him to sit off the pace.

Mike Smith blamed himself for a poor ride on Mine That Bird, but judging from this race and the Belmont it’s obvious Mine That Bird does not like making an early move and being in contention turning for home. That’s what kept getting him beat in his races at Sunland Park earlier this year. He simply cannot sustain that long a move and have the same kind of punch he showed in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Also, conceding 11 pounds to the winner certainly didn’t help. Now that Smith is more familiar with the gelding, he knows he has to sit back well off the pace and not even ask this horse to run until he passes the five-sixteenths pole. Sure, he’s going to get beat at times running that way, but that’s how he’s most effective and if you’re going to get beat it might as well be running to your best style.

Remember, too, that Commentator finished a well-beaten fourth in the Charles Town Classic in April as the 6-5 favorite. There was no reason why he should not have run his competition into the ground, as he’s done twice in the Whitney (gr. I), but sometimes good horses running at small-time tracks like Charles Town and Mountaineer run to the track more than the competition, and that often produces unpredictable results. Even Dry Martini couldn’t win the Charles Town Classic, finishing third, and then came back to win the Suburban Handicap (gr. II). So, just put a line through this race and expect a more potent Mine That Bird in the Travers.

Asmussen now has Soul Warrior to go along with the vastly improved Kensei, who turned in another brilliant effort in the Jim Dandy Stakes for Jess Jackson. He now has to decide how to break up his trio of 3-year-olds and figure out who to run in the Travers and Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II) a week later, and what to do with Rachel. For now, it looks as if Soul Warrior, who has finished first or second at Churchill Downs, Fair Grounds, Prairie Meadows, and Mountaineer, will be heading to Philly Park.

Quality Return

How good is Quality Road  ? Better still, how special is Quality Road? In one of the most brilliant comeback performances seen in a long time, the Florida Derby (gr. I) winner, after stumbling at the start of the Amsterdam Stakes (gr. II) and racing wide the whole way, went on to shatter Saratoga’s 30-year track record by a full second, and along the way broke the 37-year-old six-furlong record by four-fifths of a second. To run six panels in 1:07 1/5 and 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:13 2/5 is so far beyond the norm it’s difficult to know what to make of it.

Now that Quality Road has returned from the quarter crack problems that kept him out of the Triple Crown, he will add a whole new dimension to the Travers.

He did drift out in the stretch, forcing runner-up Capt. Candyman Can to duck to the inside, but continued strongly to the wire. What a powerhouse this colt is, and Pletcher had him looking resplendent. And kudos to Capt. Candyman Can, a fast, classy colt who turned in yet another huge performance.

In other action, we saw Colonel John   take to the turf beautifully in the Wickerr Stakes; another stakes victory for the undefeated Smarty Jones colt Backtalkin the Sanford Stakes (gr. II); a potential turf star in Fourstardave (gr. IIT) winner Justenuffhumor  , winner of five in a row; and two very promising 2-year-olds in Dublin   and Hockley, who finished one-two with powerful stretch runs in a fast-run maiden race at Saratoga.

Another late-developing 3-year-old on display was the Al Stall-trained Blame, a son of Arch who came off a Churchill allowance race to win the 1 1/8-mile Curlin Stakes at Saratoga by three-quarters of a length over Gone Astray.

Finally, congratulations to Diana (gr. IT) winner Forever Together, who is becoming machine-like with her powerful closing punch, determination, and consistency.
 



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