Countdown to the Cup: Rachel Rocks the Spa

Countdown to the Cup: Rachel Rocks the Spa
Photo: Coglianese Photos
Rachel Alexandra was able to conquer Macho Again and the rest of the field in the Woodward Stakes.
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Joan of Arc defeated the English in the Hundred Years’ War. The Amazon queen Penthesileia killed hundreds of Greeks in the Trojan War. Zenobia, the Syrian queen, crushed the Roman legion. All three of these powerful and feared female warriors eventually succumbed to male foes.

 

So far, the same cannot be said of Rachel Alexandra, who has decimated both male and female opponents in routs, has tasted victory on many of the nation’s most storied battlefields, and now in the $750,000 Woodward Stakes (gr. I) Sept. 5 has shown she can conquer older males in hand-to-hand combat.

 

It was Rachel Alexandra’s bravery in battle, withstanding one challenge after another, at the end of one of the most ambitious campaigns in the history of the sport that truly defined her greatness and set off a wave of emotion that rocked the historic Saratoga grandstand.

 

It was that bravery that had her trainer, Steve Asmussen, weeping in his wife Julie’s arms, as he buried his head in her embrace. When his oldest son, Keith, said to him, “I’ve never seen you cry at the races,” Asmussen replied, “I never needed to.”

 

It was that bravery that had her exercise rider Dominic Terry bawling behind his sunglasses and walking around in a daze, repeating, “She did it…she did it…she did it.” The following morning, he still was “physically and mentally exhausted.”

 

The moments between Rachel’s gut-wrenching final yards and her departure from the winner’s circle will forever be frozen in time, adding an unforgettable saga to the rich history of Saratoga. Racing’s grand old lady has experienced many great moments in 145 years, but never has she been engulfed by such an eruption of sound as she was on this day.

 

What made Rachel’s victory, her eighth this year (at seven different racetracks) and ninth in succession, so memorable and awe-inspiring was the way she repulsed one challenge after another throughout the race, overcame pressing a brutal opening quarter in :22.85, and still was able to dig down deep and turn back her final and most formidable challenge from the multiple graded stakes winner and $1.7-million earner Macho Again, winning by a head.

 

“I think she’s the best I’ve ever seen,” said 96-year-old racing legend John Nerud. “I don’t compare her to anyone. I’m not afraid to say she’s better than Ruffian, because she is. They sent two speed horses after her and made her go in :22 4/5, then they came after her one at a time and she put them all away. Those were tough older horses and they tried everything they could to get her beat and they couldn’t.”

 

Noted veterinarian Dr. Mark Cheney said, “You don’t see many horses livin’ that could have won that race.”

 

Even the vanquished became caught up in the enormity of Rachel’s achievement. “She had everything thrown at her and she overcame it all,” said Graham Motion, trainer of third-place finisher Bullsbay  , winner of the Whitney Handicap (gr. I) earlier in the meet. “I’ve never seen anything like it. You had that feeling of a horse trying for the Triple Crown. It’s the stuff of legends.”

 

Motion spoke as he and his wife Anita were driving away from the test barn and heading back to their barn a short distance away. Remaining behind was their 12-year-old daughter Jane, who was waiting patiently outside the gates of the test barn with camera in hand.

 

“She’s not worried about my horse,” Motion said jokingly. “She wants to stay and see the filly.”

 

All Jane wanted was one photo of Rachel Alexandra. “I just want to show my friends,” she said.

 

The Rachel Experience had begun a week earlier when banners were placed all along Broadway, reading “Rachel Alexandra: Run Like a Girl.” Saratoga mayor Scott T. Johnson proclaimed Sept. 5 “Rachel Alexandra Day.” Two days before the Woodward, Rachel received a huge ovation when she schooled in the paddock, as a horde of photographers, cameramen and onlookers followed after her like a pack of paparazzi. “She’s a deserving diva,” Asmussen said.

 

The seven older males who showed up for the Woodward included three grade I winners, three grade II winners (one was disqualified from the purse), and Past the Point, who nearly upset Curlin in last year’s Woodward and was coming off a sharp victory at Saratoga.

 

Fans began lining up to secure their place around the paddock and along the path leading to the paddock several races before the Woodward. As the race approached, the cheers could be heard well off in the distance, signifying Rachel’s imminent arrival.

 

“I’ve walked over for a lot of big races – the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I), the Triple Crown races, last year’s Woodward,” said assistant Scott Blasi. “I have never felt that kind of adoration for one horse. I’m talking about people 10 deep on both sides walking to the paddock, and all they want to do is get a glimpse of her. If anyone thinks people don’t love horse racing they should have been in my shoes walking to the paddock.”

 

Asmussen added, “I’ve never seen them lined up like that. It was like a soccer game where everybody is pressed up against each other to get a look. When we walked Curlin over last year it was a big deal, but it wasn’t anything like this. They were three and four deep for Curlin, and they were at least 10 deep just to get a peek of her.”

 

Despite the accomplishments of her opponents, Rachel was sent off as the overwhelming 1-5 favorite. But her connections knew this would be no easy task. As the field approached the starting gate, majority owner Jess Jackson took a final sip of his beverage and stared intently at his filly, as his wife, Barbara Banke, held her hand against the side of her face and continuously rocked back and forth in her seat. Several boxes away, an intense Asmussen leaned forward and sat there motionless while Julie clasped her hands together and rested them against her lips. They were well aware that Rachel was only nine furlongs away from entrance into the pantheon of the immortals.

 

A roar went up from the crowd of almost 32,000 as the field broke from the gate. Da' Tara shot to the lead from post 1, with Rachel, who had gotten a bit worked up in the holding barn and then unseated jockey Calvin Borel prior to the start, taking up the chase. Past the Point came rushing up from the outside post, and Da’ Tara’s stablemate, Cool Coal Man  , coming off a 12 3/4-length romp in the Albert the Great Stakes, also put pressure on Rachel from the outside. It was obvious that Rachel had the proverbial bullseye emblazoned on her glistening coat, and one by one, the darts were being hurled at her.

 

Rachel dueled with Da’ Tara through that rapid opening quarter, which prompted track announcer Tom Durkin to bellow, “There’ll be no free ride for Rachel Alexandra. They’re making her work for every step today.”

 

In the stands, Jackson’s bloodstock agent John Moynihan, like many, had a sinking feeling. “I put my program down and put my head in my hands,” he said. “All I could think was, ‘How could this have happened today?”

 

When Da’ Tara began his rapid retreat following a half in :46.41, Past the Point took his run at Rachel, the three-quarters in a testing in 1:10.54. Rachel thwarted that bid, and then came the big final assault. Bullsbay, who was so explosive in the Whitney, pulled up to her flank turning for home, as Asiatic Boy and Macho Again moved in for the kill, expecting to encounter a softened up Rachel in the final furlong.

 

Rachel was set down by Borel, who hit her five times right-handed and then three times left-handed. She turned back Bullsbay’s challenge, but here came a fresh Macho Again, who had found a gaping hole at the top of the stretch. The Stephen Foster (gr. I) winner and Whitney runner-up came charging up to Rachel, who was now being barraged with a series of 13 right-handed whips from Borel. Macho Again kept coming, but Rachel kept finding more. The crowd urged Rachel to hold on, their hearts pounding with every stride. At the wire, it was Rachel Alexandra by a head. The place went crazy. Despite her early efforts, she still was able to close her final eighth in :12.81 to complete the 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.21. Bullsbay was third, 1 1/2 lengths farther back and 8 1/4 lengths ahead of Asiatic Boy in fourth.

 

Did Rachel need to be hit 21 times? Only Borel can answer that. Unlike the British stewards, American stewards pay no attention to such things, so we’ll just have to assume Borel felt the situation was desperate enough to resort to such measures.

 

Rachel returned to a deafening ovation, which reached a crescendo when a jubilant Borel led the daughter of Medaglia d'Oro   – Lotta Kim, by Roar into the winner’s circle. After the photo, Borel draped the blanket of pink carnations over his shoulder and dismounted.

 

Rachel Alexandra had become the first filly to win the Woodward. The last 3-year-old filly to even run in the race was Summer Guest in 1972. This was the equivalent of a 23-year-old girl beating 30-something males. No 3-year-old filly had ever defeated older males in a two-turn, grade I dirt race. The last to win a major two-turn dirt stakes over her elders was Misty Morn in the 1955 Gallant Fox Handicap.

 

“She stepped up and proved to be the best,” Borel said. “It was a great race. Who knows how good she is?”

 

All year, Rachel has been flattered by horses she has trounced. Gabby's Golden Gal was beaten 29 1/4 lengths by Rachel in the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) and came back to win the grade I Acorn Stakes in 1:34 3/5. Flashing was beaten 31 1/2 lengths by Rachel in the Mother Goose (gr. I) and came back to win the grade I Test Stakes by 1 1/2 lengths. Summer Bird was beaten 6 lengths by Rachel in the Haskell and came back to win the Travers Stakes by 3 1/2 lengths. Take the Points was beaten 32 3/4 lengths by Rachel in the Preakness and came back to win the grade I Secretariat Stakes. Just Jenda was beaten 11 3/4 lengths by Rachel in the Fantasy Stakes and came back to win the Monmouth Oaks by 4 1/4 lengths. Even Sara Louise, who was beaten 4 3/4 lengths by Rachel in last year's Golden Rod (gr. II), won the Victory Ride Stakes (gr. III) at Saratoga in 1:09 3/5 in her 3-year-old debut.

 

As Rachel was led back to the barn and the crowd began to quiet down, Durkin announced, “Well, folks, if your heart can take it, we’ve got two more races.”

 

Jackson, who owns Rachel in partnership with Harold McCormick, summed it up best: “I think she’s something for the ages. The 56th running of the Woodward was a great one for the history books, and I’m so pleased for her. For her to hang in there like that with six giant males racing with her was something special.”

 

Asmussen said the early fractions “may have taken a few years off my life but it was probably worth it.”

 

After signing dozens of autographs, Asmussen hopped over the fence of the jockey’s quarters and headed to the test barn, receiving congratulations the entire way.

 

“You deserve all the accolades,” one person shouted. “No, she does,” Asmussen replied.

 

As he walked, he was able to reflect a bit more on what Rachel had achieved: “It’s hard enough to be brilliant once in a while, but every race? Oh, my God, she’s been doing it since mid-February. She showed she’s truly a champion today. I get nervous, I admit it. I wouldn’t go downstairs until they put her number up; that’s me.”

 

As Rachel left the test barn and crossed Union Ave. to the Oklahoma training track, the halted traffic was already backed up and a few lucky fans in the front cars were able to get a final look at Rachel as she headed home.

 

Back at the barn, Rachel was put away for the night, picking away at her alfalfa and occasionally eyeing all the activity outside the barn.

 

Jackson took great pride in having orchestrated a good portion of Rachel’s perfect season, in which she became the first filly to win three grade I races on dirt against males in a single year. “I’ve made more money as a handicapper than I did as a lawyer,” he said. “We kept looking for a better target and we kept finding one.”

 

Jackson then hinted that the Woodward could very well be Rachel’s final start of the year. “She’s run almost every month this year,” he said. “She’s such a special horse, and I just don’t want to risk it.”

 

As he was about to leave for dinner, Jackson said, “There’s an aura around her, isn’t there? It was quite a day. I think I’ll have a double scotch tonight.”

 

As darkness fell, Blasi tried to put everything in perspective. “She’s absolutely unbelievable,” he said. “There’s no comparing her to anyone. They all compare to her now. What she did today, you will never see anything like it again.”

 

The following morning, Asmussen arrived around 5:30 to find Rachel sprawled out in her stall. After she got up, Asmussen had the urge to lavish some affection on her but thought better of it.

 

“I’m a big sap, and I wanted to hug her,” he said. “And she was like, ‘Get away from me you big sap.’ She’s game on. She don’t belong in a petting zoo. I’m just proud as hell, but I’m happy for racing. The fans walked out of the grandstand smiling and not everyone walks out of the races smiling.”

 

And how did the Asmussens celebrate the night before? “We ordered out and watched the DVD of the race repeatedly,” he said. “And we just talked about how lucky we are to be around her.”

 

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