So, the “Race for the Ages” is off, and Jess Jackson says they now regret rushing Rachel Alexandra to make the New Orleans Ladies. When a horse doesn’t work for five months, it’s usually more than the weather that is to blame. It was obvious watching Rachel on Saturday that this was not the same filly we saw last year, at least not right now.
It wasn't that she was beaten as much as the manner in which she was beaten. She actually ran to her last six-furlong work, which was totally out of character for her. The warning signs from that work carried over into the race, and one could deduce from Steve Asmussen’s comments that there were major concerns going into this race. There was a reason Asmussen put a figure-8 bridle on her, and to me she didn’t look as comfortable during the race as she did in her races last year and never exuded that feeling of dominance.
Unlike last year, when Calvin Borel always had her on a loose rein down the backstretch, she was under a tight rein on Saturday, pulling more than usual.
Unlike last year, when she relaxed nicely and was always in sync with Borel, there seemed to be more head movement this time.
Unlike last year, when she kept her head straight ahead at all times, she cocked her head to the outside several times, most notably turning for home, just as she did in that six-furlong work.
Unlike last year, Borel had to make her change leads at the head of the stretch.
And finally, last year, her main weapon was her amazingly high cruising speed, especially from the three-eighths pole to the quarter pole when she separated herself from her opponents with little effort. This time, she took the lead, but instead of accelerating away from the field, Zardana was all over her in a matter of seconds, with Borel still not asking her for anything. When Zardana pounced on her so quickly nearing the quarter pole she had no momentum, and give her credit for fighting back. Even with Borel hitting her left- and right-handed, she never did seem to drop down and level off the way she did last year. But that's what preps are for, right?
Borel said he wanted to let her run her race and pass the 42-1 pacesetter Fighter Wing early, but he was told not to get into her until the sixteenth pole. Asmussen said it was his job to have her fit enough, and admitted he didn’t accomplish that. The final fractions of :24 1/5 and :06 2/5 were solid enough, as was her 100 Beyer Speed Figure, but certainly not close to what Rachel is capable of. But, again, this was a prep.
What was most curious was Jess Jackson's announcement that Rachel was out of the Apple Blossom an hour or so after Asmussen was quoted as saying how great she came out of the race, mentally and physically. Go figure that one out.
If Rachel had been allowed to take command of the race, either early on or after getting the lead, would the result have been different? Would a three-quarter-length win instead of a three-quarter-length defeat have put her in the Apple Blossom (gr. I)? Probably. There is a fine line between winning a prep and losing a prep and its perception. If Rachel was allowed to be a bit more aggressive, maybe she wins by three-quarters instead of losing by three-quarters and it's a perfect prep. If Arnold Zetcher doesn't have John Shirreffs send Zardana to New Orleans, Rachel wins by 11 1/2 lengths and the Race For the Ages reaches a feverish pitch. Another "go figure."
If she can return to her old self later in the year and defeat Zenyatta, this race will be a faint speck in the Rachel Alexandra universe. But that obviously is a long way off.
As for Zenyatta, what can one say that hasn’t been said before? Nearing the quarter pole, it looked as if we were watching the Apple Blossom wilt before our very eyes. Mike Smith still had her eight lengths back and elected to take the more precarious inside route. Zenyatta, because of her size and massive stride, does not negotiate the turn into the stretch as smoothly when having to cut the corner sharply as opposed to circling the field. But she still is amazingly athletic for such a big horse.
Turning for home in the Santa Margarita (gr. I), there wasn’t anywhere for Zenyatta to fit that massive body of hers and Smith had to quickly survey the situation. He spotted an opening on the inside, made a sharp left-handed turn, and Zenyatta dove for it like a stampeding wildebeest. Once she got through, she eased out around a horse, and just like that, there she was cruising to the lead with her ears pricked as usual. No horse in memory has ever used their humongous strides to get from one place to another as quickly as Zenyatta does.
As Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs said, “Zenyatta is (to quote Trevor Denman) UN-BE-LIEVE-ABLE!”