The connections of Rachel Alexandra admit that the reigning Horse of the Year will not be 100% cranked for her 4-year-old debut, which will come in the $200,000 New Orleans Ladies Stakes March 13 at Fair Grounds Races & Slots.
But on talent alone the remarkable filly should be able to overcome her more than six-month layoff, as she faces only four rivals in the 1 1/16-mile race and preps for an expected showdown with Zenyatta next month in the Apple Blossom Invitational (gr. I).
Rachel Alexandra has had seven works since returning to the racetrack after a historically brilliant 3-year-old campaign in which she went undefeated in eight starts, scored five grade I victories, and defeated males in the Preakness Stakes, Haskell Invitational, and Woodward Stakes (all gr. I). The daughter of Medaglia d'Oro recorded her final tune-up for the New Orleans Ladies on March 8 at Fair Grounds, getting four furlongs in a smooth :49-flat under exercise rider Dominic Terry. She galloped out five furlongs in 1:01.80.
The bay filly drew post 2 and will have regular rider Calvin Borel aboard for her highly-anticipated season debut. She will carry top weight of 123 pounds as the 1-5 morning-line favorite.
A victory in the race will lift Rachel Alexandra’s career earnings to more than $3 million. Bred in Kentucky by Dolphus Morrison, and out of Roar mare Lotta Kim, she is owned by Jess Jackson and Harold McCormick, who purchased her privately shortly after she won the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) by a record 20 1/4 lengths last May. Steve Asmussen is her trainer.
The only other graded stakes winner in the field belongs to Arnold Zetcher, who will send out 6-year-old Brazilian-bred mare Zardana. Not coincidentally, Zardana is trained by John Shirreffs, the same trainer of champion Zenyatta. Considered by many as a scouting mission for the Apple Blossom, Shirreffs will get a chance to size up Rachel Alexandra by racing one of his own against her. So who is Zardana?
A bay daughter of Crimson Tide, Zardana has raced most of her career in California, with four wins to show from 15 U.S. starts. Her biggest win came in her 5-year-old finale last December when winning the Bayakoa Handicap (gr. II) over the Hollywood Park Cushion Track for her first graded stakes score. In her season debut last month at Santa Anita, Zardana finished fourth to St Trinians in the Santa Maria Handicap (gr. II) after taking a narrow lead into the stretch.
Sherriffs has assigned David Flores to ride Zardana, who will carry 121 pounds. This will be her first start over natural dirt since beginning her career in Brazil.
“Well, we came up with about 20 reasons to try her and only one not to,” said Zetcher, who lives in Los Angeles. “First of all, the mile and a sixteenth is (Zardana’s) best distance, and second of all, we wanted to try her on dirt (again). Also, I’m really looking forward to a trip to New Orleans.
“She’s listed as a 6-year-old now, but because she’s South American-bred she’s really only five and a half. She was foaled on Sept. 12.”
Two of the other challengers come out of the local Pelleteri Stakes Feb. 13 at the same distance. Coteau Grove Farms’ Clear Sailing won the race by a neck over Jim Tafel’s homebred Fighter Wing, who set the pace and took a commanding lead into the stretch before being caught just before the wire. Fighter Wing, a Greg Geier trainee, drew the rail and is expected to set the pace once again while Rachel Alexandra tracks her.
Clear Sailing is a lightly-race 4-year-old daughter of Empire Maker who has won her last three starts for local trainer Glenn Delahoussaye. A $255,000 Keeneland November 2009 breeding stock sale purchase, she broke her maiden by 4 1/4 lengths in December and debuted in January when romping by nearly nine lengths—both at Fair Grounds. Shane Sellers will have the mount.
Completing the field is Robert Adams’ Unforgotten, runner-up in Fair Grounds’ $100,000 Daily Racing Form Distaff Dec. 19. Unforgotten last won in the Treasure Chest Stakes at Delta Downs Dec. 4, and was runner-up behind Augustin Stable’s Informed Decision in last summer’s grade III Chicago Handicap at Arlington Park. The 6-year-old mare was seventh last out in the Jan. 30 Sunshine Millions Distaff at Gulfstream.
“Obviously, it’s a very tough race,” said trainer Dallas Stewart, a longtime New Orleans resident. “We’ll just go in there and see what happens.”
$200,000 New Orleans Ladies (Race 10, 5:15 p.m. CST), Fillies & Mares 4 & Up, 1 1/16 Miles (Dirt)
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Fighter Wing (KY), 5/M L C J Lanerie, 117, G Geier
2. Rachel Alexandra (KY), 4/F L C H Borel, 123, S M Asmussen
3. Zardana (BRZ), 6/M L* D R Flores, 121, J A Shirreffs
4. Unforgotten (FL), 6/M L M Mena, 117, D Stewart
5. Clear Sailing (KY), 4/F L S J Sellers, 117, G Delahoussaye