On a warm summer day in Lexington, a 13-year-old bay mare gallops freely over 20 plush acres.
Her speed may not reach the breathtaking levels it did 10 years ago—during a blissfully perfect 8-for-8 Horse of the Year season—but she still moves with the same majestic strides that made her one of horse racing's most beloved champions.
Life is different now for Rachel Alexandra. She lives a carefree existence at Stonestreet Farm, spending peaceful days in a field with her older equine friends, Moonlight Sonata and The Hess Express.
"She's happy," Stonestreet owner Barbara Banke said. "She has her friends. Her stall, her field, her grooms. She's a happy girl."
She has also been making a multitude of people happy since her breakthrough 3-year-old campaign, which arguably rates as one of the best years of racing ever turned in by a sophomore filly. It was a season that won her the lifelong admiration of her countless fans.
Memories of Glory
Bred in Kentucky by Dolphus Morrison out of the Roar mare Lotta Kim, Rachel Alexandra was already a multiple grade 2 winner against her own division when she stepped into the starting gate for the 2009 Kentucky Oaks (G1). But few expected the performance she delivered that day, when she galloped away from her rivals by an astonishing 20 1/4 lengths. She was sold to Banke and her husband, Jess Jackson, three days later on May 4—their wedding anniversary.
The Medaglia d'Oro filly then beat the boys in the BlackBerry Preakness Stakes (G1) and Haskell Invitational Stakes (G1) before outdoing herself with a dramatic victory by a head against older males in the Woodward Stakes (G1) at historic Saratoga Race Course.
"It was a fabulous year. Jess truly enjoyed it. It was his last year when he was really active, and he enjoyed it tremendously," Banke said of her late husband, who founded Stonestreet and the Kendall-Jackson Winery and passed away in 2011.
While the Kentucky Oaks first put Rachel Alexandra in the spotlight because she won by such an unbelievable margin, the Preakness turned her into a superstar when she became the first filly in 85 years to capture the middle leg of the Triple Crown.
After Jackson bought her from Mike Lauffer and Morrison of L and M Partners and trainer Hal Wiggins, it was quickly decided to race her against the boys. Regular rider Calvin Borel, who rode Mine That Bird to victory in that year's Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1), begged for the chance to continue riding her, and stayed aboard for the unforgettable races to come.
There was initial push back as some owners of Preakness starters voiced plans to enter a stablemate in order to exclude Rachel Alexandra from the field, but the fleet-footed filly had an important supporter.
"It was amazing because there were people trying to keep us out and then Marylou Whitney announced in the paper that she would withdraw her horse (Luv Gov) so that Rachel could run, and everyone backed down," Banke said. "Then we drew post 13 and we knew we would have to blow and go, because everyone was trying to beat us."
Rachel Alexandra went gate to wire that day, winning the Preakness by a length over Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird. The performance will always be fresh in the mind of her fans and the people around her.
"The first moment when I realized what it was like to be associated with Rachel Alexandra was when we walked over for the Preakness and left the barn," trainer Steve Asmussen said. "I've been associated with some great horses and champions, but I've never been associated with a horse who everyone was rooting for like they we were rooting for her. People you ran against were rooting for her. It was an amazing feeling."
Rachel Alexandra's 2009 season came on the heels of two Horse of the Year campaigns in 2007 and 2008 by Stonestreet's Curlin , but for Asmussen, who counts Curlin and 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner among his former stars, if he's recognized away from the racetrack, it's almost always because of this fabulous filly.
"If I get recognized in an airport, it's Rachel Alexandra they ask about, and that's not just in this country," the Hall of Fame trainer said. "It was such an unbelievably unique time being around her. It was an adoration tour with all of the well-wishers and fan mail."
After the Preakness came wins in the Mother Goose Stakes (G1), by no less of a margin than 19 1/4 lengths, and the Haskell, as well as a memorable day at her Churchill Downs barn when Vogue magazine shot photos of her.
"(Assistant trainer) Scott Blasi was hanging on to her," Banke recalled, "but she was leaving the ground. She was not happy, and the fashion photographer was saying, 'Hold that, Rachel.'"
The Woodward Wonder
The last of Rachel Alexandra's starts at 3 came in the Woodward when a crowd of 31,171 was on hand at the Spa, but a million people will tell you they were there in spirit.
The field of eight included Whitney Handicap (G1) winner Bullsbay and Macho Again, who was coming off a win in the Stephen Foster Handicap (G1). But Rachel Alexandra was the star of the show, as well as the 3-10 favorite on the toteboard and 1-20 choice as a sentimental favorite.
"It sounded like thunder in the stands. It was very gratifying," Banke said. "I can remember the signs saying 'Run Like a Girl.' It was fabulous. People really appreciated her efforts."
The race lived up to expectations as Rachel Alexandra set the pace, then courageously dug down when Macho Again and Bullsbay took serious aim at her in the stretch.
Track announcer Tom Durkin has said he could feel the wooden grandstand shake as Rachel Alexandra's legion of fans implored her to hang on.
As usual, she did not disappoint.
"Rachel Alexandra wins. She is indeed Rachel Alexandra The Great," Durkin shouted in his emotional call. "Rachel Alexandra raises the rafters here at the Spa."
Ten years after his filly's victory by a head over Macho Again, 53-year-old Asmussen stood in the backyard at Saratoga and, with a wide smile on his face, recounted as sweet of a moment as he has ever experienced in racing.
"To culminate in the Woodward in the fashion it did, it was one of the most incredible memories. The race itself would knock you out and there was pure relief over her coming through for everyone, especially the young girls, with how much she meant to them and the moisture in their eyes when they were talking about her. To come through for her fandom like she did was an incredible accomplishment," Asmussen said. "I remember standing in the winner's circle and watching as she walked back to the test barn. People were 10 rows deep along the rail trying to get a glimpse of her. It was unbelievable to stand there and watch people admire her."
In the last few decades, few horses have captured the public's fascination as powerfully as Rachel Alexandra. One might be Zenyatta, who never raced against her but was at the center of a massive internet feud between fans of the two distaff stars over the 2009 Horse of the Year race.
"They were the fans' favorites," Banke said.
Others might be American Pharoah , who ended a 37-year Triple Crown drought, or California Chrome , the California-bred two-time Horse of the Year. But it's a handful, at best, that can compare with the striking bay filly with the blaze shaped like the letter "i."
Rachel Alexandra's popularity can be reflected in the fan mail she still receives and the steady stream of people who come to visit her at Stonestreet. One of the farm's most popular events is "Come See Rachel Day," twice-a-year afternoons when fans can win a chance to visit the mare through an online contest. Each time, the lure of seeing Rachel Alexandra has easily filled the allotted 80 spots.
Last month, Stonestreet staged a fundraiser for the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation that revolved around an opportunity to watch the Haskell with Rachel Alexandra at Stonestreet on the 10th anniversary of her six-length win in the grade 1 event. Banke and Stonestreet donated $25,000 to the foundation as well as the revenue from the 50 tickets sold at $100 each.
In a very telling statement about the mare's everlasting charisma, even though the Haskell was delayed because of heat on that July 20 afternoon and could not be presented at the event, attendees were more than happy to simply visit the farm's superstar.
"It's incredible how so many people come to see her," said Gemma Freeman, Stonestreet's industry relations manager. "We have people who travel from California or drive six hours for just a short visit with her. Her popularity is as amazing as ever."
Jaime Roth, who now operates the LNJ Foxwoods stable, is among those whose life was greatly influenced by Rachel Alexandra's heroics. Watching Rachel Alexandra in 2009 as a 28-year-old, she fell in love with the filly and the sport and eventually started LNJ Foxwoods with her parents, Larry and Nanci.
"If not for watching Rachel Alexandra as a fan, I probably would not be involved in horse racing today," Roth said. "She's extremely influential in my life and my parents' life. I loved watching her run. When I grew up, I was a very good athlete and there weren't a lot of women's teams at my level, so I played with boys a lot. It wasn't easy but I could relate to Rachel through that. In my opinion, she was the greatest filly I've ever watched."
Roth said she has visited Rachel Alexandra on three occasions, including once when she and Daisy Phipps won an auction for a private day with the mare and their families.
"Everybody there was in the racing or bloodstock industry and we were just standing there, admiring her. She had the 'It' factor. Whether you are a fan or a big-time owner or bloodstock agent, when you look at her you still say, 'Wow.' You know you are in the presence of a great animal," Roth said.
Rachel Alexandra showed only flashes of her incredible 2009 form the following year, and the 2016 Hall of Fame inductee was retired after winning two of five starts in 2010, giving her a record of 13 wins from 19 outs with earnings of $3,506,730.
She became a broodmare at Stonestreet and both of her two foals turned out to be winners, one of them a grade 1 winner. But there were complications each time after she gave birth, so Banke made a decision to stop breeding her and let the beloved mare live out her days at Stonestreet to the fullest.
"She's healthy and technically we could breed her, but it would give me a heart attack, so we're not doing that," Banke said.
The first foal was Jess's Dream , a colt by Curlin who won his only start and is now standing as a stallion at Ocala Stud.
"He always had some small issues and we decided to retire him," Banke said of the 2012 foal.
The second foal was a filly by Bernardini named Rachel's Valentina, who won the 2015 Spinaway Stakes (G1) at Saratoga and was second to Songbird in the 14 Hands Winery Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1). Retired in 2016, she has joined her mother as a broodmare at Stonestreet.
"Our best yearling, or at least one of them, is a Curlin colt who is by Rachel's Valentina, so the line will continue," said Banke, who noted that Rachel's Valentina also has a weanling Pioneerof the Nile filly. "She's a very good broodmare and because she's the only filly by Rachel, we decided to retire her to keep her on the farm."
Though both horses had limited racing careers, simply being a son or a daughter of Rachel Alexandra was enough to make them fan favorites.
"I raced two fillies against Rachel's Valentina and it was a surreal experience to a have a horse in the same starting gate as a daughter of Rachel Alexandra. Nickname was fourth to her in a maiden race and Constellation was third in the Spinaway," Roth said. "If I wasn't going to win the race, there was no one else I wanted to see win other than Rachel's Valentina."
In time, it will be interesting to see if Rachel Valentina's foals develop into stakes winners, but what seems certain is that all of them will face an immense challenge in matching the accomplishments and popularity of their fabled grandmother.
"You can see Curlin and Gun Runner and see what kind of gods they were, but with Rachel the dynamic of the fans she attracted was so different," Asmussen said. "She did it with beauty and strength. She repelled all challenges. She accepted and knew her position with her fans. It was just crazy what she did, and how people love her to this day."