Rachel Alexandra in her Stonestreet paddock, May 2012.
I’ll take any excuse for a Rachel Alexandra post, and Melissa Hoppert gives me a good one with a story about visiting the 2009 Preakness Stakes winner, who is recovering well from her near-death post-foaling ordeal earlier this year:
“Running is not the word for it,” Comer said. “She is breezing for the Belmont. When we turn around, she’s back to her old self. She is up in the air, she rears, she runs, she bucks, she plays. She is definitely feeling good.”
Wonderful! Get in the mood for today’s Preakness (post time 6:20 PM ET) with a replay of the 2009 edition. “She’s got her ears up, pricked, ready to go …”
You’re rooting for Orb today, right? “You’ve gotta.”
Superterrific, prepping the HRF Woodward Stakes Ten Things to Know feature in advance of Saturday’s race at Saratoga, sent me this reminder of Rachel Alexandra’s 2009 Woodward, a classic Ernie Munick video:
Picking up on the closing scene above:
The grandstand shook. We stood and roared for her. I’ll never forget.
At the Eclipse Awards, January 2010.
It was announced today that owner Jess Jackson, 81, has died of cancer.
Since last summer, it had been apparent that Jackson was not well. He missed seeing Rachel Alexandra win at Monmouth in the Lady’s Secret Stakes in July, he wasn’t at Saratoga to watch her work in August. His wife, Barbara Banke, began to take a more prominent role in the stable. And deep in a Jay Hovdey column, published in DRF in January, was a discreet mention of the disease he had previously beat into remission (via).
None of which dulled the shock on hearing of his passing.
Jackson liked to see his horses run, and he enjoyed seeing his horses tested. Bringing Curlin back as a 4-year-old in 2008 and campaigning Rachel Alexandra as he did in 2009 was sporting (even if it could be frustrating, waiting on him to say where and when one of his stars might start next). I’ll always remember the Woodward, the grandstand shaking from the force of the crowd rising and cheering for Rachel as she streaked down the stretch. Her 3-year-old HOTY campaign was bold and historic, a remarkable achievement.
“They broke the mold with this guy,” eulogizes partner George Bolton.
4/24/11 Addendum: Joe Drape is out with an appraisal of Jackson’s racing career, which concludes:
Jackson, too, set some standards, one in particular that any horseplayer or horse lover can appreciate. He let his horses run instead of retiring them to the breeding shed and life as a pampered A.T.M. He ran them in the biggest races on the brightest stages. He didn’t worry if they got beat.
That was refreshing in this era.
I understand that Rachel was held to a higher standard, as the reigning Horse of the Year, but to what end? Have we become so expecting of perfection of our stars, that they simply can not live up to them. Do we not allow ourselves to fully enjoy the special ones, because of these expectations?
There’s something about repeated brilliance that inspires a fear of loss (a fear not specific to racing). It’s sentimental. We can’t stand to lose the magic.
It’s no exaggeration to say that every year I bookmark, tweet, or link here to hundreds of horse racing features, columns, and blog posts — stories and opinions that catch my attention for a turn of phrase, the quality of storytelling, the depth of research, an unusual argument, or a striking insight. A few each year — like the 10 pieces below — are especially memorable.
The Making of ‘Legends’ (Pat Forde/ESPN)
“The present is another matter. The present stings a bit. The present is Kentucky Derby week, and it offers vivid evidence of how brutally hard it is even for learned horsemen with a lot of money to win a Derby — or to simply reach the starting gate.”
The Linemakers (John Scheinman/Pimlico)
“It is no secret the man gambles with gusto, a word that derives from the Latin gustus, or tasting. Carulli is all appetite and, like the bear he resembles, doesn’t like to be disturbed while concentrating.”
The Best Broodmare of All Time? (Alicia Wincze/Lexington Herald-Leader)
“Though Hasili was a stakes winner on the track and had a solid pedigree in her corner, nothing in her form could have indicated the impact she would have on the sport once she entered the breeding shed.”
What Makes the Great Ones Great? (Jay Hovdey/DRF)
“No question, in terms of personality type, the great ones appear to be happy in their work.”
Why We Love Secretariat (Meghan O’Rourke/Slate)
“In the moment when he pulls away from Sham, his brilliant archrival (who would’ve been a champion in any other year), we have the sense of an animal exceeding the boundaries of the category of animal.”
Forlorn Filly Comes from Nowhere (Bill Finley/NY Times)
“A few days after he bought a modestly bred horse from a friend named Don Hunt, Tim Snyder took a moment to reflect. He had no money, no horse trailer to get his new acquisition to where he needed to go and a filly that had been rejected by nearly everyone else who had come in contact with her. The horse had a clubfoot, a bad shoulder, a reputation for being slow and was blind in one eye, reason enough for Snyder to second-guess what he had just done.”
Who Really Invented Race Charts? (Kevin Martin/Colin’s Ghost)
“Whatever the case might be, it was Brunell who had the foresight to put race charts and later past performances into a daily publication dedicated to racing. While the above puts his role as ‘originator’ in doubt, no one can deny that he popularized the tools that all horseplayers have been dependent on for more than a century.” [See also, Martin's follow-up post.]
Rachel’s Place in History (Gary West/West Points)
“Most of us had never seen anything like Rachel Alexandra, and for having seen her, I’m grateful.”
Frankel’s Rise No Romantic Dream (Chris McGrath/Independent)
“Despite the present, witless tendency to treat them as characters in search of an author, men such as Frankie Dettori and Henry Cecil could never be adequately prefigured by a script.”
A Vote for Horse Racing (Claire Novak/ESPN)
“For now, suffice it to say it is the opinion here that a vote for Zenyatta is, simply put, a vote for horse racing. To recognize this kind of runner as vital to the sport’s survival is common sense, not emotional gibberish as some would choose to believe.”
What’s missing? Add your must-reads from the year past in the comments …
Zenyatta paraded for fans in sunny California on Sunday, in snowy Kentucky on Monday. Despite the cold, a good-sized crowd turned out at Keeneland to see the champion one last time before she retreats to stud. I wish the same could have been done for Rachel Alexandra, unceremoniously retired at the end of September. But even though honoring the filly was something Churchill Downs was interested in doing, her connections were not, explains Jennie Rees: “However, six days before the fall meet began, Stonestreet Stable quietly sent a van to pick up Rachel at Churchill to take her to the farm …”
10:50 AM Update: Many thanks to Susan for pointing out a recent post (with photo!) on the Stonestreet Farms Facebook page: “For those of you who are interested in seeing [Rachel Alexandra], we wanted you to know that after the first of the year, we will be announcing … occasional visitation days …”
Take nothing away from Life At Ten’s workmanlike victory in the Beldame (gr. I), but she gets run into the ground by Rachel Alexandra in the Personal Ensign (gr. I), finishing 10 lengths behind her. The Beldame sets up perfectly for Rachel’s running style. How can you not wonder what Rachel would have done had she not been retired, coming off three bullet works. Was she injured? Did she bleed? Were her feet acting up? Or did Jess Jackson simply wake up one morning and decide to retire her? As long as Jackson keeps the reason for her retirement to himself and keeps Steve Asmussen and Scott Blasi under a gag order, we’re always going to wonder. Her devoted fans deserved more.
In this whole drama (or non-drama, if that’s your perspective), assistant trainer Scott Blasi has been the one person involved who’s said anything remotely revealing about Rachel Alexandra’s retirement. And while it’s not much, it confirms Jackson’s statement. “We had her prepared for the Beldame,” Blasi told Tim Wilkin last week, “it was just a matter of what Mr. Jackson felt was right for her.” To Marcus Hersh, Blasi said the matter of retiring the filly had come up before last Tuesday, and that, “At the end of the day she’s retiring healthy and sound, and that’s all I could ever want for her.” What’s the difference? What makes Blasi’s words at least somewhat soothing? Robin Howlett, in a comment on an earlier post, explained it best:
There so much of this Rachel story that leaves a bad taste in the mouth; her never meeting Zenyatta, retiring out of the blue, the lack of at least some kind of interview with connections on their feelings behind making the decision. That’s what’s most frustrating. You just feel left out of the loop, like, as a fan, you never really mattered at all.
Some of these connections, don’t seem to understand how we racing fans feel. That they are not their horses, they’re OUR horses. They’re just a little more involved.
It’s not so much what (little) Blasi says, as it is how he says it. What leaves a bad taste and questions, even days later, is that Jess Jackson and Steve Asmussen created a situation that left — rightly or wrongly — perceptions of an issue, physical or otherwise — and then refused to address it. They didn’t understand that a press release wouldn’t be enough.
Times-Union turf writer Tim Wilkin tries to get trainer Steve Asmussen to comment on Rachel Alexandra’s retirement, without results:
Well, when we got Asmussen on the phone, it was the pefect time to ask what he really felt.
Here is what he said the first time I asked him to comment on Rachel’s retirement:
“At the half-mile pole, I thought Haynesfield had a real good chance to win,” Asmussen said.
I asked him a second time.
Read his entire post for the complete conversation, and the questions it raises.
Speaking of Rachel’s retirement, some fairly reliable tidbits heard through the grapevine include Jess Jackson and Steve Asmussen knowing she would not race again as of a week or two ago, and that it was nagging foot problems that prompted her retirement. Another cited suspensory issues. See what happens when you are not forthright in announcing the retirement of a horse such as this.
It is hoped one of these, if true, will be made public in the next day or two to give closure to Rachel’s retirement.
Would it make a difference now to learn there was an injury?
Here’s one question answered: Jockey Patrick Valenzuela, who has the mount on juvenile graded stakes winner JP’s Gusto, will be able to ride at Keeneland and Churchill (and in the Breeders’ Cup) this fall. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission unanimously granted Valenzuela a license on Thursday.
Gary West asks: Can Switch beat Zenyatta? I think not, but if she were to do so in the Lady’s Secret on Saturday, it would highlight a downside to the big mare’s careful California campaign. Zenyatta has more to lose by losing to weak competition than she would in a race such as the Beldame Stakes.
Storytelling is a wonderful human quality. We find patterns, we create narratives, we tell each other stories about our lives, our fears, our dreams. But sometimes we get caught up in the stories we tell, we believe that the narratives we made up are truths. And so it is with Rachel Alexandra and the story of her 4-year-old campaign. From the moment that she finished second to Zardana in the New Orleans Ladies’ Stakes in March, the narrative has been one of a filly vainly trying to recapture her glory, of a filly tarnishing her reputation with every loss. That’s the story that was told, because it confirmed worries that she wouldn’t come back as brilliant as she had been, because we fear disappointment and loss and we long for redemption and happy endings.
But that doesn’t make it true.