JC / Railbird

Rachel Alexandra

“We’re Always Going to Wonder”

Steve Haskin, once again:

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.

He’s right.

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.

No Comment

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.

Questions, Questions

Steve Haskin keeps up the quest for answers:

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.

Rachel Alexandra Retired

Oh, hell. Yesterday, she worked a bullet four furlongs in :48.45 in possible preparation for the Beldame Stakes. Today, owner Jess Jackson announced reigning HOTY Rachel Alexandra has been retired. From the press release:

“As you know, despite top training and a patient campaign, Rachel Alexandra did not return to her 2009 form. I believe it’s time to retire our Champion and reward her with a less stressful life. We are delighted that she will retire healthy and happy to our beautiful farm in Kentucky.

“Rachel Alexandra owes us nothing. As a 3-year-old, she set standards and records that no filly before her ever achieved. And I suspect it will be quite a while before a three year old filly ever equals or surpasses her achievements. Although her fans were thrilled by a series of spectacular victories, I believe they, as we, were simply awed time and again by her sheer beauty, courage and athleticism,” said Jess Jackson….

“I have been blessed to have been part of history. We are all very fortunate that Rachel carried the banner following Curlin’s amazing success story. The fans adored her, we all did, “ said Steve Asmussen. “She had the most fluid and beautiful stride of any horse I have every seen. It’s been quite a ride.”

Rachel Alexandra exits with a career record of 19-13-5-0 and earnings of more than $3.5 million. If I were an 8-year-old girl, I’d add, and my heart … but I’m too grown-up for that kind of silliness. (How I’ll always remember her.)

5:00 PM Update: A statement from NTRA president Alex Waldrop:

“Rachel Alexandra waged a three-year-old campaign that was nothing short of historic — both for its flawlessness and its ambition. We commend all those who played such a large part in her greatness, most notably co-owners Jess Jackson and Harold McCormick, trainer Steve Asmussen and jockey Calvin Borel. Rachel Alexandra provided countless thrills to fans all around the world, and all of us now undoubtedly look forward to the racing exploits of her offspring.”

Jackson said that Rachel would be bred to 2007-08 Horse of the Year Curlin.

On Flickr: A gallery of Rachel Alexandra photos.

From Equineline: Lifetime past performances.

6:00 PM Update: The Fair Grounds has renamed a stakes race for Rachel Alexandra. “She is one of the all-time legends not only of Fair Grounds but of our sport,” said Fair Grounds VP Eric Halstrom, explaining the decision to change the name of the Silverbulletday Stakes, a prep for the Fair Grounds Oaks, to the Rachel Alexandra Stakes.

On Youtube: A video playlist including the Personal Ensign, Woodward, Haskell, Preakness, Kentucky Oaks, and her maiden win (or watch below).

From the archives: Rachel Alexandra in Vogue.

An appreciation: Rachel fans, unconditionally (Ernie Munick).

More reactions: ‘R’ is for Rachel, and retirement (That’s Amore) … On the occasion of Rachel Alexandra’s retirement (Superfecta) … What I think about Rachel’s retirement (Jason Shandler).

Please Please Please

Let me, let me, let me [be greedy, writes Bob Ehalt]:

I guess also asking for a race between Rachel Alexandra and Blind Luck in the BC Ladies Classic, a matchup between an undefeated Uncle Mo and Boys At Tosconova in the BC Juvenile, and Goldikova against anyone in the BC Mile might be pushing our luck. But can anyone blame me for being as greedy as Gordon Gecko? After twiddling our thumbs for so long waiting for the best horses to race against each other, asking for a string of blockbusters in the Breeders’ Cup does not seem out of line in the least.

Get what I want this time [Jess Jackson, writes Steve Bailey]:

You have the power to make this the most exciting fall season our sport has known in decades. Simply reverse course and become the hunter instead of the hunted.

Do yourself and the sport a favor and pass up a Breeders’ Cup prep at Belmont Park and go West to take on Zenyatta on her home turf in the Lady’s Secret Stakes (G2) on October 2 at Hollywood Park.

You have nothing to lose. Although Rachel Alexandra’s fans do not want to admit this, it has become a lost season. In football terms, the clock is running down and nothing but a Hail Mary can save it.

The Bottom Line

Steve Haskin responds to the retire-Rachel crowd:

Rachel’s defeat in the Personal Ensign, although extremely disappointing, should in the long run be looked upon as just that — a defeat, and not as an indication that she no longer should be competing. If she shows any physical or mental signs coming out of the Personal Ensign that she has had enough, then by all means retire her. But if she is sound and that passion is still evident, there is no reason not to put the sword in her hand again and see if she can recapture the glory of last year — at her distance.

Asked if retirement was a possibility, trainer Steve Asmussen replied:

“That question wasn’t brought up to me.”

So, onward. Rachel Alexandra is scheduled to return to the track on Wednesday. Plans for her will be made later. Persistently, winner of the Personal Ensign, is being pointed to the Beldame at Belmont, as is Life At Ten.

Informed Decision may try turf in her next start following her sixth-place finish as the favorite in the Ballerina Stakes on Saturday, said trainer Jonathan Sheppard. “I’ve always said to myself maybe sometime down the road, if she stubs her toe a little bit, that it might be time to try something different,” he told the Daily Racing Form. The 5-year-old mare is a winner over dirt and synthetics; adding a grass win would make her an Omnisurface Star.

Uncle Mo, buzz baby, gets a big 102 BSF for his debut.

At Saratoga

Forgive me a bit of redboarding.

(Don’t worry, I’m not going to claim to have had Persistently. I played the undercard, passed on the feature.)

We were in our seats at Saratoga well before first post. Mr. Railbird, usually good for about three hours at the track, was considering a mid-afternoon stroll into town, and wondering, if he took that walk up Broadway, if he would regret missing the Personal Ensign.

“It’s not going to be another Woodward,” I said. “I expect her to lose.”

It was true. I could already see the finish, the head or half-length of another horse in front of Rachel Alexandra. I didn’t think it would be 21-1 Persistently, running in her first graded stakes race in two years, a result that I would only appreciate later — there’s an undeniable narrative satisfaction to the winning connections being those of the race’s namesake, dead this year at 26.

I’m a fangirl, though, and I still hoped, and when she looked to be pulling away at the top of the stretch, having put away Life At Ten with ease after a solid opening half in :47.73 and three-quarters in 1:12.02, I let out a cheer. There was a flash of her old brilliance, a moment in which she looked like the Rachel of 2009. Then came Persistently, and all was over. A tired Rachel Alexandra going 10 furlongs for the first time, needing more than :27 seconds for the final quarter, was outrun by a length. “I didn’t feel any acceleration and I got worried,” said jockey Calvin Borel. “She wasn’t really there. I knew if anyone was running behind us, we were in trouble.”

We don’t want the magic to end.”

It’s hard to let go of what was.

But, let’s face it, ladies and gentlemen. Rachel Alexandra this year is not the same horse she was last year.”

A different horse, surely, but still tough and full of heart.

The time has come to send her home.”

How silly.

With every loss this year have come more calls to retire the filly. What it is about losing that provokes this reaction? It says so much more about the human ego than it does about the horse, who’s hardly disgracing herself on track (even if it is a shame about the 95 Beyer speed figure in the Personal Ensign, ending her streak of 12 consecutive triple-digit Beyers). “I don’t want to give up on getting her back to where we were,” said trainer Steve Asmussen. And why should he? The Breeders’ Cup Classic is probably out, but with a record of two wins and three seconds from five starts, there’s no reason to think Rachel Alexandra can’t be competitive in the Distaff Ladies’ Classic.

“Her poor showing Sunday doesn’t mean that her achievements were in any way a fluke,” writes Andrew Beyer. “Her loss only demonstrates that she is flesh and blood, not a running machine.”

And still — as a friend emailed to say this morning — a hell of a horse.

Rarely is there as much dissonance between a race call and what’s happening on track as there was in the Travers Stakes. Watching the replay, the excitement in Tom Durkin’s voice as the field comes down the stretch just doesn’t square with Fly Down and Afleet Express looking for all the world like two horses at Aqueduct in February who really don’t want to pass each other while the other runners stagger behind to the wire. The final time of 2:03.28 was the slowest since 1998 (and somehow earns a Beyer speed figure of 105 for the first two finishers). Per Formulator, Afleet Express ran the last quarter in :26.44, Fly Down in :26.37. That’s just ugly. Track condition was certainly a factor. “The inside part of the racing strip was the path to victory,” notes Beyer. Gary West shares his analysis: “… the winning times on the day, when compared, don’t make any sense unless the track, for whatever reason, was slowing down. And slowing down.”

One of the more interesting juveniles running this summer is Theyskens’ Theory, a three-quarter sibling to 2005 juvenile champion Stevie Wonderboy and the first stakes winner for freshman sire Bernardini following her visually easy 1 1/4 length victory in the seven-furlong Prestige Stakes at Goodwood. The race was her third start; she won her second at Newmarket last month, going quicker than 3-year-olds on the same card. Too bad she doesn’t seem likely for the Breeders’ Cup, with trainer Brian Meehan saying that he plans to run ‘Theory’ once more this year, possibly in the Fillies’ Mile at Ascot, then shelve her until next spring. “When she strengthens over the winter she will be a top-class three-year-old.” Maybe Churchill in 2011, then?

‘Rachel’ to Personal Ensign

Now I know when I’ll be in Saratoga: Jess Jackson confirmed today that Rachel Alexandra will start in the August 29 G1 Personal Ensign at Saratoga:

It’s an historic race, named after a great champion. The timing is right for Rachel. She’s been coming back into her stride and this will help her prepare for the rest of her campaign and the Breeders’ Cup later this year.

We’ll get to take her measure at 10 furlongs; we’ll also get to see her go up against Life At Ten. (And possibly, Zenyatta? Despite what Team Z says about staying in California, the race must be under consideration. Or, not …)

Not the Same Horse

Gary West:

The Rachel Alexandra of 2009 won’t be back because that horse has been absorbed by another. The reigning Horse of the Year has developed into a recognizable but somewhat different racehorse — different, but still superbly talented. She also appears — not surprisingly since she’s older — to be more tractable, perhaps even more poised and relaxed, than she was a year ago. In other words, this filly, this 2010 version, although not quite as quick, could be even better suited to 10 furlongs than the Rachel Alexandra of 2009.


This and That

NYRA’s video of Rachel Alexandra returning to Saratoga from Monmouth is full of mysteries. Well, two. What’s that face trainer Steve Asmussen makes at :59? And what’s the answer to the final question?

Yes! The Personal Ensign is possible, and maybe not only for Rachel Alexandra, reports Tim Wilkin in the Times-Union. “We’re trying to decide that. We have not confirmed anything yet. We’re looking at several options,” said Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs, when asked if Zenyatta was being considered. Trainer Todd Pletcher has already said that Delaware Handicap winner Life At Ten is likely, an intriguing third to this much talked about match-up. (“There is no reason why this can’t happen,” Wilkin editorializes on his blog about just the big two, but no reason doesn’t mean some reason won’t be found …)

This year’s Arc winner? Breeders’ Cup Turf favorite? Harbinger demolished the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes field at Ascot on Saturday, setting a new course record of 2:26.78 with his 11-length win:

The following day:

… the boffins at Timeform, regarded as the “bible” of its field, put their necks on the line with a provisional rating of 142 for the colt. To put that in perspective, that is below only Sea-Bird, Brigadier Gerard and Tudor Minstrel since the firm’s first annual volume was published in 1948, and the equal of, or above, the likes of Ribot, Mill Reef, Dancing Brave, Dubai Millennium, Shergar, Vaguely Noble and last year’s celebrity, Sea The Stars.

Not all are convinced Harbinger deserves such an extraordinary rating: “… to have a horse go from 123 to 142 in six weeks would require remarkable improvement. It’s not impossible, but I’d like to see him do it again first.”

That may be a tall order: “Six of the last nine King George winners never won again while ten of the last 14 failed to ever repeat to the same level …

← Before After →