JC / Railbird

Rachel Alexandra

Painful Perfection

Brian Zipse asks why Blind Luck gets a pass that Rachel Alexandra didn’t:

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?

Simply, yes.

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.

The Must-Reads, 2010

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 …

Final Appearances

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 …”

“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).

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