Jessica Chapel / Railbird

Travers Stakes

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?

Saratoga vs. Monmouth

There’s no need for competition, Ed Fountaine writes:

NYRA should embrace the Haskell — which is, after all, merely a prep race for the marquee event of the Saratoga meet, the 141st Travers Stakes on Aug. 28. Since the same all-star horses that face off at Monmouth on Sunday will renew their rivalry in the “Midsummer Derby,” NYRA should start beating the drums now. Advertise that the local fans can watch and bet on the Haskell at Saratoga on Sunday. Show the race on the infield TV screens. Turn the tables on Monmouth Park by using their signature race to promote yours.

Especially if you’re NYRA, and you’re likely to win the numbers game: The test of Monmouth’s “elite meet” handle figures was always going to be the opening of Saratoga. Friday, when the Spa kicked off its 40-day meet, the New Jersey track took in $5,515,194, a decline of 20% from $6,898,633 the previous Friday, while attendance remained roughly the same. Sunday, Monmouth was down 11% compared to the previous Sunday. Saturday was the odd day out, as Haskell day will certainly be next weekend. With the Lady’s Secret and Rachel Alexandra featured, handle was up 25% and attendance up 37%, which tracked nicely with on-track handle, up 35% over the previous Saturday.

At Saratoga, the first four days of this year’s extended meeting have been declared satisfactory: “Average all-sources handle, wagers on Saratoga races both on-track and from simulcast outlets nationwide, came to $12,834,190 daily, for a total of $51,336,758.” Attendance averaged 18,133 per day.

Related: Steve Zorn offers a more comprehensive comparison.