JC / Railbird

Afleet Express

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?

A Few Quick Links

… and notes before I check out for a few days …

Jittery Saratoga fans? Reports the Troy Record: “[Tom Federlin] brings in about $1.3 million annually renting homes during track season. This year, for the first time, he has had to include escape clauses in the leases guaranteeing renters refunds if the track doesn’t open.”

Thank you, Saratogian editorial board: “For the umpteenth time, NYRA isn’t looking for a bailout. It’s looking for a loan for operating cash that it wouldn’t be asking for had it been receiving the money owed by NYC OTB as well as its promised cut from the so-far nonexistent slots at Aqueduct.”

Not quite right, Associated Press: “NYRA, plagued for years by poor management and sinking revenues, emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2008 with the help of a $105 million state bailout that sent $75 million to creditors and $30 million to help NYRA until the Aqueduct ‘racino’ opened.” Take note, anonymous reporter, that was no bailout in 2008 — it was cash for land, and the state got a sweet deal on valuable parcels as part of the franchise agreement it made with NYRA.

Regarding a similar error in a story about the current situation, Ed Fountaine asks, “Is this use of the incendiary term ‘bailout’ just shoddy journalism, or a willful disregard for the truth?” Neither answer is a good one, for anyone who cares about journalism or New York racing.

In New Jersey, Monmouth Park has momentum and attention. Saturday, opening day for the rich experimental meet, drew a crowd of 17,903 (an increase of 74% over 2009) and attracted $9,357,444 in handle (more than double last year, and a record for a non-Haskell day). There was more good news for the track on Sunday, with 8500 in attendance and $7,046,389 in handle (an increase of 126% over the same day in 2009). Trainers are enjoying the “bargain hunting possibilities” brought on by horses priced so low, running for so much. Out of six claiming races on Saturday, 11 horses went to new barns. The pace picked up on Sunday, with 19 horses claimed out of five races.

Goldikova returns triumphant: Watch the Prix d’Ispahan replay. The 6-year-old mare will start next at Royal Ascot. “I think she’s better than last year, when she just hated the heavy ground,” said trainer Freddie Head.

Belmont buzz horses: On Saturday, Afleet Express, a 3-year-old son of Afleet Alex, made an impression winning a seven-furlong allowance by 7 3/4 lengths in 1:21.72 as the 7-5 favorite for trainer Jimmy Jerkens. He was given a Beyer speed figure of 115, the best for any age sprinting, and second, at any distance or age, only to the 121 given Quality Road for the Donn Handicap. [5/25/10 Update: BSF revised to 107.] On Sunday, Flawless debuted with a 13 1/4 length win in a seven-furlong maiden special, zipping through a first quarter in :22.80 and a half in :46.57 as the even-money favorite. And get this: “She wasn’t cranked,” said trainer Bill Mott.