Jess Jackson has made his first decision: No Alabama for Rachel Alexandra. So what, you might say. That wasn't the place to run her anyway. Well, I believe that's just where she should have run.
Yes, I know that race would have proven little, and that she has transcended 3-year-old filly competition (using the word competition very loosely). But where does it say she has to prove herself every race?
My colleague Ed Fountaine of the New York Post wrote a column last week stating all the reasons why the Alabama would be the right race for Rachel. Although, most people would disagree with him, I am in total agreement.
So, the Alabama will not do anything to boost Rachel Alexandra's claim as Horse of the Year. If there is one horse who does not need to boost that claim it is Rachel. The Alabama is one of the most prestigious races in the country and offers a purse of $600,000. And some talented fillies were entered. What's wrong with showcasing Rachel in front of a packed house at Saratoga and let the fans simply enjoy her presence and watch her put on another show? Imagine the cheers as she glides down the Saratoga stretch in all her splendor. This one would have been for the fans. The race would not have taken too much out of her and would have set her up to take on older males in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, which would indeed cap off an amazing Horse of the Year campaign - Fair Grounds Oaks, Fantasy Stakes, Kentucky Oaks, Preakness, Mother Goose, Haskell Invitational, Alabama, Jockey Club Gold Cup. No horse has ever had a campaign such as that. And the Alabama would have given her a 1 1/4-mile race under her belt and prevented her from having to go that far for the first time against older males, assuming the Travers and Personal Ensign are not on her agenda.
Let's look at the options with which Jackson has left himself. The Woodward, regardless of how inferior you might think the older horses are this year - and it's far from a stellar group - they still are older horses, and a 3-year-old filly facing older males in early September is not an easy task, even for a horse as special as Rachel. And then she'd have to come back and do it again in the Gold Cup, going 10 panels for the first time. She doesn't need to beat basically the same older males twice. Once is quite sufficient. And as mentioned before, the Alabama would have set her up perfectly for the Gold Cup, giving her the necessary bottom. Also, the Labor Day weekend is not the best time to show off a star like Rachel, especially with it being so late this year. Most people are already home and getting ready to return to work or school.
Jackson won the Woodward last year with Curlin, but the buzz just wasn't there, nor were the numbers, despite an extensive marketing campaign by NYRA. And then Curlin winds up struggling to beat a horse he should have beaten by 10 lengths. This is Saratoga. Nothing is a certainty here.
Regarding the other alternatives, Jackson already has Kensei looking to boost his reputation as a stallion in the Travers, so it would make no sense to run Rachel there, unless he's willing to pass up that opportunity with Kensei and run him in the grade II Pennsylvania Derby, with its $1-million purse. Asmussen already has Soul Warrior set for Philly Park.
Running in the Travers would pit Rachel against Quality Road, who has to make a huge stretch-out from 6 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/4 miles. Although that is a daunting task, remember that Quality Road has the same running style as Rachel and would be hounding her the whole way. On top of that, physically, he's a beast. Although a gentle giant in his stall, Quality Road is a ton of horse with shoulders like The Incredible Hulk. He's extremely athletic for such a big horse, he's every bit as fast and brilliant as Rachel, and while we can't say for sure if he's ready to win the Travers, he definitely will be an imposing presence for a filly who is used to being an imposing presence herself and who has never looked a horse like Quality Road in the eye before. No disrespect to Mine That Bird and Summer Bird, who are both exceptional horses, but if f there is a superstar among the 3-year-old colts it is Quality Road.
The Personal Ensign is run this year the day after the Travers, making it anticlimactic, and many people will be heading home by then. Also, that is usually a strangely run race and always produces slow times and for the most part unusual results. Ashado was beaten by longshot Shadow Cast at 2-5. Wild Spirit was beaten by longshot Passing Shot at 1-5. Unbridled Belle was beaten by longshot Miss Shop at 8-5. Azeri was beaten at 3-5. Escena was beaten at 4-5. Beautiful Pleasure was beaten at 2-1. The race is rarely run in under 2:03 and change. In short, this is a dangerous race, which has been a killer on favorites. It's best not to fool around here.
So, that brings the question of which of these races to choose. They all have their gremlins. It could very well be that Rachel is special enough to overcome them, but it wouldn't be wise to go into any of them feeling cocky.
Of course, there is the big NYRA Beldame blitz, complete with unknown sponsor and elimination of the detention barn, to keep in mind, but that's not until Oct. 3, so Rachel would need a race anyway, and that match-up coming to fruition is still a longshot.
What's important is now. By turning in a sharp five-furlong work on Monday, Rachel appears ready to run, and we all know anything can happen between now and the Travers or the Personal Ensign or the Woodward. As the old-time trainers used to say, if they're ready to run, you run them. The Alabama was the perfect spot for her, but to resort to a cliché, that ship has sailed.