As soon as Jess Jackson announced his plans to run Rachel Alexandra in the Woodward Stakes, the historical significance of such an attempt was made known in various publications, as were comments that Jackson is taking the easy way out, running against inferior older horses instead of much more accomplished 3-year-olds in the Travers.
We have learned that no filly, of any age, has ever won the Woodward. The last filly to attempt it was Lady's Secret in 1986, finishing second to Precisionist. Summer Guest was last of five starters behind Prove Out and Secretariat in 1973. The year before, the Rokeby Stable filly finished second to stablemate Key to the Mint (as a 3-year-old), only to be disqualified to third for ducking out in the stretch. Those last two races, however, were at a mile and a half at Belmont at the end of September, not a mile and an eighth at Saratoga in the beginning of September. In fact, the Woodward, until recently, has always been run at Belmont or Aqueduct at the end of September, regardless of its many distance changes. In its early days, it normally proved to be THE race to determine Horse of the Year.
So, does Rachel's attempt to win the Woodward have any historical perspective, or would it make more sense to compare it to running in the Whitney, which for most of its history has been run in early August and at the same track and distance as the Woodward is now? Only three fillies have won the Whitney: Gallorette as a 6-year-old, and Lady's Secret and Personal Ensign as 4-year-olds. The last time the Whitney had the kind of fanfare this year's Woodward likely will have was when the track opened the infield to the public to accommodate the large crowd that was expected to see Secretariat take on older horses. The vast majority of them left disappointed after Big Red was upset by Onion.
This year's Woodward is sort of a cross between the old Woodward and the Whitney and falls right in between those two races on the calendar. The bottom line is that there is no way to put any real historical significance to what Rachel will be attempting.
As for the comments that this is the easier race of the two, that may very well prove to be true, but let's not forget just how uncommon it is for a 3-year-old filly, no matter how brilliant, to take on older horses in early Spetember. There is a reason for that. Picture an exciting young boxer, who captures the public's imagination by winning his first 20 fights, all by knockout, most of them in the first round. It all seems so easy. Then, for the first time, he takes on some hard-nosed veteran with a rather ordinary record, but who has been through the wars and knows his way around the ring. The young fighter doesn't have it quite so easy, even though his raw talent and knockout punch are far superior to that of his opponent.
I'm not implying by any means that Bullsbay or Asiatic Boy or It's a Bird or Cool Coal Man or Da' Tara or whoever shows up in the Woodward is going to beat Rachel. I'm just saying don't go by what appears obvious. This is a lot more than being about speed figures and raw talent. Running a 3-year-old filly against older males is not the same as running against fellow 3-year-olds - male or female. As I said, there is a reason it's never attempted. Of course, we haven't seen a filly as brilliant and powerful as Rachel in many years, perhaps never, and she could very well dominate these older horses as she has her other opponents. But no one should go into this race feeling too cocky and believing that this is the far easier spot. Bullsbay does have his explosive victory in the Whitney in him. Asiatic Boy does have a sweep of the UAE Triple Crown and a second to Curlin in the Dubai World Cup in him, and has raced with distinction on three continents. It's a Bird does have his impressive Oaklawn Handicap win in him. Even Da' Tara, who has been a big disappointment, has his runaway Belmont Stakes victory in him. Any of those performances can emerge at any time.
Proceed with caution and if Rachel puts on another show, then you can savor the victory even more and not feel as if she took the easy way out.
In 1975, NYRA put on the ill-fated match race between Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure, but what many don't realize is that the original concept was to have a three-horse race among the three classic winners - Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure, Preakness winner Master Derby, and Belmont winner Avatar. That didn't materialize, as Avatar had already returned to California to prepare for the rich Swaps Stakes, which was only two years old and had almost doubled its purse that year. NYRA wanted to substitute Ruffian, but Foolish Pleasure's trainer LeRoy Jolley wanted no part of that scenario. If he was going to train Foolish Pleasure for speed he did not want to kill his horse running with Ruffian and possibly setting it up for Master Derby. So, NYRA eliminated Master Derby from the mix and that's how the match race came to be.
All that leads to the following scenario. Imagine a three-horse field with Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, and Careless Jewel. Although that will never happen, it's at least interesting to look at what could be a perfect three-horse race scenario. Careless Jewel on the lead, Rachel Alexandra in second, and Zenyatta in third. All three would have the opportunity to run their race, even Zenyatta, as Rachel and Careless Jewel would have to hook up at some point. Anyway, it's fun to just imagine it.