Rachel and Jess

“The queen is dead. Long live the queen.” OK, so it’s not quite as dramatic as Charles VII’s ascension to the throne of France following the death of his father. But the way people are talking, one would think Queen Rachel has abdicated her throne after only two months and a “shocking” defeat at the hands of an inferior rival.

Like any good juicy tale of the monarchy, this one comes with the usual intrigue and conspiratorial plots. John Shirreffs, the caretaker of Zenyatta, next in line to the throne, plotted against the Queen by testing her lack of physical fortitude in order to soften her up for Zenyatta’s coup d’etat attempt on April 9.

Well, Shirreffs’ shifty little plan actually backfired from a monetary aspect, as it wound up potentially costing him a few hundred thousand dollars.

So, here we are in the aftermath of this Shakespearean drama with the once-mighty Queen licking her wounds after falling from grace and the Xena-like warrior Zenyatta firmly entrenched in the hearts and minds of the people.

OK, time to return to reality. In the realm of Thoroughbred racing, we currently live in a land divided. There are the Rachel radicals and the Zenyatta zealots, as much at odds with each other as the far left and the far right. And then there are the independents who can appreciate the greatness of both fillies.

“See, Zenyatta is the true Horse of the Year and should have been crowned Queen,” say the zealots. “Rachel wasn’t ready for battle on this day and would have sent Zenyatta back to California with her tail between her legs on April 9,” say the radicals.

The truth of the matter is that the Apple Blossom showdown turned into one big mess. Zenyatta certainly did her part with another of her goosebump inducing victories. Some say Rachel did not look like the Rachel of last year following a six-month layoff and no workouts in the first five of those months. Others say her race in the New Orleans was an excellent prep and set her up well for the Apple Blossom.

Should we have been shocked that Rachel was beaten in her first start back? Here is what her owner and trainer had to say before the race:

“We are stretching to get there. But if we’re not in top shape, we’re not going” – Jess Jackson (key on “stretching to get there” and “not in top shape”)

“If they (Zenyatta) beat us in one race, they might just disappear and retire her undefeated.”  -- Jess Jackson (who seemed to be conceding the distinct possibility of defeat and was challenging Jerry and Moss to a return match before the race was even run).

“I think they are trying to size us up. It makes sense for them (to run Zardana at Fair Grounds). They want to catch us short.” – Jess Jackson all but admitting Rachel was going to be short.

“I’m not afraid to lose, but it’s not going to do Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra any good if either one of them are not at their best.” – Jess Jackson already throwing “lose” and “not at (her) best” around. Forget the addition of Zenyatta to that comment; it was merely window dressing.

“I am very concerned about her fitness level.”
– Steve Asmussen

These are not the comments of people bubbling over with confidence. So, if they, especially Jackson, were aware that Rachel would be vulnerable, why all the contradictions between trainer and owner after the race and why the hasty decision by Jackson?

Last year, Jackson was just the opposite of hasty. His decisions were usually made at the 11th hour as the racing world sat and waited to find out where Rachel would be running next.

Now, he has made a complete 180 with two hasty decisions. The first one was announcing Rachel would run in the Apple Blossom on April 9 just days after saying that she wouldn’t be ready for the Apple Blossom on April 3. For a horse whose fitness level was a concern to her trainer, it is difficult to imagine six days making much of a difference. Then he decides to back out of the Apple Blossom an hour or two after his trainer comments how great Rachel came out of the race.

So, what was all this really about? Do Jackson and Asmussen actually speak to each other? Unlike the beloved Cleaver family to whom Zenyatta belongs, could it be that Rachel is part of some dysfunctional family that travels in parallel lines, rarely crossing paths? No one has ever gotten close enough to find out. Only Jackson and Asmussen can say whether it’s one big happy family. In his latest announcement, Jackson said “I decided” when discussing the decision, yet also said “Steve and I discussed this fully and we now regret we tried to accelerate her training.” And perhaps the most telling comment was, “…just as I had anticipated, she is not in top form.”

Well, if that was what he had anticipated, why did he go against his initial gut feeling when he said no to the Apple Blossom, because Rachel was not fit? Was she really going to get fit enough to take on Zenyatta with an extra six days?” Many feel the New Orleans Ladies did indeed help her get fit, but not being around her, that is mere conjecture.

Jackson ended his statement with his favorite line: “She will tell us when her next race will be.”

Did she tell them this time? Did she say she wanted her next race to be in the New Orleans Ladies? Did she say “I can beat Zenyatta on April 9, but not on April 3?” And did she tell them after the race, “I was wrong; I wasn’t ready for this race and I won’t ready for the Apple Blossom?” Is it Rachel who actually is to blame for the defeat by giving Jackson bad information? Why then would he listen to her in the future?”

No, it was not Rachel’s fault. It was not Steve Asmussen’s fault. And, who knows, maybe it wasn’t Jackson’s fault. No one was criticizing his decision before she got beat.

The bottom line is that only Jackson can say what he was thinking accepting the invitation to the Apple Blossom after saying he wouldn’t. Only Jackson can say what he was thinking when he backed out for the second time. But he doesn’t say. He just issues abstruse statements that veil what he’s really feeling. So, that is all we can go by.

Jackson has done a great deal with the magnificent package he purchased last spring, presenting her to the world in a manner that was more common a half-century ago. But despite his lengthy speeches at the Eclipse Awards dinner and post-race interviews, he really doesn’t allow people to see what is behind those words. Individually, they are the right words. But strung together they lose any real meaning.

Some of the harsh criticism directed at Jackson is warranted. Some of it is not. That’s because we have no idea who Jess Jackson is. Now that this fiasco is over, it’s time to look ahead. It’s time for Jackson to speak from the gut and let people in on it. He must remember that if Rachel indeed is capable of saying what her next race should be, she is saying it to Steve Asmussen and Scott Blasi and Dominic Terry. They are the ones who have more physical contact with her than patting her on the nose in the winner’s circle a few times a year. It’s OK for Jackson to listen to Rachel, but from now on it would be serve his (and Rachel’s) best interest to use an interpreter.

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