Rachel and the Woodward

Another Saratoga meet had passed into history, and all eyes were now on Belmont Park’s Super Saturday. But the one star who would have truly made it super was missing. Rachel Alexandra, racing’s reigning monarch had days earlier been forced to abdicate her throne and was now preparing to depart for another life.

The autumn leaves, in different shades of browns and yellows, were already falling in upstate New York. The Oklahoma training track was quiet, seemingly a million miles away from the cheers that greeted New York‘s own, Haynesfield, following his stirring victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. A little over an hour earlier, Life At Ten, who had finished more than 10 lengths behind Rachel Alexandra in the Personal Ensign Stakes, was being led into the winner’s circle with little fanfare after a workmanlike victory in the Beldame Stakes, a race Rachel had been pointing for.

There would be even less fanfare several days later as Rachel bid farewell to the racetrack and embarked on her journey to Kentucky and life as a broodmare. There were no trumpet calls, no banners waving, no cheering crowds. Those days were gone. It is unfortunate that Rachel’s adoring fans never got a chance to give her a proper goodbye. The last sounds Rachel should have heard were the cheers that had been so familiar to her last year and on occasion this year.

Instead, she left Saratoga in silence. It had been some 13 months since those old rafters rocked like they had never rocked before. Thinking back to that emotion-filled September afternoon when Rachel Alexandra left part of herself on the Saratoga stretch, it was as if her 2010 campaign never happened. Misguided from the beginning, it surely will fade from memory with time. But even in her narrow defeats, Rachel never stopped giving her all, battling to the wire against foes she would have left reeling the year before.

The clouds that enshrouded her 4-year-old season will quickly dissipate, bringing clarity to a 2009 tour de force that likely will never be equaled by a 3-year-old filly.

And for as long as racing fans flock to Saratoga in droves each year, that final triumph in the Woodward Stakes will remain frozen in time, as will the deafening roar that greeted Rachel Alexandra following her gut-wrenching victory, which would eventually claim not only the victor, but those who dared to challenge her.

As 97-year-old racing legend John Nerud pointed out. “They sent two speed horses after her and made her go in :22 4/5, then they came after her one at a time and she put them all away. Those were tough older horses and they tried everything they could to get her beat and they couldn’t.”

The skeptics will point out that runner-up Macho Again and third-place finisher Bullsbay were of lesser quality, and defeating them did nothing to boost Rachel’s reputation. What they don’t realize is that the horses who entered the starting gate to face Rachel in the Woodward were far different than the shattered fragments that remained after they looked Rachel in the eye.

Macho Again went into the Woodward having won the Stephen Foster Handicap and New Orleans Handicap with rousing stretch runs and was a fast-closing second to Bullsbay in the Whitney, run in a sharp 1:48 flat for the 1 1/8 miles. Bullsbay had finished a close fourth, beaten 1 ¼ lengths, in the Stephen Foster and had won the Alysheba Stakes at Churchill Downs. In the Whitney, his explosive of turn of foot, in which he went from 11 lengths back to the lead, was one of the highlights of the meet.

Also in the Woodward was Asiatic Boy, winner of the U.A.E. Triple Crown, second in the Dubai World Cup to Curlin, second in the Stephen Foster to Macho Again, finishing ahead of Einstein, and second in the Suburban Handicap. Another in the Woodward field was Past the Point, who finished second, beaten 1 ¼ lengths by Horse of the Year Curlin in the previous year’s Woodward.

All these horses went into the Woodward coming off a win or a second. All made their moves at Rachel at some point, and none were ever the same. This was a race that gutted Rachel and all those who challenged her. Rachel gave every ounce of her being, turning back one challenge after another in testing fractions, and who knows in the long run how much of her heart spilled out onto the Saratoga track that day.

It was her bravery in battle at the end of one of the most ambitious 3-year-old campaigns in the history of the sport that truly defined her greatness and set off the wave of emotion that greeted her after the race and the pandemonium that engulfed all those standing on the racetrack.
 
It was that same bravery that had her trainer, Steve Asmussen, weeping in his wife Julie’s arms, as he buried his head in her embrace. When his oldest son, Keith, said to him, “I’ve never seen you cry at the races,” Asmussen replied, “I never needed to.”
 
And it was that bravery that had her exercise rider Dominic Terry bawling behind his sunglasses and walking around in a daze, repeating, “She did it…she did it…she did it.” The following morning, he still was “physically and mentally exhausted.”
 
Noted veterinarian Dr. Mark Cheney said, “You don’t see many horses livin’ that could have won that race.”
 
Even the vanquished became caught up in the enormity of Rachel’s achievement. “She had everything thrown at her and she overcame it all,” said Graham Motion, trainer of Bullsbay. “I’ve never seen anything like it. You had that feeling of a horse trying for the Triple Crown. It’s the stuff of legends.”
 
Motion spoke as he and his wife Anita were driving away from the test barn and heading back to their barn a short distance away. Remaining behind was their 12-year-old daughter Jane, who was waiting patiently outside the gates of the test barn with camera in hand.
 
“She’s not worried about my horse,” Motion said jokingly. “She wants to stay and see the filly.”
 
All Jane wanted was one photo of Rachel Alexandra. “I just want to show my friends,” she said.
 
Rachel Alexandra will forever remain a part of Saratoga history. Prior to the Woodward, there were signs all along Broadway, reading, “Rachel Alexandra: Run Like a Girl.”

Saratoga mayor Scott T. Johnson proclaimed Sept. 5, 2009 “Rachel Alexandra Day.” Two days before the Woodward, Rachel received a huge ovation when she schooled in the paddock, as a horde of photographers, cameramen, and onlookers followed after her like a pack of paparazzi. All Asmussen could say was, “She’s a deserving diva.”
 
On race day, fans began lining up to secure their place around the paddock and along the path leading to the paddock several races before the Woodward. As the race approached, the cheers could be heard well off in the distance, signifying Rachel’s imminent arrival.
 
“I’ve walked over for a lot of big races – the Dubai World Cup, the Triple Crown races, last year’s Woodward,” said assistant Scott Blasi. “I have never felt that kind of adoration for one horse. I’m talking about people 10 deep on both sides walking to the paddock, and all they want to do is get a glimpse of her. If anyone thinks people don’t love horse racing they should have been in my shoes walking to the paddock.”
 
Asmussen added, “I’ve never seen them lined up like that. It was like a soccer game where everybody is pressed up against each other to get a look. When we walked Curlin over last year it was a big deal, but it wasn’t anything like this. They were three and four deep for Curlin, and they were at least 10 deep just to get a peek of her.”
 
The race itself was amazing in that just about every horse in the field took a run at Rachel. First it was 2008 Belmont Stakes winner Da’ Tara, then his hard-knocking stablemate Cool Coal Man, who was coming off a 12 ¾-length romp in the Albert the Great Stakes. It was apparent from the start
that Rachel had the proverbial bullseye on her back, and one by one, the darts were being hurled at her.
 
After a brutal opening quarter in :22 4/5, track announcer Tom Durkin bellowed, “There’ll be no free ride for Rachel Alexandra. They’re making her work for every step today.”
 
In the stands, Jackson’s bloodstock agent John Moynihan, like many, had a sinking feeling. “I put my program down and put my head in my hands,” he said. “All I could think was, ‘How could this have happened today?”
 
When Da’ Tara and Cool Coal Man began their rapid retreats following a half in :46 2/5, Past the Point took his run at Rachel, the three-quarters in a testing in 1:10 2/5. Rachel thwarted that bid, and then came the big final assault. Bullsbay, who was so explosive in the Whitney, pulled up to her flank turning for home, as Asiatic Boy and Macho Again moved in for the kill, expecting to encounter a softened up Rachel in the final furlong.
 
Rachel was set down by Calvin Borel, who hit her five times right-handed and then three times left-handed. She turned back Bullsbay’s challenge, but here came a fresh Macho Again, who had found a gaping hole at the top of the stretch. The charging gray stormed up alongside Rachel, who was now being barraged with a series of 13 desperate right-handed whips from Borel. Macho Again kept coming, but Rachel kept finding more. The crowd urged Rachel to hold on, their hearts pounding with every stride.

At the wire, it was Rachel Alexandra by a head. The place went crazy. Despite her early efforts, she still was able to close her final eighth in a respectable :12 4/5 to complete the 1 1/8 miles in 1:48 1/5, earning a 109 Beyer speed figure – this coming after a grueling campaign that saw her run a 108 Beyer in the Kentucky Oaks, a 108 in the Preakness, a 111 in the Mother Goose, and a monster 116 in the Haskell Invitational.

As Rachel was led back to the barn and the crowd began to quiet down, Durkin announced, “Well, folks, if your heart can take it, we’ve got two more races.”
 
Asmussen walked back with her and was able to reflect a bit more on what she had accomplished: “It’s hard enough to be brilliant once in a while, but every race? Oh, my God, she’s been doing it since mid-February. She showed she’s truly a champion today.”
 
As darkness fell, assistant trainer Blasi tried to put everything in perspective. “She’s absolutely unbelievable,” he said. “There’s no comparing her to anyone. They all compare to her now. What she did today, you will never see anything like it again.”
 
Nor are we likely to see anything like the 2009 Rachel Alexandra again. In a way it is sad we never got to see Rachel and Zenyatta meet. But maybe it was destined that these two shooting stars were put here not to collide, but to be gazed upon with wonderment, traveling on parallel paths.

One of these stars is gone, and the other is preparing to light up the skies as they’ve never been lit up before. Then, she, too, will be gone. Until then, one can only say their goodbyes to Rachel Alexandra by sharing memories of a magical season that ended on an unforgettable afternoon at Saratoga.

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