This Saturday will mark the 10th anniversary
of Rachel Alexandra's gut-wrenching victory in the Woodward Stakes that
culminated arguably the most remarkable season ever by a 3-year-old filly. The
race would prove costly not only to Rachel but those who tested her in one of
the emotionally charged races ever run at Saratoga. To commemorate that amazing
race I am reprinting my recap (with several additions and statistics) to relive
all the drama and excitement of a race that will most definitely withstand the
test of time.
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 in 2009 and on occasion in 2010.
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
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. Racing's grand old lady has experienced many
great moments in 145 years, but never has she been engulfed by such an eruption
of sound as she was on this day.
But it came
at a price. The Woodward would claim not only the victor, but those who dared
to challenge her. Rachel would go on to win other races, but we would never
again see that same grace and devastating power and the sheer joy of running we
witnessed in the spring and summer of 2009.
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. I think she's the best I've ever seen. I don't compare her
The skeptics will point out that Macho Again and Bullsbay were just ordinary
horses, and defeating them did nothing to boost Rachel's reputation. A good
deal of that skepticism was based on what they did, or didn't do, after the
Woodward. What they didn't realize was 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 and
third-place finisher Bullsbay raced a total of 10 more times and managed only
one second-place finish by the latter.
Macho Again went into the Woodward having won the Stephen Foster Handicap and
New Orleans Handicap and the previous year's Jim Dandy Stakes, and Derby Trial
Stakes with rousing stretch runs, and was second in the Preakness and Super
Derby. He came into the Woodward off 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 turn of foot,
in which he went from 11 lengths back to the lead, was one of the highlights of
Also in the Woodward, making a threatening move on the far turn, was Asiatic
Boy, the first horse ever to sweep the United Arab Emirates Triple Crown. He
also was 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. Past the Point, who looked Rachel in the eye after she seemingly had
been softened up by classic winner Da' Tara and Cool Coal Man, had put a scare
in Horse of the Year Curlin in the previous year's Woodward, pulling up to his
flank in the stretch, only to be beaten 1 1/4 lengths.
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.
What made her victory even more impressive was that it was her
eighth of the year, at seven different racetracks, and ninth in succession,
including victories over males in the Preakness and Haskell Invitational.
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
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 at her."
As the field approached the starting gate, majority
owner Jess Jackson took a final sip of his beverage and stared intently at his
filly, as his wife, Barbara Banke, held her hand against the side of her face
and continuously rocked back and forth in her seat. Several boxes away, an
intense Asmussen leaned forward and sat there motionless while Julie clasped
her hands together and rested them against her lips. They were well aware that
Rachel was only nine furlongs away from entrance into the pantheon of the
A roar went up from the crowd of almost 32,000 as the field broke
from the gate.
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 3/4-length romp
in the Albert the Great Stakes. It was apparent from the start that Rachel had
the proverbial bull's-eye 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.
Rachel continued to dig in and would not let Macho Again get by. This was a
filly who had won all her races eased up with her ears pricked, never feeling
the sting of the whip. Now she had her ears pinned and was under a salvo of
left and right-handed whips by a frantic Borel. Rachel would not be denied,
hitting the wire a head in front. 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.
Rachel's time still is the fastest Woodward in the seven years
it's been run at Saratoga - faster than Curlin, Quality Road, Lawyer Ron, Havre
de Grace, Premium Tap, and To Honor and Serve.
Rachel returned to a deafening ovation, which reached a crescendo
when a jubilant Borel led the daughter of Medaglia
d'Oro into the winner's circle. After the photo, Borel draped the
blanket of pink carnations over his shoulder and dismounted.
Rachel Alexandra had become the first filly to win the Woodward.
The last 3-year-old filly to even run in the race was Summer Guest in 1972.
This was the equivalent of a 23-year-old girl beating 30-something males. No
3-year-old filly had ever defeated older males in a two-turn, grade 1 dirt
race. The last to win a major two-turn dirt stakes over her elders was Misty
Morn in the 1955 Gallant Fox Handicap.
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."
Jackson, who owned Rachel in partnership with Harold
McCormick, summed it up best: "I think she's something for the ages. The 56th
running of the Woodward was a great one for the history books, and I'm so
pleased for her. For her to hang in there like that with six giant males racing
with her was something special."
Asmussen said the early fractions "may have taken a few years off
my life but it was probably worth it."
After signing dozens of autographs, Asmussen hopped over the fence
of the jockey's quarters and headed to the test barn, receiving congratulations
the entire way.
"You deserve all the accolades," one person shouted. "No, she
does," Asmussen replied.
As he walked, he was able to reflect a bit more on what Rachel had
achieved: "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. I get nervous, I admit it. I wouldn't go downstairs until they
put her number up; that's me."
As Rachel left the test barn and crossed Union Ave. to the
Oklahoma training track, the halted traffic was already backed up and a few
lucky fans in the front cars were able to get a final look at Rachel as she
Back at the barn, Rachel was put away for the night, picking away
at her alfalfa and occasionally eyeing all the activity outside the barn.
Jackson took great pride in having orchestrated a good portion of
Rachel's perfect season, in which she became the first filly to win three grade
I races on dirt against males in a single year.
"I've made more money as a handicapper than I did as a lawyer," he
said. "We kept looking for a better target and we kept finding one."
As he was about to leave for dinner, Jackson said, "There's an
aura around her, isn't there? It was quite a day. I think I'll have a double
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."
The following morning, Asmussen arrived around 5:30
to find Rachel sprawled out in her stall. After she got up, Asmussen had the
urge to lavish some affection on her but thought better of it.
"I'm a big sap, and I wanted to hug her," he said. "And she was
like, ‘Get away from me you big sap.' She's game on. She don't belong in a
petting zoo. I'm just proud as hell, but I'm happy for racing. The fans walked
out of the grandstand smiling and not everyone walks out of the races smiling."
And how did the Asmussens celebrate the night before? "We ordered
out and watched the DVD of the race repeatedly," he said. "And we just talked
about how lucky we are to be around her."
Rachel's greatness was defined in many ways, including the
remarkable statistics she compiled.
2009, Rachel constantly was flattered by horses she
trounced. Gabby's Golden Gal was beaten 29 1/4 lengths by
Rachel in the Kentucky Oaks and came back to win the grade I Acorn Stakes in
1:34 3/5. Flashing was beaten 31 1/2 lengths by Rachel in the Mother Goose and
came back to win the grade I Test Stakes by 1 1/2 lengths. Summer Bird was
beaten six lengths by Rachel in the Haskell and came back to win the Travers
Stakes by 3 1/2 lengths and the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Take the Points was
beaten 32 3/4 lengths by Rachel in the Preakness and came back to win the grade
I Secretariat Stakes. Just Jenda was beaten 11 3/4 lengths by Rachel in the
Fantasy Stakes and came back to win the Monmouth Oaks by 4 1/4 lengths.
Jovi Girl, beaten 14 3/4 lengths by Rachel in the Fantasy Stakes, came back to
win the Susan's Girl Stakes by eight lengths and place in the then grade 2
Cotillion Stakes and the grade I Gazelle Stakes. Malibu Prayer, beaten 19 1/4
lengths in the Mother Goose, went on to win the Chilukki Stakes at Churchill
Downs, an overnight stakes at Belmont by 6 3/4 lengths, and finish second in
the Delaware Oaks and Monmouth Oaks. In 2010, she won the grade I Ruffian
Handicap. Past the Point, beaten 17 3/4 lengths by Rachel in the Woodward, came
right back to finish second, beaten a half-length, in the grade 3 Bold Ruler
Stakes. Although Munnings, beaten seven lengths in the Haskell, did not win a
subsequent stakes, he did finish third in the grade 1 King's Bishop and
Vosburgh on sloppy tracks before being retired. Even
Sara Louise, who was beaten 4 3/4 lengths by Rachel in the previous year's
Golden Rod, won the grade 3 Victory Ride Stakes at Saratoga in 1:09 3/5 in her
3-year-old debut and then captured the grade 2 Ladies Handicap.
Defeated eight Derby winners (Kentucky Derby, Santa Anita Derby, Arkansas
Derby, Louisiana Derby, Illinois Derby, Tampa Bay Derby, Iowa Derby, and UAE
Derby), plus the runner-up in the West Virginia Derby.
Defeated eight grade I-winning males, including the winners of the Belmont
Stakes (twice), Travers, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Whitney, Stephen Foster, Blue
Grass, and Secretariat Stakes, as well as the winners of the Oaklawn Handicap,
New Orleans Handicap, Jim Dandy Stakes, Tom Fool Handicap. Woody Stephens
Stakes, and Lone Star Handicap.
Became the first filly to defeat three classic-winning males, and defeated the
1-2-3 finishers of the Kentucky Derby, the 1-2 finishers of the Whitney, the
1-2 finishers of the Stephen Foster, and the 1-3 finishers of the Belmont
Her last six victories in 2009 all had historical significance.
Fantasy Stakes -- Biggest margin in the history of the race (8 3/4 lengths).
Kentucky Oaks -- Biggest margin in the history of the race (20 1/4 lengths).
Preakness -- First filly to win the Preakness in 85 years and the first horse
in history to win from post 13.
Mother Goose -- Biggest margin in the history of the race (19 1/4 lengths),
previously held by Ruffian, and ran the fastest time in the history of the race
(1:46 1/5) -- I cannot recall ever seeing a horse run so fast (four-fifths off
Secretariat's track and then-American record) so easily, with the possible
exception of Dr. Fager's world record mile at Arlington.
Haskell -- Second biggest margin in the history of the race (six lengths), and
second fastest time (1:47 1/5) in the history of the race by one fifth of a
second, and two fifths of a second off the track record set by Spend a Buck 24
Woodward -- First filly in history to win the Woodward, and ran the fastest
time since the race was moved to Saratoga.
Even winning the Woodward by a head and the Preakness by one length, Rachel's
average margin of victory in 2009 was an astounding 8 1/4 lengths.
course, will remember Rachel for her devastating victories in the Kentucky Oaks
and Mother Goose, her classic score in the Preakness, and her romp in the
Haskell. But what truly defined Rachel's greatness was her courageous victory
in the Woodward at the end of an ambitious, unprecedented campaign.
No one will
ever know for sure what toll the Woodward took on her. There is no doubt she
was not the same horse in 2010, and there is no denying the fact that, although
she remained in Asmussen's barn over the winter, she did not have a single work
in five months, and when she did finally work she bore little resemblance to
the filly from the previous year, exhibiting flaws she had never exhibited
She did show
occasional sparks of her old self during the year, but also a vulnerability she
had never shown.
We can only
speculate just how much of her she left on the track that day at Saratoga. But
there's one thing that is certain.
She left behind a moment to cherish; a moment when the historic Spa became
engulfed in emotion, and most of all engulfed by the courage and greatness of