Preakness Recap: Remarkable Rachel
- May 20, 2009
Rachel Carson, author of "Silent Spring," wrote: "One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, 'What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?'"
Although Carson was referring to the beauties of the Earth, in the world of Thoroughbred racing she could have been alluding to another Rachel, who in her own way gives new meaning to Carson's words. Have we ever seen anything quite like her before? Will we ever see anything quite like her again?
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Following Rachel Alexandra's magnificent victory in the Preakness Stakes, comparisons to the great Ruffian are bound to surface. No filly likely will ever attain as lofty a status as racing's ill-fated "Black Beauty." But Rachel, like Ruffian, has raised the equine genus up a notch and left minds wondering to what level of greatness she can climb.
Whether she runs in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) or not, her Preakness victory has already left major repercussions. By purchasing the filly and running her in the Preakness, Jess Jackson has added a new and unforgettable chapter to the annals of the Triple Crown. But he also may have prevented a long-awaited Triple Crown sweep. And assuming Mine That Bird would have won the Preakness without Rachel in the race, her presence very well may have cost the New York Racing Association and the Belmont Stakes tens of thousands of additional fans. But that is all conjecture and the nature of the sport.
Mine That Bird would have been one of the most compelling horses ever to attempt to make Triple Crown history. But obviously we don't know how he will fare in the Test of the Champion. We do know that the poor horse keeps losing his riders despite his heroics. We also know that, because of Jackson's daring move, Rachel's extraordinary performance, and Mine That Bird's explosive efforts in the Kentucky and Preakness, as well as numerous soap opera-like moments along the way, racing has given us a spring that has been anything but silent.
And now for the story of the race, as re-printed in part from Blood-Horse magazine:
Calvin Borel, following several minutes of hugs and high-fives from fellow jockeys, valets, and jocks room attendants, finally made it to his locker. He raised both hands and slammed them down on his bench, then let out a short single shriek and said, "That is a runnin' mother." Poetry comes in all forms of expression.
Two days earlier, as Rachel Alexandra emerged from her saddling stall while being schooled in the paddock, her coat glistened under the amber lights and her sheer magnificence filled the eye. Ross Peddicord, former racing writer for the Baltimore Sun and current publisher of Maryland Life magazine, took one look at her and exclaimed, "Oh, my God!" Sometimes, simplicity is the truest form of flattery.
The morning after Rachel Alexandra's emotion-packed victory over Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird in the May 16 Preakness Stakes, trainer Steve Asmussen stood alone outside the filly's stall, caressing her forehead and muzzle with soft circular strokes for a good 10 minutes prior to her boarding a van to the airport.
"She's an extremely rare individual," Asmussen said. "She is the ultimate gift."
--Trainer Steve Asmussen
These are just a few of the many ways people have reacted to or attempted to describe what appears to be one of the great fillies of all time.
For Asmussen, the key word is "gift." He realizes how fortunate he is to have taken over the training of Rachel Alexandra following her purchase by Jess Jackson and Harold McCormick on May 7, which set off an unusual series of events that resulted in Borel taking off Mine That Bird, on whom he had won the Run for the Roses with an electrifying last-to-first move, winning by 6 3/4 lengths at odds of 50-1.
When Asmussen and Jackson offered Borel the Preakness mount on Rachel Alexandra, a winner of five consecutive stakes with Borel aboard, including a 20 1/4-length romp in the Kentucky Oaks, he had no choice but to follow his heart and give up the mount on the Derby winner to ride the "best horse" he has ever ridden, and for whom he has expressed his deep affection.
It turned out to be a fortuitous decision for Borel, as well as for Asmussen and Jackson. Rachel Alexandra's one-length victory in the Preakness after breaking awkwardly from the 13-post and battling head and head through testing fractions, stamped her as something out of the ordinary, as she became the first filly to win the black-eyed susans since Nellie Morse in 1924. But the race also proved that the Kentucky Derby was no fluke, and that Mine That Bird, who had to overcome a troubled trip in the Preakness before closing like a rocket once again, was an exciting, top-class horse who, as a gelding, has a limitless future on the track.
The drama began five days after the Kentucky Derby, when Jackson announced he had purchased Rachel Alexandra from breeder/owner Dolphus Morrison and Mike Lauffer, and planned to run her in the Preakness. That news was received with trepidation by Borel, who was well aware that Robby Albarado is Asmussen's go-to rider, having ridden two-time Horse of the Year Curlin for the same connections.
Borel heard about the sale the same day he received the check for his winner's share of the Kentucky Derby purse. The following morning, he went to Asmussen's barn to let him know he would love to stay on Rachel Alexandra.
"He would have torn up the check if it meant he could ride Rachel back," said Borel's fiancée of eight years Lisa Funk. "He's been in love with her since the first time he rode her. Money doesn't mean that much to Calvin; he just loves riding horses and winning races."
It is Funk whom Borel always points to after winning a big race. "He's telling me, 'I told you so; I told you I could do it'" Funk said. "He's saying, 'If you want something bad enough, go out and get it.'"
Rachel Alexandra beats the boys to win the Preakness Stakes.
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Borel is known for wearing his emotions on his sleeve, bursting into tears after a race or getting choked up talking about his parents, both of whom are deceased. Borel was seen following this year's Kentucky Derby throwing rose petals up toward the heavens.
"Calvin is a very emotional person," Funk said. "He lives and breathes this. To achieve the thing he wants most in life brings him to tears. His parents never told him 'no.' They never insisted he stay in school or that he'd never make it as a rider. They always told him, 'If you want to be a jockey then do it. You have the talent and if you work hard enough and keep your eyes focused on it there is nothing in this world you can't achieve. Do what makes you happy, even it means riding $5,000 horses the rest of your life.'"
Borel has endured the hard life of a jockey. He began flipping (inducing vomiting after eating in order to maintain his weight) when he was 15 and only stopped three years ago after undergoing surgery on his wrist. He has broken 34 bones in his body; he has a plate in his right wrist, secured by eight screws; he's had his spleen removed, and he has plastic ribs on one side of his rib cage.
"He's been busted up so many times, yet he still always goes for that hole," said Borel's longtime agent and friend Jerry Hissam. "He's amazing. After winning the Oaks on Friday and the Derby on Saturday, he worked two horses on Sunday morning. He never complains and that's why the Good Lord has blessed him. We haven't had two cross words in 19 years."
The sale of Rachel Alexandra, a daughter of Medaglia d'Oro, out of Lotta Kim, by Roar, also hit her former trainer, 66-year-old Hal Wiggins, hard. One of the most well-liked trainers in Kentucky, Wiggins knew after hearing about the sale that he would have to say goodbye to the horse he had been waiting for all his life. The following day, Asmussen's assistant, Scott Blasi, came by and took Rachel from her stall and brought her to her new home, several barns away.
"I miss her, and the crew that was with her for the past year all miss her," Wiggins said several days later. "But they're all handling it OK now. I had two horses come in the next day and we put one of them in her stall, so they didn't have to look at that empty stall. I told everyone. 'You know what guys, they could have sold this filly before the Kentucky Oaks and we would have missed all of that. We were blessed to go through it with family and friends, so just have that as a memory. She's in the history books, so pick your heads up and let's get back to the routine.'
"It's been a dream for a trainer like me to have a horse like this and I finally did. If I wrote the book I wouldn't have written it with this ending, but the owners are happy and satisfied, and working for them I'm OK with it. It does feel funny standing by the track and seeing her walk by. But I stand proud and smile, knowing we had a part in it. Steve has been Mr. Jackson's trainer and they had tremendous luck with Curlin and other horses. When I heard who the owner was there was no question in my mind where the horse was going, and that's the way it should be, to be honest with you. He and Scott will take great care of her. I told Steve when I see her come out of that gate in the Preakness I'll be her biggest supporter, I really will."
Wiggins watched the Preakness in the owner's lounge at Churchill Downs.
"I planned on watching it at home, but I had a horse entered in the last race at Churchill and dang if she didn't get in," Wiggins said. "I was so proud of Rachel and Calvin. She's really something special. She's just got it all. I'm also happy for (Dolphis Morrison), who bred her (in Kentucky) and still owns the dam. My hat's off to Steve and his staff; they did a great job in the time they had her and kept her on the right track. The filly ran a super race and I was really glad to see the Derby winner show he was not a fluke and was totally legitimate."
When Borel was given the mount on Rachel Alexandra, it left Mine That Bird's trainer Bennie "Chip" Woolley Jr. without a rider for the Kentucky Derby winner. He eventually secured the services of Mike Smith, with the understanding that Borel would ride Mine That Bird if Rachel was withdrawn for any reason.
The Preakness marked the latest stop on the magical journey of Mine That Bird, Woolley, and exercise rider/groom Charlie Figueroa, who have traveled from Sunland Park, New Mexico to Baltimore in Woolley's pickup truck hauling Mine That Bird in a Turnbow trailer, stopping at Lone Star Park in Texas and Churchill Downs along the way. In the latest leg of the trip, they stopped only for gas and to grab a bite to eat at Arby's.
They started out from New Mexico as unknowns on what most believed to be a fool's journey, and ended up with a police escort to Pimlico. Figueroa couldn't believe it when he saw the heavy traffic on Interstates 70 and 695 clearing out of their lane to the sound of blaring police sirens and whirring helicopters. People were taking pictures from the overpass. Others stood in their front yards near Pimlico shouting words of encouragement. Figueroa, who had never been east of Oklahoma, turned to Woolley, who has driven close to 2,000 miles with a broken right leg, and said, "It's amazing what two minutes can do."
Preakness Stakes runner-up Mine That Bird.
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"Every day, we say to each other, 'Is this really happening?' Figueroa said. "I tell the horse, 'You started all this; it's all your fault.'"
When they arrived in Baltimore, Woolley said to Figueroa, "Well, we can't go any farther, we're at the Ocean."
But, despite all the hoopla, Woolley has been on a simple mission. "This has been a dream year," he said. "But I didn't come here to be a celebrity. I just came here to run a horse."
Despite losing Borel, Woolley had him work Mine That Bird at Churchill Downs before departing for Maryland, and it turned into an emotional experience.
"When he got off the horse and gave me a hug I could tell something was up," Figueroa said. "Then when he hugged Chip he just lowered his head and broke down crying. It was pretty hard on him. I knew it would be hard for him to take off a horse that had just won the Kentucky Derby. He kept telling us, 'Thank you,' but I said, 'Geez, dude, we should be thanking you.' Then he headed to the airport to go to California to be on Jay Leno."
When the word got around that Rachel Alexandra was running in the Preakness, it all but sent shivers up the spines of rival trainers and owners.
"Any man would be a fool to welcome that filly," Woolley said.
Barry Irwin, co-owner of Derby Trial winner Hull, said after withdrawing his horse from Preakness consideration, "I really don't want to run against her; it's crazy. I've never seen a race (the Kentucky Oaks) like that before in my life and that includes Secretariat's Belmont. He was rolling the whole race. She was never asked to run at any point; she was incredible."
Larry Jones, trainer of Louisiana Derby winner and Kentucky Derby favorite Friesan Fire, echoed Irwin's words. "I never got to see Ruffian, but I think this is the greatest filly we've seen since her. I'm utterly amazed every time I watch her; what she does with absolutely no effort."
Gary Stute, trainer of Arkansas Derby winner Papa Clem, admitted his chances had diminished significantly. "To be honest, it really disappointed me, because after the Kentucky Derby I felt I had one heckuva shot in the Preakness, but to be honest, I think that filly is in a different world than the rest of us."
Pioneerof the Nile's trainer Bob Baffert said of the Kentucky Oaks, "We saw greatness before our eyes. It was like watching Secretariat in the Belmont Stakes."
Pioneerof the Nile trainer Bob Baffert
David Fawkes, trainer of Big Drama, said, "I fear her more than the colts. She changes the complexion of the whole race."
Friesan Fire's co-owner Rick Porter summed it up in simple terms: "Who the hell wants to run against her?"
All Rachel Alexandra had done was win five consecutive stakes--four of them grade I or II--by an average margin of nearly nine lengths.
Some felt it was a mistake running her back in only two weeks after earning a 108 Beyer speed figure and outrageously fast numbers on the Thoro-Graph and Ragozin sheets.
"First of all, she was not that pressed in the Oaks," Jackson said in defending his decision. "If you watch Calvin ride her he didn't move a muscle except to look back to see if anyone was coming. After the finish, she re-broke down the backstretch and the outrider had to go capture her. She just wants to run. If a filly is as good as the colts they ought to compete. That is my position and that's why we came. We monitored her health very carefully to make sure she was fit and ready."
As soon as the sale was completed, an unsuspecting Amy Kearns received a call telling her to pack her bags. Kearns, who works for Jackson as part of his security team, had been living the quiet life on his farm after a tumultuous year shadowing Curlin, from Dubai to California and numerous stops in between.
"I was on the farm Wednesday night, and I was at Churchill on Thursday," Kearns said. "She wasn't even on my radar. It never occurred to me it was her. Well, you know what a goof I am. When I found out it was Rachel Alexandra I cried for about five minutes."
The morning before the race, with a dense fog enshrouding Pimlico, Rachel Alexandra went out for her first gallop over the track and could only be seen for a short while, emerging as a veiled figure out of the fog. To most of those who would chase her in the Preakness the following day, she wasn't much more visible than she was on this morning.
On Saturday, as the race grew near, a calm Asmussen sat in the hospitality tent adjacent to the stakes barn watching the races from Churchill Downs. He then got up and walked slowly back to get Rachel ready, saying he wasn't feeling any nerves.
"It's all good," he said. "I can't wait to see her run. I'm as curious as everyone else."
Well, no one is curious any longer (see Blood-Horse magazine for full race description). After ducking out at the start from the 13-post, battling with Big Drama through testing fractions of :23.13 and :46.71, she then drew off to a four-length advantage while remarkably still on cruise control following quarters of :23, :23 3/5, and :24 2/5.
In the final furlong, Borel, for the first time since he began riding her, had to go to the whip, as Rachel started to feel the effects of her earlier efforts. "She was struggling with the track, and I had to get into her a little bit," Borel said.
Her final three-sixteenths in :19 1/5 was excellent, considering the pressure the filly was under for most of the way. This was the first time this year she's had a gut-check, and she responded like a champion. Mine That Bird's final three-sixteenths had to be around :18 3/5, which, like his final quarter in the Derby, was exceptional. To make up that many lengths at Pimlico, while encountering traffic problems and having to steady, Mine That Bird proved to everyone that he is one helluva horse and a worthy Kentucky Derby winner.
And how about the game and consistent Musket Man, who has defied his pedigree and just keeps running big races regardless of the distance. He has won or placed at six different distances at six different racetracks from six furlongs to 1 1/4 miles.
Talk about having a bad day, Big Drama became cast in his stall early Preakness morning and fortunately suffered only a minor abrasion below his knee after thrashing about, unable to get up. It took several people to finally get him to his feet. He then reared and nearly flipped in the gate. After being loaded in again, he stumbled noticeably at the start, then found himself having to look Rachel Alexandra in the eye for three-quarters of a mile. With only one seven-furlong race in five months, for him to finish fifth, beaten only 5 1/2 lengths, proves this is one tough, talented colt.
Borel once again was effusive in his joy, as he led Rachel back, saluting the fans, who gave him a rousing ovation. In the jocks room, Hissam received a phone call from Woolley asking him to "congratulate Calvin" for him.
Getting dressed, Borel's biggest decision was trying to decide which Rachel Alexandra hat to wear. When the replay of the race came on, Borel watched the start with keen interest, pointing out how his filly was compromised when she ducked out. But once she got into her rhythm, Borel began riding her all over again, "Go, big momma," he said to the screen.
Assistant trainer Scott Blasi, who charged on to the track with joyous abandon, is amazed at Rachel's resilience. "It's unbelievable how much she can take," he said on "At the Races with Steve Byk" two days later. "She's unreal."
Over at the stakes barn, Mine That Bird was brought out to graze, as Woolley stood on the grass, leaning on his crutches and watching him intently. The gelding would remain outside well into the night, with Woolley receiving constant accolades and congratulations for the horse's performance. No matter how many times the bad trip was brought up, he refused to use that as an excuse.
"He had traffic problems, but the fact is, the mare was the best horse today," he said. "He ran big and I'm very proud of him, but he just didn't have enough to get there. I don't want anyone dwelling on the fact that he had a bad trip. She won and she deserved it. She's a great mare."
The following morning, Rachel Alexandra boarded a van for the airport at a little after 6 a.m. Asmussen said she got a bit hot after the race because of the humidity, but cooled right down after getting back to the barn. Mine That Bird and his two travel companions waited until the following day to make their trek back to Churchill Downs, where the horse will prepare for the Belmont Stakes. Asmussen said he will wait and let Rachel tell him if the Belmont is in her plans. Over at the opposite end of the barn, Wayne Lukas was having a devil of a time keeping Flying Private on the ground. The fourth-place finisher was full of himself and quite a handful getting washed down, after which he dragged his hotwalker around the barn. Lukas said he definitely will head to the Belmont Stakes.
So, Rachel Alexandra now commands racing's biggest stage. It doesn't matter in which play she is performing or who the supporting characters happen to be, her greatness resonates throughout the theater.
Although no one wanted to compete against her, Baffert did put a different spin on her running in the Preakness.
"With her in there the whole world will be watching," he said following the post position draw. "Racing is alive; it has a heartbeat. Maybe this is what the sport needs."
About the Author
Steve Haskin is Senior Contributor to The Blood-Horse magazine, sister publication to The Horse.
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