“Vēnī, vīdī, vīcī”
The phrase was purportedly first used by Julius Caesar in a brief message to the Roman Senate following his victory over Pharnaces II of Pontus in 47 BC at the battle of Zela. Following her dominant performance against colts in the 2009 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on Sunday, the amazing filly Rachel Alexandra might be neighing something eerily similar in her stall right now.
Just like we all thought she would, Rachel conceded the early lead in the Haskell to Munnings, the son of 2004 champion sprinter Speightstown. Summer Bird was determined to give Rachel a challenge and pulled up even with (and for a brief moment in front of) her as the field raced down the backstretch. Then, the moment jockey Calvin Borel began to ask her for a bit more as the “real running” commenced, she responded in the style of a champion and began pulling away by open lengths. By the time the field reached the sixteenth pole the race was beyond over and she was coasting in front by 6 lengths.
Borel stopped asking her with about a hundred yards to run, and immediately broke into his trademark victory celebration by pointing to the crowd and blowing kisses. Despite this, the amazing filly romped home in 1:47.21 – just off the track record. Some might attribute this to the fact that the main track at Monmouth was sealed due to the (at times) torrential rain experienced earlier in the day, but having seen what this filly can do in the Kentucky Oaks, the Preakness, and the Mother Goose, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the final time was 99.999% “Rachel.”
The victory capped off an exciting day of racing at Monmouth. It wasn’t a particularly good one for me as far as handicapping/wagering is concerned (I’m dreadful at such tasks when a track turns sloppy), but overall it was a day we won’t long forget. We got to hang out with trainers Gary Stute (Papa Clem) and Tim Ice (Summer Bird). I was interviewed by “Monmouth Park Insider” Mike Curci prior to the Haskell (though evidently I just missed meeting my friend and horse racing icon Ron Correll of TrackSideView), and of course was granted access to the paddock to see all of the horses, including Rachel Alexandra. Then, we managed to run into Steve Asmussen and Calvin Borel as we prepared to leave. To top things off, we also ran into Todd and Simon from TVG, who stopped for a quick chat and some photos.
I can’t say enough about any of these folks. Gary Stute and Tim Ice were amazing. Gary strikes me as the kind of guy that it must be fun to be around 24/7. He just seemed full of smiles and in genuinely high spirits. I suspect he’s a bit like that friend all of us has – the one that whenever you’re with you wind up having a good time no matter what it is you do? He’s like a big kid, and incredibly friendly. He even let us get up close to Papa Clem and pet him, which was especially thrilling for our 5-year-old. I also found out that the lady in his entourage on Preakness Day who spotted my trademark ‘Bama hat and began yelling “ROLL TIDE” was his girlfriend.
Then there’s Tim Ice. Talk about an impressive dude? He turned 35 on the day that Summer Bird won the Belmont. This is exactly the type of guy you want to root for as a racing fan. He’s a bit intimidating due to his enormous stature (seriously…I’m used to being considered a bigger guy, but Tim TOWERS over me…if this horse racing thing doesn’t work out for him, I’m sure the Steelers could always use another outside linebacker or defensive end….if the dude ever played football, I’m certain he was a monster on the field), but he’s so down to earth and personable that at times you forget you’re talking to a guy who just won the Belmont!
After the race as he was walking back to the paddock, you could tell he was disappointed that his horse hadn’t won (Summer Bird had run his heart out for 2nd). We caught eyes with him and he again came over to speak with us. A fan standing nearby asked him for an autograph, and when he learned through the small talk that accompanies such situations that her son was serving in Iraq as a Marine, he stepped back, had a tremendously serious look come over his face (where before had been the disappointment of defeat) and remarked “people like him….they are the reason we’re able to enjoy things like this.”
It was one of those moments that I think humbled everyone around. Suddenly, for a brief moment, he had taken the spotlight off of him, and had the gathering crowd’s attention focused on this woman and the sacrifice that her son was making for all of us. Suffice to say, given my background, we’re total Tim Ice fans now. There won’t be another horse he sends to post that I don’t cheer my guts out for. Amy felt rather fulfilled given that she picked Summer Bird in the Belmont and now knows what an awesome guy Tim is.
If you ever get the chance to see Summer Bird in person, I strongly recommend doing so as he’s one of the most fantastic looking colts I’ve had the chance to see close up. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in running 6 lengths behind Rachel. Most runners wind up 20+ lengths back from her. In recent memory, only Mine That Bird has been closer, and Summer Bird’s already defeated him in the Belmont. Plus, Mine That Bird got some benefit in terms of softening up Rachel for the stretch by virtue of her outside (13) post position for the Preakness and the fact that she was on the gas from her first step out of the gate (not to mention that she was running on just 2 weeks rest for that race). He’s an awesome colt in his own right and I one I hope to see him again in the Travers, The Classic, or who knows, maybe even the Goodwood?
The folks at Monmouth Park (and in particular, Sophia Mangalee, who’s husband Navin rode longshot My Dream Tomorrow into the money for show in the 3rd race of the day) really rolled out the red carpet treatment. From early in the morning right on through the feature race itself. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to thank them enough, apart from praying that Monmouth gets another shot at the Breeders’ Cup in the near future and gets some cooperation from the weather gods when their chance comes again.
Speaking of the weather…did it strike anyone else as ironic that the horrific storms subsided just in time for Rachel the Great to make her appearance on the track? I do believe the sun even managed to stick it’s head through the clouds just before she arrived. Fitting, I suppose, for in many ways Rachel’s magnificence has been a parting of the clouds for the sport itself. While the weather may have dwindled down the hoped for attendance figures at Monmouth, there was still a helluva strong showing their to suppor her. Coming hot on the heels of the Barabaro and Eight Belles disasters, the triumphs of Rachel Alexandra have had a unifying, healing, and pacifying effect on the entire sport, and have gone quite a ways towards rectifying the game’s image in the eyes of the public.
She’s the kind of horse people drive across half the country to see. She’s the kind of horse parents bring their small children to see. She’s the kind of horse that adults bring their now elderly parents back to the track to see, just as they had done for them years ago when they were little. She’s the kind of horse that reduces even the most proud of would-be horse racing authors to expressions like “wow!!!” and “OMG” on Twitter. She reminds us what it was that we found so magical about this game when we first paid attention. She reminds us why it is we follow along with the sport in every maiden race we can possibly feast our eyes upon, always searching for the next great one.
So how do we measure a horse’s greatness?
I thought Calvin Borel made a poignant remark following the race when asked whether we had seen her best yet. I don’t recall the exact words, but he replied something to the effect that he wouldn’t truly know how great she was until another horse pulled even with her in the stretch and looked her dead in the eye. That is, after all, the ultimate test of will.
In the immediate future their are two other distinct possibilities; defeat older fillies and mares, and then defeat older boys. If she can pull off both of those feats, than I think she’d be revered for the ages in a fashion similar to Ruffian. Heck, she may already be there in the eyes of some, having become the first filly in 85 years to win the Preakness, and only the 2nd filly in 42 years to win the Haskell.
As if that’s not enough – consider what might be up next; The Travers. No filly has even run in the Travers since Davona Dale in 1979, and no filly has won the Travers since Lady Rotha in 1915.
Nineteen fifteen??? Are you kidding me?
Austro-Hungary was still an “empire” in 1915. The U.S. Army didn’t yet own a single tank in their armed forces. Battleships still ruled the high seas. The “Red Baron”, Manfred von Richtofen, had only begun pilot training in August of that year, and had not yet begun to terrorize allied airmen in the skies. The Germans were bombing English cities using zeppelins! Shoeless Joe Jackson and the Chicago freakin’ BlackSox were still 4 years away! Thousands of American Civil War veterans were still collecting pensions. The first stone in the Lincoln memorial was just being laid!
Does that put it properly in perspective?
Even if she doesn’t go to the Travers, the point I’m making is that we’re witnessing right here and now the kind of thing that folks who are passionate about horse racing are likely to be talking about for decades to come.
I know there are some who can’t stand the attention she receives. This happens with every great runner. We call these people “haters” these days, and they abound no matter what the sport or what the occassion. There’s always someone waiting to rain on the parade the first opportunity they’re given. I’ve never quite understood this. I can understand folks having “favorites” and longing for certain connections to win over others, but I’ve never understood the folks who hope and wish for something to go wrong. Hoping for a horse to lose? Makes no sense to me.
We saw this a bit with Curlin in ’07 and (more specifically) in ’08. No matter what he did, it wasn’t good enough. No mater wich race he ran in (is their a single race he can ever be accused of “dodging?”) either the field was a joke or their was some other reason for the “haters” to dismiss – but only after they had warned us for weeks leading up to each and every race that “this” was the moment he was “going down.” It’s rather morbid, if you ask me – and yes, there are folks out there who feel this way about Rachel today.
Thankfully, history seldom remembers the runners who pull the brief upset, and instead rewards consistent greatness with long term reverance and awe. A microcosm of this was experienced on Sunday as we had SEVERAL conversations with very astute horse racing fans, none of which could remember the name of the longshot (Soul Warrior) who had just defeated Mine That Bird and Big Drama in the West Viriginia Derby the day before. I should point out that one of the folks we spoke with was a relative of Dale Beckner, the jockey who rode Sould Warrior to victory.
My point is this, and hopefully it ties back into my previous ramblings about how we measure greatness…
History will remember that Rachel was the first filly in 85 years to win the Preakness. It will remember that she was the 2nd filly in 42 years to win the Haskell. If all goes as planned, it may remember her as the first filly in 94 years to win the Travers. More importantly though, she will be remembered in name and cirucmstance across the expanse of time. A decade from now, we’ll be comparing 3-year-old fillies to her. Count on it.
There will always be Ruffian at the top, and of course there are countless other fillies and mares who have accomplished stunning success (some that even rival the success Rachel has achieved) - including victories over older males – but because she did so on one of our biggest stages (the Preakness), and because she carries the iconic status of the “underdog” by virtue of being a girl running amongst boys (even when saddled with 1/5 favoritism at the beting windows), Rachel’s memory will burn bright for years to come. And with each passing victory, her legend continues to grow. I think that’s the thing to really take hold of. When you watch Rachel run, realize that you are watching, in all likelihood, a living legend in the making. How darned lucky we are to be alive to see it!
And of course, on a personal level, that hole in my heart that has existed since Curlin’s retirement was announced following the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Classic? It’s been filled. Or, as a buddy on Facebook responded, it’s been “fillied.”
As for Rachel…
She came, she saw, she conquered.