“…And the last thing he said to me — “Jess,” he said – “sometime, when the barn is up against it – and the filly is set to meet the boys – tell her to go out there with all she’s got and win just one for the Vintner!”
When she steps onto the track on Saturday afternoon just before six o’clock in the afternoon (Eastern Time), the filly Rachel Alexandra will be looking to add yet another illustrious stripe to her storied career. In years past the notion of a 3-year-old filly taking on and defeating older males in the Woodward (Grade 1) at Saratoga would’ve sounded absurd. This year, and this horse, however, render matters utterly different as the filly sensation will head to post as the heavy 1/2 morning line favorite.
She’s already proven the naysayers wrong by shattering popular opinion and defeating fields full of stakes winning 3-year-old colts. A win against the older boys in the Woodward would not only be the next logical step up the proverbial class ladder of thoroughbred horse racing, but also icing on the cake in her quest to become the 2009 Horse of the Year. The Preakness, the Haskell, and now potentially the Woodward, all as a 3-year-old filly? Remarkable.
That last part causes some consternation amongst fans of different horses. In recent weeks we’ve heard from them how Quality Road was going to annihilate the Travers field and prove that he, and not Rachel, was the best 3-year-old in the nation. Unfortunately for those who subscribed to such a belief, Quality Road wound up being trounced by a horse that Rachel had defeated handily in the Haskell; Belmont Stakes champion Summer Bird.
The win by Summer Bird marked only the latest in a long line of recent foes who have solidified Rachel’s credentials as horse of the year. We all know the stories. Just Jenda, Gabby’s Golden Gal, Flashing, Take the Points, Summer Bird, Afleet Deceit, and Sarah Louise have all returned victorious in their next starts following defeats at the hooves of Rachel the Great.
The field for the Woodward, while not as large as the field of the Travers last weekend, has the potential to flatter her even farther. Grade 1 winners Bullsbay (Whitney Handicap), Da’ Tara (2008 Belmont) and Macho Again (Stephen Foster) lead the charge along with Grade 2 winner It’s a Bird and Group 2 winner Asiatic Boy. In fact, there are over 20 stakes wins amongst the competitors lined up to challenge Queen Rachel and attempt to deny her history.
From a pace setup, the filly would once again appear to be challenged. She could wind up being the speed of the race, although one would suspect jockey Calvin Borel would prefer to use her newly found and decidedly deadly pace pressing style if given the chance. The only other likely pace horses on paper would include Da’ Tara, who wired the field of the 2008 Belmont at moderate fractions, and possibly Cool Coal Man, whom you wouldn’t expect trainer Nick Zito to “send” if he were anticipating stablemate Da’ Tara being on or very near the lead.
If Rachel is on the lead, it’s going to take a monster effort, similar to what we saw in the Preakness to hang on against Macho Again, It’s a Bird, and Bullsbay in the stretch, as those runners figure to get favorable trips.
Looking over her competition, It’s a Bird looks to me like the biggest threat. Trainer Martin Wolfson also trains Icon Project, the next horse that many are whispering might have a chance against Rachel. Sadly, for Wolfson, Icon Project will not be in the Woodward, and instead he’ll have to turn to It’s a Bird. Some folks might go gaga over the name, considering the smashing success that “bird” themed horses have celebrated this year, but this ornithologically named runner is a son of Birdonthewire rather than Birdstone. Still, if his efforts in the Lone Star Park Handicap and Oaklwan Handicap are any indication, he’s capable of sitting an ideal trip and making a run for the money in the stretch. He’s a must use on the exacta and trifecta plays, especially at 10/1 with the talented Leparoux at the helm.
One must also not overlook the disappointing but talented Asiatic Boy, who has won Group 2 races on the dirt at Nad Al Sheba and finished second in both the Suburban Handicap (Grade 2) and Stephen Foster (Grade 1). My only problem with Asiatic Boy is that if he could barely hang on to defeat Einstein after that horse had a “trip from hell” in the Stephen Foster, than how could I anticipate victory against a significantly more talented horse like Rachel? Jockey Alan Garcia, who recently was granted a stay from his impending suspension following Vineyard Haven’s drfitwood performance in the King’s Bishop, once again takes the call at attractive odds of 10/1.
And then there’s Bullsbay. I think my affinity for Tiznow offspring is well documented enough that I need not go into great detail. Add to that the fact that he runs for my favorite trainer, Graham Motion, and it he becomes a strong heart play. If I distance myself from those feelings, he actually looks like a potential bounce candidate on paper, following a career best effort in the Whitney. A review of his running lines, however, shows that he seems to demonstrate that trademark Tiznow toughness in the stretch, giving a solid account of himself nearly every time he goes to post. This is perhaps best evidenced by his 13 in-the-money finishes in 18 lifetime races, including 7 victories.
My gut tells me the filly will rise to the occasion just like she has done in each of the challenges she’s faced since last fall. A quick comparison of her final times over the 1 1/8 mile distance that the Woodward is contested over shows that she finished in just over 1:46 in the Mother Goose, and though she was aided greatly by a blistering early pace set by Flashing and Malibu Prayer, it’s important to remember that she finished the final 1/16 “under wraps.” Might she have been capable of a sub 1:46 final time? Also note that she finished the Haskell in just over 1:47 despite running over a tremendously sloppy surface. True, the track was sealed, but those times jump off the page. Clearly this is a distance she relishes.
By comparison, her biggest threats have been a few steps slower in terms of final times (never an apples to apples thing, mind you). It’s a Bird took the Oaklawn Handicap over the same distance in 1:48 and 4, and Macho Again’s Stephen Foster victory clocked in at 1:49 and 3. That’s a fairly substantial differentiation in terms of final times, even if those races were contested at different tracks and conditions.
One thing is for sure, Rachel Alexandra is not going to be an attractive betting opportunity by any stretch of the imagination, so if you’re playing for a price you’d obviously have to go against her. But why be silly and play against such an immensely talented runner? Would you really be “happy” if you beat her? I guess the answer to that question depends on how much you are willing to risk. The value will be there if you can beat her.
We must also remind ourselves that horses are not machines, and it’s important to note that even the best of the best suffer defeats. I know the pro Zenyatta crowd foams at the mouth whenever anyone says that, but they must restrain themselves by realizing the obvious fact that Rachel is already out classing anything Zenyatta has attempted by taking on older males, and thus exposes herself to significantly more risk of defeat. If Rachel were taking the same protected path as Zenyatta, she’d be running against 3-year-old fillies again in a 4 or 5 horse field and offering nothing of historical or compelling interest to the sport. I love ‘em both, but there’s no comparison in terms of accomplishments attained this year.
Instead, what we have on our hands is a filly once again on the cusp of re-writing history the moment she steps on the track.
I’ll look for Rachel to take command at the top of the stretch and put the issue to rest with several hundred yards to go. At some point in time she is bound to get tested in the stretch, and it would be logical and fair to assume that may well happen in this her first effort against older males. I just have this feeling that whatever they challenge her with she’ll have an answer for. She seems to be that once-in-a-blue-moon type of talent. I’m not one to run around proclaiming her the “greatest ever” quite yet, as I think that’s a disservice to the numerous entrenched “greats” of the sport whose accomplishments would then be unwisely overlooked and unfairly forgotten, but she seems to me to be clearly the most talented horse in training at the moment and arguably the best we’ve seen in at least the last several years.
As much as folks love to hate him for what they perceive to be hubris, the simple fact is that her owner and wealthy vintner Jess Jackson has given fans reason to rejoice these past two years by virtue of bringing back Curlin as a 4-year-old and racing Rachel in historically significant situations that she likely otherwise would have avoided. The result is that we are once again staring history in the face. Fifty-five previous runnings of the Woodward and counting. No filly winners. Expect all of that to change with Rachel on Saturday.
“Win one for history, Rachel. Win one for your fans. Win just one for the vintner!”
Give ‘em hell, girl!