Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Team Rachel: A camp divided?

So the Apple Blossom showdown between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta is off the board, leaving fans to wonder when the two will actually meet.

But there's an even bigger question in my mind right now.

Just how panicked -- and potentially divided -- is the Rachel Alexandra camp?

In the wake of Saturday's loss in the New Orleans Ladies Stakes by the reigning Horse of the Year, who was making her 2010 debut, comments by the principals give us more than a few hints at what they were thinking not only going into that race, but looking ahead to the now-scratched Oaklawn appearance.

Rachel's faithful rider, Calvin Borel, defended his filly as "a real racehorse" who didn't quit despite being headed in the stretch by eventual winner Zardana. "She needed the race, that's all."

And Rachel certainly did need the race. She'd been off since a Sept. 9 win against older colts and geldings in Saratoga's Woodward S.-G1. And while some discussion group friends of mine think she had plenty of work prior to her return, I disagree. Though she had seven published works after her four-and-a-half-month layoff, the first of those came on Jan. 31. I've had trainers tell me in the past that it usually takes two or even three months to bring a horse back to the starting gate off a significant layoff. Rachel started the New Orleans Ladies Stakes some 42 days after her first official work back at the track -- only six weeks, maybe a little bit short.

Trainer Steve Asmussen seems to know it.

"The filly's lacking fitness," he said immediately after the race. "It was my job to have her there, and I didn't do it. ... She's not where I thought she was and if I had thought she'd get beat, she wouldn't run."

But she did run. And not all that terribly, posting a Beyer speed figure of 100, not exactly crappy for a race that was six months after her last start. And one wonders what might have happened had Borel let the girl run instead keeping her in a stranglehold in an apparent attempt to teach Rachel to rate.

"I wanted to let her run her race early, but they wanted me to wait," Borel said after the loss. "I wanted to go on past the speed horse (42/1 Fighter Wing) early. I'd have got by her anytime and my filly could have gone on, but they wanted me to wait and not get into her until the sixteenth pole."

Steve Haskin of The Blood-Horse details the many ways that Rachel seemed "not the same" on Saturday. And he astutely points out that had one or another of a very few things gone Rachel's way -- say, if Borel had let the champion have her head, or had Zardana not shipped east from California for the race -- the reigning Horse of the Year might well have won (in the latter case, quite handily) and the Apple Blossom would still be a "go."

But it isn't, and not because her trainer wrote off the upcoming race. Haskin notes that only an hour after Asmussen told reporters that Rachel had come out of Saturday's loss quite well, her principal owner, Jess Jackson, was scrapping the Oaklawn showdown.

I can't completely blame him, but it is starting to look like Jackson is training this horse, rather than letting his Eclipse champion trainer do the job.

Rachel's trainer initially said there was no way his filly could race against Zenyatta at Oaklawn because he didn't have time to work her up to a prep race and then get her back fit for an early-April Apple Blossom. Then Jackson finagled Oaklawn into setting a slightly later date for the Grade 1 race (not to mention bumping the purse tenfold, from $500,000 to $5 million if both Rachel and Zen race). And Asmussen was left with no choice but to get Rachel into a race by mid-March if he had any hope of turning her back on April 9.

Asmussen has said the filly isn't as fit as he'd like, though he reports she came out of her prep race well, apart from a gutsy and narrow loss. But literally minutes after Asmussen's statement on Rachel's post-race condition, Jackson nixes the Apple Blossom sooner, rather than later, and instead of allowing his trainer at least a few days to see whether the filly can bounce back in time to face Zenyatta for $5 million.

Borel laments being instructed to hold back his filly in a race that she might have run off with if not choked on the backstretch. And he doesn't say that "he" or "Steve" wanted Rachel rated at all costs, probably to teach her to save energy in a race against the late-kicking Zenyatta. Rather, Borel says "they" wanted the jockey to hold back his horse. If you think the second part of "they" is anyone other than Mr. Jackson, then I have a yearling who is guaranteed to win the 2012 Kentucky Derby, and shares are reasonably priced in the low six-figures.

Granted, Jess Jackson paid untold millions for this filly less than a year ago, off her smashing victory in early May's Kentucky Oaks. And the 2009 campaign plotted for her thereafter resulted in an undefeated season and honors as both top 3-year-old filly and Horse of the Year. He's certainly played a hands-on role throughout as is his right; it's his horse, and his money.

But Jackson less and less seems the type to just hire top professionals and trust them to do their jobs, without meddling. Asmussen is apologizing for not having the horse where she needed to be for a pair of races I'm not sure he really wanted her to run in the first place. And Borel sounds frustrated as the man in the irons, being told to rigidly employ a strategy that he clearly thinks got his filly beat. And they're all probably scrambling for answers.

Losing, even narrowly and with guts, has a way of exposing every tiny crack in a team's foundation. And the contrast between Rachel's and Zenyatta's connections becomes even more stark.

Way back last June, when Zenyatta's owner, Jerry Moss, got a little too bold in his statements about letting his unbeaten mare hunt down the upstart filly wherever, whenever, he soon backed down. I speculated that change of heart came after a discussion with his trainer, John Shirreffs, whose course for the horse was being speculatively altered. It wasn't long before those two were harmonizing again on their smash hit, "We're Breeders' Cup Bound."

I'm not sure Team Rachel has it so together.

And whether Rachel Alexandra has a great 2010 and any chance of beating Zenyatta -- should they ever meet -- depends on her humans getting back on the same page in the songbook.


  1. Good points Glenn - I really think Rachel needed the race and it is sad that Jackson backed out of the Apple Blossom. And second guessed his very capable trainer.

  2. I think you're right on, it seemed like everyone had different thoughts after Rachel's race and Borel and Asmussen especially seemed full of regret. I have complete confidence that Rachel is as good or better than last year but Jackson needs to give her a chance to just run when Asmussen feels she’s ready and not try to micro-manage her career so much.


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