Friday, April 30, 2010

Horse of the Year no longer 'unrivaled belle'

For those keeping score, the correct response in my recent poll should have been "someone else." Nobody had it.

When asked whether Rachel Alexandra would win the La Troienne S.-G2 at Churchill Downs today -- or would Zardana make the 2009 Horse of the Year start the season 0-for-2 by defeating her again as she did last out in New Orleans -- a whopping nine individuals cast their ballots. Five cast their aspersions on Rachel (in a manner of speaking) by choosing Zardana to win.

In a stirring stretch drive -- Rachel's third in as many races dating back to September's historic and grueling victory over older males in the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes -- a fellow 4-year-old filly, and a lightly raced one at that, showed that the champion does have her equals. Unrivaled Belle, making her eighth lifetime start and coming in off a Grade 3 win at Gulfstream, outfinished Rachel by a head at the wire.

Good for Rachel and her connections that she was only 90 percent. Next time she'll win.

Still, it has to be discouraging for owner Jess Jackson, trainer Steve Asmussen, jockey Calvin Borel, and all of Rachel's fans. She's come quite close to winning both of her starts after a lengthy layoff. She does seem to have shown guts down the stretch. But -- despite setting relatively easy fractions of :24.79 and :48.81, she didn't have enough in the tank to finish off the competition at only a mile and a sixteenth.

Remember, Rachel won the Preakness at 9 1/2 furlongs last year after setting fractions of 23-flat and 46 3/5. But on this day, she can't finish the job going a furlong shorter and on an easier pace.

If this is the case -- And who is to say at this point? -- Rachel wouldn't be the first horse to have been better at 3 than she'll ever be again.

And it's worth noting that after such a layoff -- about six months between her last race of '09 and first of '10 -- Rachel still might not be at her 4-year-old best. That "90 percent" line isn't necessarily an untruth told by Jackson; just something you don't really say on the eve of a race because it sounds like you're either sandbagging or getting your alibis in line before they're even needed. So Rachel in her third start off the layoff, a common angle to play for handicappers, might be just enough better that she beats whomever tries her down the lane on that occasion.

Unless that "whomever" is Zenyatta. Because if the likes of Zardana and Unrivaled Belle can run down Rachel Alexandra during stretch drives in consecutive races, there'd likely be no holding off the closer of all closers.

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