Thursday, May 6, 2010

Rachel one year post-purchase: Better for it?

I launched this blog one year ago tomorrow with a lengthy pondering of the Rachel Alexandra purchase by Jess Jackson.

The brilliant 3-year-old filly had just completely left a field of her contemporaries in the Kentucky Oaks, leaving some to wonder whether she might have belonged in the Derby, instead. We would know within less than two weeks whether Rachel Alexandra "belonged" with the boys, as Jackson's camp, including trainer Steve Asmussen, pointed her toward the Preakness, instead of Pimlico's Black Eyed Susan, the traditional filly target. And her jockey, Calvin Borel, begged-off his Derby winner, Mine That Bird, to pilot his favored filly to victory in the Preakness, the first female to win the race since Nellie Morse in 1924.

Here we are a year later, and many steps have been run; races and championships won. Rachel was set on a course that her breeder and first owner, Dolphus Morrison, would never have taken; racing her three times against males. Morrison is among those owners (and trainers, and fans) who think that fillies belong in filly races, colts and geldings have "their" races, and never the twain shall meet.

Rachel proved up to the task in 2009. For Jackson and Asmussen, she rebounded from her gritty Preakness win with a cakewalk by record margin and time in a short-field running of the Mother Goose. Then she trounced a field of boys -- including Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird -- over a wet track in the Haskell Invitational, becoming only the second filly to win that summer classic. (The first was champion Serena's Song in 1995.) Last, she gutted out a front-running win in the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga, the first female ever to win that race, which has been run annually since 1954.

Though she skipped the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita -- owner Jackson had said for months he would not run his filly on the Pro-Ride synthetic course there, referring to such surfaces as "plastic" -- Rachel Alexandra's historic campaign was rewarded with Eclipse awards, not only as champion 3-year-old filly (which she was beyond doubt), but for Horse of the Year, to the chagrin of those who favored lifetime-unbeaten older mare Zenyatta.

The filly who had already set three records in 2009 for Morrison and his trainer and dear friend, Hall Wiggins -- that is, stakes-record times in the Golden Rod at Churchill and Martha Washington at Oaklawn Park, and a margin record in the Oaks -- went on for Jackson/Asmussen to set two records in the Mother Goose, and to win three indisputably historic victories vs. males. With Morrison and Wiggins it isn't an unreasonable assumption that Rachel would have been 3-year-old champion filly anyway. But with Jackson and Asmussen's aggressive handling, she became Horse of the Year.

So it would be difficult to argue that Rachel Alexandra was sold from a good situation into a lesser one.

Or would it?

After a grueling 3-year-old campaign, Rachel was laid-up for months without a work. She has come back to run tenaciously in a pair of stakes races -- and has lost them both by slim margins, the New Orleans Ladies to Zardana and most recently the La Troienne-G2 to Unrivaled Belle. Losing to an elder like Zardana in a comeback race after a long layoff is less surprising than being nipped at the wire by a fellow 4-year-old who'd made half as many lifetime starts and never won above the Grade 3 level.

Was Rachel Alexandra merely ahead of her age group as a 3-year-old, and now they've caught up? If so, she would hardly be the first horse to have been as good (especially by comparison) as she'd ever be at age 3 (or in some cases even at age 2), but only a "good" or even "average" horse at age 4 and beyond.

Or is she just not the same filly that she was in 2009? Has she "lost" something along the way? A step, or a little bit of heart? ... And if so, whose fault (if anyone's) is that? Should she have been handled more conservatively -- say, like a John Shirreffs might do, and did with Zenyatta at ages 3 and 4?

So on the anniversary eve of this blog, a poll: Rachel Alexandra, better off with Jackson and Asmussen?

Vote. And discuss in the comments thread, please. I can't wait to see what some of you think on this subject.

I'll tell you what I believe after the poll closes.

Meanwhile, I hope more than nine people vote, unlike my last Rachel poll. Geez, she gets beat once (now twice) and all the Rachel fans go into hiding?


  1. The latter. She was gutted by her connections last year. We'll never know whether she could have accomplished more had she been more conservatively handled, but she'll never be the same.

  2. Good Morning, All
    Maybe time will give me/us the answer but for now I do not know and will continue to watch RA trying to consider all the inputs into deciding whether RA is better with Jackson - my gut for now is yes, he is a respected & accomplished horseman and her training was off due to weather in NO and the stepping up for her first race - not being able to spend time with RA makes it almost impossible to know. Regardless, she gave us one of the most spectacular racing seasons ever - for me, she is among a rare few: i.e., Secretariat & Ruffian but I love them all.


  3. No horse is better in the hands of Steve Asmussen than in someone else's. He's a proven cheater, and with such a gigantic barn, can't possibly give each horse the individual attention they deserve.

    I have no opinion about Jess Jackson as it relates to this question. He gets his money worth on the breeding alone. In his barn, RA will get mated to some royal stallions.

    David H.

  4. I gotta credit this post with providing the first idea for one of my own. Thanks; I'm quite anxious for your own take.

    As for your question: pure speculation, but I voted "yes" because in any case she has done more than she would ever have with her old owner.

    I assume what you meant was if racing is better off, to which my reply would be: YesYesYes, even though with public perception as it is and a few more mediocre runs by Rachel, what should have been a big step forward for American racing could result in a huge step backward, but the blame for this would not be with Asmussen and Jackson.

  5. I think if you look at Rachel and compare her to what she was last year you can see that she's comparatively much bulkier and appears to have, in the process of growing up, lost some of that agility and extension that she had as a three year old and which helped her be so brilliant. That she is now only narrowly losing graded stakes is nothing to complain about, but I would blame her apparent loss of brilliance not in any trainer or owner's handling of her but simply in physiology.


I welcome comments, including criticism and debate. But jerks and the vulgar will not be tolerated.