by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
September 10, 2009
RUN LIKE A GIRL
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y.. -- Along with "If God had wanted a Panama Canal, he would have put one here," "The Titanic... could keep afloat indefinitely after being struck" and "Truth will become the hallmark of a Nixon Administration," we can now add, "Colts should run against colts, and fillies should run against fillies."
These last immortal words were spoken by horse breeder Dolphus Morrison when it was suggested that a fast filly he had bred and named after his granddaughter, Rachel Alexandra, should run against the boys in this year's Kentucky Derby.
Instead, he ran her the day before, in the all-filly Kentucky Oaks. She blew the competition away by 20 lengths. Then in the Derby, a scrawny 50-to-1 shot named Mine that Bird, with Louisiana jockey Calvin Borel on board, came out of nowhere to win against a field that you might politely call undistinguished.
Then fate stepped in. A man with plenty of money and plenty of moxie, Jess Jackson of the Kendall-Jackson Wineries in California, along with his wife, Barbara Banke and his business partners, stepped in and bought Rachel Alexandra for an undisclosed amount (rumored to be in the $10 million range).
Jackson already owned Curlin, a fabulous stallion that won my heart, almost every race he ever ran, and Horse of the Year in both 2007 and 2008. He's now retired to stud.
Jackson has different ideas about the boys and the girls. He put Rachel - call her by her first name, like Barbra, Beyonce and Hillary - into the care of Steve Asmussen, Curlin's former trainer.
The next thing we knew, she was running against the boys in the Preakness. Her regular rider, Borel, who calls Rachel the best horse he's ever been on, dumped the Derby winner to ride her. (The owners of Mine that Bird forgave him because Rachel is just that special.) Again, she blew away the competition.
Asmussen, who has had more than one drug suspension and is now fighting doping charges in Texas, may not be your everyday-aw-shucks kind of hero, but he certainly knows a good horse. "(Rachel) is a tremendous talent and she's very special," he says. "It's who she is. She's got it all. A beautiful mind, a beautiful mover. She's very athletic. She has a very high cruising speed. She covers a lot of ground without taking a lot out of herself."
In June, with Borel on board, Rachel ran against the fillies in the Mother Goose at Belmont. She easily won. Then the buzz started about whether she would run against the boys in the Travers, the biggest race at Saratoga.
Instead, Jackson and Asmussen aimed her for an even bigger challenge, last Saturday's Woodward Invitational, which closes the Saratoga season. The $750,000 race has never been won by a filly. It's generally for male horses four years old and older - animals that are bigger, stronger, more developed and more experienced. For little three-year-old Rachel, it would be the race of her life.
Even though ESPN and the television networks were too dumb to show the race - they covered college football instead - more than 31,000 people turned out. Downtown Saratoga put up posters saying, "Rachel Alexandra: Run Like a Girl." When Randy and I paid our entrance fees, we were given a big pink button with Rachel's name on it.
Rachel's fan club was out in force. When the dark bay filly with the broken white blaze passed us on her way to the track, Borel on board, many women were holding up "Girl Power" signs. Did they think the horse could read?
When Rachel stepped onto the track for the post parade, the yell that greeted her was so loud it startled her into dumping Borel. But then she waited calmly for him to jump back on.
Once the race started, the boys ganged up on Rachel early and often. "There's no free ride for Rachel," shouted race caller Tom Durkin. "They're making her work for every step today."
Time and again she was challenged. On the home stretch, Macho Again pressed her hard. It was so close at the finish line that the crowd held its breath. "It's a dramatic finish," Durkin shouted. "It's going to be desperately close."
And then an out-of-his-mind Durkin screamed that Rachel had won the Woodward. "She's truly Rachel Alexander the Great," he cried!
It was an electrifying moment. A deep feral scream such as I have never heard before in my life ripped through the crowd, running right through my chest and raising goose bumps on my arms. One race writer later called it a volcano of sound. Randy and I were part of it; we were screaming, too.
"Rachel Alexandra raises the rafters," cried an emotional Durkin.
We were standing at the finish line as Rachel trotted back to the winner's circle to claim her blanket of pink carnations. A thrilled Borel waved kisses to the crowd. He flung his arms around his friend Robby Alvarado, who had been riding Macho Again. Jackson and his entourage pushed their way to the winner's circle, with more than one racing fan yelling "Thanks."
It was one of those moments you remember for the rest of your life, like watching the Red Sox finally win a World Series.
"She was ready," Jackson said later. "Those were a lot of big animals she was running against, but she showed her spirit. She showed her class. She didn't give up. That's my Rachel."
Rachel will rest for the remainder of the season. Jackson says she'll probably run as a four-year-old, giving fans another year of thrills before she's retired to breed with Curlin. Hopefully they will produce a string of amazing youngsters to keep racing fans happy for years to come.
In other Saratoga news, trainer Linda Rice, with 20 winners at the Saratoga meet, became the first female in the modern era to win a trainer's title at a major U.S. race track.
Run like a girl, indeed!
Joyce Marcel (joycemarcel.com) is a journalist and columnist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.