She is not allowed to live in the present, and for that, Rachel Alexandra has only herself to blame. By virtue of her surpassing brilliance on the racetrack, the 3-year-old filly is relentlessly measured by what others of her gender have accomplished in the long history of horse racing and equally judged against what she might do in the future. Last Saturday at Saratoga, Rachel Alexandra further nudged the sport's imagination with 108.29 seconds of greatness. Having already humbled other fillies by laughable margins this year in the Kentucky Oaks and the Mother Goose Stakes, and having won the Preakness and the Haskell over 3-year-old colts, she became the first filly to win the Woodward Stakes, holding off a field of older male horses.
Rachel usually dominates, but she won the Woodward by surviving. Jockey Calvin Borel didn't pull her off a brutal early pace—"I've never took nothin' away from her as long as I've been riding her," said Borel, explaining his decision to let Rachel roll through opening fractions of 22.85 at the first quarter and 46.41 at the half mile in the 1 1/8-mile race. She put away her early challengers, 2008 Woodward runner-up Past the Point and '08 Belmont Stakes winner Da' Tara, and opened a one-length lead at the head of the stretch before fighting off a closing Macho Again in the last furlong. "I thought I had her," said Macho Again's jockey, Robby Albarado. Exhausted, Rachel hung on to win by a head.
The victory leaves her unbeaten in eight starts in 2009 and makes her the clear front-runner for Horse of the Year. It also leaves her very much alive in any discussion of the greatest fillies in racing history (box).
Barclay Tagg, who trained 2003 Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide and also sat on Ruffian as an exercise rider, thinks Rachel Alexandra belongs on Ruffian's level. "Why not?" he said after Saturday's race. "She's beaten all the girls, she's beaten 3-year-old colts, and now she's beaten older colts."
Another measure of Rachel Alexandra's greatness would be a race against Zenyatta, the 5-year-old mare who is the reigning Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic champion. That matchup seems unlikely because Zenyatta is pointed toward the Nov. 6 Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita, a race that Jess Jackson, Rachel's principal owner, has said she will not run because of his dislike for synthetic racing surfaces.
Two Internet wagering companies have tried to lure Zenyatta east for the Oct. 3 Beldame at Belmont by adding $400,000 to the race's purse. But Zenyatta's owner, Jerry Moss, says, "Go across the country and back for one race? That would be a tough thing to do to her."
And Rachel Alexandra, who has run eight races at seven tracks since Feb. 15, could be finished for the year. Said Jackson, "We have to consider whether she is up to continuing this campaign."
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With her victory in the Woodward Stakes, Rachel Alexandra ranks among the best fillies of the last half century. Some of the others: Ruffian (below) was blazingly fast and almost mythic because her career ended tragically when she broke down in a match race against colt Foolish Pleasure at Belmont in 1975. She won all 10 races that she finished and broke or tied eight stakes and track records.
Lady's Secret won 25 of her 45 starts, including finishing first and second in two Breeders' Cups. She raced males five times (winning once) and beat older mares a remarkable six times.
Personal Ensign never lost in 13 career starts. She beat males in the Whitney at Saratoga as a 4-year-old in '88 and ran down Kentucky Derby--winning filly Winning Colors in the final strides of the '88 Breeders' Cup Distaff.
Photograph by JOHN IACONO
TITLE IX The Woodward was the ninth straight win for Rachel Alexandra (right) and her third victory this year against colts.
[See caption above]