There were so many top performances by 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra that it’s difficult to pinpoint one as her most memorable effort of the year. Was it her 20-length romp in the Oaks, her 19-length score in the Mother Goose? How bout those two victories over the boys in the Preakness and Haskell Invitational?
For trainer Steve Asmussen, who won his second consecutive Eclipse Award as the nation’s top trainer Monday night in Beverly Hills, it’s an easy call. He thinks it came on Sept. 5 against older males in the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga.
“I don’t know that it was a stronger effort than her win in the Preakness from the 13 hole, or dominating the Haskell, but the Woodward I think because of the buildup to it and it being at Saratoga and how Saratoga is toward horse racing, and then the way the race unfolded … I can’t imagine that moment being topped for me in any horse race on any day,” Asmussen said.
“Somebody described the race by saying that she had 10 reasons to lose and didn’t use any of them. If you watch the Woodward, it had completely inverted form, except for her. She was first the whole way, and the horse that laid second ended up last, the horse that laid third ended up second to last … so pace makes the race, and she’s the exception. That was truly a special performance.”
The 4-year-old filly’s owner, Jess Jackson, concurred.
“The pressure on me to take her to the Woodward was unbelievable because Steve had his cautions about it, it’s (Saratoga) the Graveyard of Champions, and deservedly so because the turf and the dirt can be difficult, particularly for a horse coming from another track,” he said. “It’s not one of the best tracks in terms of a champion being able to display their full-out ability, and yet she proved to be a champion in that race.
“She was challenged by five exceptional older male horses all the way around. There were five races in one race, and I agree with Steve, that was her championship moment. That showed that she had the grit to perform, lead and beat a series of contenders, all of whom challenged her at one point or another. I think that race will go down in history, for those who know horse racing, as one of the greatest races a filly has ever run.”
Both Asmussen and Jackson are also both in awe of how much jockey Calvin Borel loves the daughter of Medaglia d’Oro. Asmussen has witnessed few things like it during his years in horse racing.
“She means more to him than money, and I don’t think that’s everybody anywhere,” Asmussen said.
The morning after Jackson purchased Rachel Alexandra, Borel received his checks for winning the Kentucky Oaks aboard Rachel and the Derby aboard Mine That Bird. He reportedly sat in the jockeys’ room just staring at the envelope.
“He wouldn’t open it because it didn’t matter,” Asmussen said. “He thought he had lost riding Rachel, his connection with her. He’s a very special person and I think they fit extremely well. To say Calvin cares, that’s a very small adjective for how Calvin cares.”
Said Jackson: “I think it’s a very definite understatement to say he cares. He has a passion for her, and he loves her. He came to us the next morning after we had acquired her and asked to be the rider. He said, ‘I don’t care if I don’t ride any other horse this year. I want to ride her.’ ”