Rachel Alexandra is just not the same filly

Rachel Alexandra was a magnificent filly in 2009, one for the ages. She had an 8-0 campaign that was worthy of Horse of the Year, beating the boys three times while thrilling her thousands of fans and helping attract much-needed new blood into the sport.

But it’s time to face reality — Rachel Alexandra is not the same filly anymore. That’s not to take anything away from what she accomplished last year because no one will ever be able to erase that magical season she posted. It’s in the history books forever and she’ll go down as one of the best 3-year-old fillies in racing history.

But, for whatever reason, she has not carried her 3-year-old form over into her 4-year-old season. Maybe the eight races last year took too much out of her. Maybe it was that grueling stretch drive in the Woodward at Saratoga when she was all out to hold off Macho Again that was the final straw. Maybe she peaked in 2009. Just because a horse is brilliant one season doesn’t automatically mean they will dominate again the following year.

Or perhaps it was the six-month layoff following her victory in the Woodward. Maybe that competitive fire has never returned once she hit the track again to begin training for a new season.

Deep down I think her connections know she’s not the same horse. I mean, the Personal Ensign on Sunday was her fifth start of 2010 and her first time entered in a Grade 1 race. How many times in history have you seen a returning Horse of the Year race four times against non-Grade 1 competition to begin a new season?

Co-owner Jess Jackson’s statement following the Personal Ensign, where Rachel Alexandra got run down in the final eighth of a mile by a filly — Persistently — who’d never won a graded stakes before and had just beaten optional claimers, was telling.

“We are disappointed in the result, as we are sure her countless fans are, but we are certainly not disappointed in her. She is still a superstar in our hearts and minds. The old sports adage applies … on any given Sunday, anything can happen.”

That’s the difference between 2009 and 2010 — last year, Rachel was a superstar on the track. This year, she’s only a superstar in our hearts and minds. We have yet to see that brilliance in 2010 that made her a national celebrity last year.

At this point, I don’t think there’s any chance we see Rachel Alexandra in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on Nov. 6. And even if her connections deem her sound enough to run in the Ladies’ Classic the day before, I really can’t see her winning against a field of fillies and mares that will undoubtedly be much stronger than the group she ran against in the Personal Ensign.

Rachel’s fans can argue back and forth all they want about jockey Calvin Borel’s ride in the Personal Ensign, but that’s not going to return the 4-year-old daugher of Medaglia d’Oro back to her previous form. The 3-year-old Rachel would have won the Personal Ensign, but the Rachel who’s a year older is just not the same horse.

It will be a chess match in Personal Ensign

Unless Rachel Alexandra and Life At Ten get involved in a suicidal battle up front that I don’t see happening, today’s $300,000 Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga is without a doubt a two-horse race.

The Personal Ensign is going to be quite a chess match between Calvin Borel and John Velazquez, the riders of these two exceptional distaffers. Who takes the lead? Which one sits back off the pace and waits to make her run?

It’s obvious that Rachel Alexandra’s handlers feel she’s now ready for top competition after a rigorous 2009 campaign and a victory in the Woodward Stakes over the boys at Saratoga last September that took a lot more out of her than what was originally thought.

This is Rachel Alexandra’s fifth start of the year and her first in a Grade 1. Life At Ten is by far the toughest foe she’s confronted this year and it’s going to be interesting to see how Borel chooses to attack — with Rachel’s blazing early lick or by sitting back and letting Life At Ten do all the early work.

One key here — Life At Ten has already won at the taxing distance of 1 1/4 miles, which is the distance of the Personal Ensign. Rachel Alexandra, while winning the 1 3/16-mile Preakness Stakes as a 3-year-old, has never won at the classic 1 1/4-mile distance.

Both females can scoot early. Rachel carved out fractions of 46 3/5 and 1:11 while winning the 2009 Preakness in gate-to-wire fashion, and Life At Ten went 23 1/5 and 45 2/5 in winning the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps at Belmont Park on June 12.

Rachel is the reigning Horse of the Year. Life At Ten has won six consecutive races and is without a doubt at the top of her game. Both will be ridden by good, solid riders who have a decision to make — send or sit back.

The other three horses entered are all closers and aren’t in either Rachel’s or Life At Ten’s league — unless the top two become involved in that suicidal speed duel that I mentioned earlier.

Both Rachel and Life At Ten have proven they can lay off the pace and win. Neither needs the lead for success, so I’m going to venture a guess and say that, because Life At Ten has already been successful at wiring the field at 1 1/4 miles in the Grade 2 Delaware Handicap on July 17 at Delaware Park, that she’s going to set the pace here.

I am figuring Borel will have Rachel Alexandra just off the leader and ready to strike at a moment’s notice, but he won’t let Velazquez get away with the 49 3/5 and 1:14 splits that the latter was able to get away with in the Delaware Handicap.

Of course, there’s also the theory that Borel will just let Rachel break and send her, hoping she’ll recapture her form of a year ago that led to an 8-0 record and three victories over the boys. If Rachel is allowed to set reasonable splits on the front end, there may be no catching her.

I’m going with Rachel Alexandra to win what essentially is a match race between the two. But her 2-5 morning-line odds are way out of line. Rachel at 7-5 and Life At Ten at 9-5 would have been a fairer price, but we’ll see.

Whatever transpires, it should be a heck of a horse race.

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Three big Grade 1 stakes on tap today

Del Mar and Saratoga will be the site today for three major Grade 1 stakes races that hold major implications for the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs on Nov. 5-6.

The two biggest races of the day are a pair of million-dollar races on each coast — the Pacific Classic at Del Mar, matching some of the top older handicap horses in the country, and the Travers Stakes, also known as the Mid-Summer Derby, that has attracted some of the top sophomores in America.

First a look at the Pacific Classic.

Five of the 10 entrants can win this 1 1/4-mile race on Del Mar’s synthetic Polytrack surface, including defending champion Richard’s Kid, Awesome Gem, The Usual Q.T., Hold Me Back and Temple City.

Here’s who we like, listed in order of preference:

The Usual Q.T. — Cassidy says Polytrack no problem for turf specialist
Hold Me Back — Mott looking for second Pacific Classic victory in three years
Richard’s Kid — Doesn’t figure to get the fast pace he got last year to set up closing kick
Awesome Gem — Hard-knocking old timer got perfect trip in Hollywood Gold Cup
Temple City — Hard to imagine him getting soft early fractions he got in Cougar II Handicap

The Travers, minus the top 3-year-old in the land in Lookin At Lucky, is still a competitive race with some top horses. Here’s who we like in the 1 1/4-mile event on dirt:

Trappe Shot — Ran second behind Lookin At Lucky in the Haskell
First Dude — Can try to wire the field or sit back and make a run in the stretch
Super Saver — Hasn’t repeated his Kentucky Derby form in past two races

Two races after the Pacific Classic, some of the West’s top sprinters will go postward in the $300,000 Pat O’Brien Stakes at 7 furlongs on Polytrack.

Here’s who we like:

Smiling Tiger — There isn’t a horse in this eight-horse field that can keep up with this guy
Crown of Thorns — BC Sprint runner-up last year will be closing but will have too much ground to make up
El Brujo — Baffert Candy Ride gelding will complete the trifecta

We’ll take a look at Sunday’s Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga tomorrow, a race in which reigning Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra will attempt to negotiate a mile and a quarter for the first time.

West Coast stars thrive on dirt tracks

OK, so I am detecting a pattern here — West Coast thoroughbred, successful on synthetic race tracks, travels east to run on dirt and thrives when it gets off the artificial surfaces.

Case in point No. 1 is the 3-year-old colt Lookin At Lucky, who won the Del Mar Futurity, Norfolk Stakes and CashCall Futurity over synthetics as a 2-year-old en route to an Eclipse Award as top male Juvenile yet didn’t really have a chance to show his true talent because he likes dirt better.

In his first try on the real stuff, he won the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, followed that up with a sixth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby in which he was eliminated at the start while breaking from the dreaded rail in a 20-horse field and then took the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course before trainer Bob Baffert decided to freshen the Smart Strike colt for the late summer and fall campaigns.

He made it 3 for 4 on dirt in the Haskell Invitational, turning in probably the top effort of his 11-race career, romping home by four lengths at Monmouth Park while leaving Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver, First Dude and Trappe Shot in his wake through the stretch.

Case in point No. 2 is the 3-year-old filly Blind Luck, who is now 4-0 on dirt following a convincing victory over the East Coast darling Devil May Care in last weekend’s Alabama Stakes at Saratoga. Wasn’t even a contest.

Of course, there’s also the unbeaten Zenyatta, who’s managed to compile an 18-0 record despite running 16 of her races over artificial tracks that are far from her preferred surface. She obviously loves dirt more than artificial tracks, having scored her two most powerful victories in the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park in 2008 and 2010.

You might want to think twice before diminishing California horses’ success over synthetics. Turns out many of them are even better on dirt and the synthetics have been dulling their brilliance.

Just ask Lookin At Lucky, Blind Luck and Zenyatta.

Better yet, just watch how they run at Churchill Downs at this year’s Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 5 and 6. Belittle their resumes at your own risk.

Valenzuela catching fire at Del Mar

Raise your hand if you expected Patrick Valenzuela to ever be third in the jockey standings at a major Southern California meet again after the 47-year-old jockey was issued a lifetime ban by the California Horse Racing Board after being arrested and charged with drunk driving in late 2007.

The lifetime ban lasted less than three years after the current CHRB board members granted Valenzuela a conditional riding license last month and the popular jockey resumed riding in California on July 28 at Del Mar.

Today, after riding the winner of the first race for trainer Neil Drysdale, Valenzuela sits in a tie with Victor Espinoza for third in the Del Mar jockey standings with 16 victories, 17 behind co-leaders Rafael Bejarano and Joel Rosario. This after Valenzuela recorded his first riding triple Friday since his return.

There is no question Valenzuela’s success stems in part from injuries to Tyler Baze and Joe Talamo that knocked both riders out for the rest of the Del Mar meet. Valenzuela has picked up many of those guys’ mounts since they went down and he’s taking full advantage of the opportunities.

Valenzuela, who had been riding in New Mexico and Louisiana since his exile from California, appears to be a man on a mission. As one press box observer said, he looked old while riding in Louisiana, but suddenly he’s re-energized and eager to take advantage of his situation.

There’s not much middle ground when it comes to P-Val. You either like him or you don’t, and it seems he’s still as popular with the fans as ever. He received a warm welcome in the paddock the day he returned, a show of affection that seems to accompany him whenever he’s gone and then returns.

One industry official, when asked his opinion about P-Val’s reinstatement just days before he was set to return, offered a three-word response: “It’s a travesty.”

I’m all for giving people a second and in some instances a third chance, but P-Val has gone way past that plateau and he’s still to this day unwilling to admit he erred in the past. Unlike Garrett Gomez, who has risen from the depths of despair to the top of his profession and is not afraid to talk about his lows, Valenzuela has never admitted he’s got a problem.

I hope he succeeds, but I didn’t agree with the CHRB’s decision to let him come back because I think it sets a dangerous precedent. Next time the board hands down a harsh punishment on someone in the sport, what does it mean? In P-Val’s case, it meant nothing. A lifetime ban resulted in a three-year suspension.

But there’s never been any question about Valenzuela’s talent. He’s arguably as talented as any jockey who’s ever ridden. Horses just run for the guy, and most importantly he lets them run.

There are still horsemen who won’t use him. Some will relent and eventually begin giving him mounts again, while some will never let him back in their barns. That’s just the way this game is and always will be.

But as one Del Mar official said the second week of the meet, even before P-Val got hot: “He’s focused. It’s like he’s got blinders on.”

Nearly everyone in the industry is waiting for him to mess up again and blow a chance he didn’t really deserve, but if he is as focused as some believe, who knows?

P-Val has been given a golden opportunity. It’s up to him what he does with it.

Please, Frank, get a deal done with Oak Tree

Now that Frank Stronach, in a “sign of good will,” has announced he’s tearing out Santa Anita’s synthetic Pro-Ride surface in favor of a dirt track, he needs to step up further.

Stronach’s planned dirt track, which will be a mixture of sand and soil, is a nice start. The announcement at Del Mar in front of about 250 horsemen was met with applause. There’s no doubt the vast majority of Southern California horsemen wanted to return to dirt.

But making the horsemen happy about the racing surface should only be step one if Stronach is truly bent on helping California racing return to prominence. He also needs to make sure Oak Tree stays at Santa Anita.

Oak Tree and Santa Anita go together like peanut butter and jelly, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo and Zenyatta and winning. The two have been great for one another. It’s been a perfect marriage, and how often can you say that about holy matrimony?

I can’t imagine Oak Tree anywhere else but Santa Anita, although because the owners and trainers are not comfortable running over the Pro-Ride surface this year because of safety concerns, it looks like Hollywood Park will be hosting the five-week meet this year.

But 2010 should be the final year Oak Tree is not held at Santa Anita. The two sides need to come together and get a longterm deal done. There’s no reason whatsoever for Oak Tree to race at Hollywood Park or Del Mar.

Longtime thoroughbred owner Mace Siegel, who helped broker a deal between Stronach and Oak Tree for 2010 at the California Horse Racing Board’s June meeting at Hollywood Park, made another plea for the two sides to remain partners at Stronach’s meeting with horsemen Wednesday night.

“Frank, promise me that you will sit down with me and Chilly (Oak Tree executive vice president Sherwood Chillingworth),” Siegel said.

Stronach, who says he has a lot of respect for Siegel, told him: “I promise I will sit down with you.”

Whether it happens is anybody’s guess, but the majority of horsemen do not want to travel to Del Mar each year for Oak Tree. They say it’s too expensive. The last thing this industry needs is more owners and trainers leaving the state because of soaring costs.

Frank, you did good with your decision to return to dirt. Now go for a two-bagger and get an agreement done with Oak Tree so it can return to its rightful place beginning next fall.

Stronach has the opportunity to come off looking as the good guy, one of the positive leaders in the industry.

Who thought there was a chance of that ever happening?

Sources: Santa Anita going back to dirt

My sources all tell me that Frank Stronach will inform horsemen during a meeting at Del Mar tonight that he will install a traditional dirt track at Santa Anita immediately following the Oak Tree meet and it will be finished in time for the track’s winter-spring meet that begins on Dec. 26.

Stronach also reportedly will tell horsemen that he’d like to have Oak Tree as a tenant for three additional years after this one, but that is contingent on a few things happening in his favor. One industry souce told me he still expects Oak Tree to be run at Del Mar beginning in 2011.

Earlier reports that Oak Tree would switch to Hollywood Park this year in order for work to begin immediately on the new track are untrue. Hollywood Park president Jack Liebau told me earlier today that there are no plans in the works for Oak Tree to race at the Inglewood track in 2010.

Stronach reportedly has already gotten permission from Arcadia officials to have work crews in line 24 hours per day to install the new dirt track in time for the regular Santa Anita meet. There is a high level of confidence that the work could be completed between the time Oak Tree closes on Sunday, Oct. 31 and the opening of Santa Anita’s winter-spring meet.

Another source said if the project was delayed in any way, a contingency plan could involve racing the first days of the meet at Hollywood Park.

We’ll know more tonight after Stronach’s meeting with the horsemen, which is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. at Del Mar’s Surfside Raceplace.

Amazing Zenyatta continues to find a way to get it done

Zenyatta took on all comers Saturday, but neither the Polytrack, David Flores’ gamesmanship nor a pace normally reserved for rush-hour traffic could stop the 6-year-old Street Cry mare.

She raised her record to 18-0 by becoming the first horse to win the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes at Del Mar three times. She’d already become the lone three-time winner of the Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park on June 13.

She keeps setting records, and yet some still continue to moan about who she’s raced against and make outlandish claims that this horse or that horse would teach her a lesson or two.

One national turf writer wrote last week that the best horse in the country was running Saturday, but he meant Quality Road and not Zenyatta. Earth to writer — Quality Road has now lost four times in 11 starts, and Zenyatta is undefeated in 18, having beaten such high-class opposition as Gio Ponti, Ginger Punch, Cocoa Beach, Life Is Sweet and St Trinians along the way.

In fact, Quality Road was beaten last fall by Summer Bird, one of the 11 males Zenyatta cruised by in the stretch on her way to making Breeders’ Cup history on Nov. 7 at Santa Anita.

Tell me this — if Zenyatta is so overrated, why is it none of those horses could beat her? Why, in 26 years, is she the only female to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic?

Because she’s great, folks. And it’s too bad, as jockey Mike Smith said on a conference call last week, that people find the need to knock perfection.

“If things continue as they are, if we can pull two more off, as far as I’m concerned she’ll go down as the greatest horse of all time,” said Smith, her jockey for the past 15 races who was aboard for the neck victory in the Hirsch over the game 10-1 outsider Rinterval, who set a pace so slow that the race was in danger of running over into Saturday Night Live.

Closers are not supposed to win when the early splits are 25.41, 50.61 and 1:15.11 for a mile and one sixteenth. The pacesetter is supposed to keep on going to the winner’s circle. Thing is, Rinterval was running against a machine called Zenyatta, who doesn’t allow such tactics to derail her.

No, she doesn’t win by the length of the grandstand like horses with higher cruising speeds sometimes do, but she wins. Last time I looked, that’s all that matters.

“That’s just her style,” trainer John Shirreffs said. “She has such a wonderful stride and she never really hits it until the end of the race.”

Last year, when she won the Hirsch by a head, she was clocked at 40 miles per hour by track technology when she hit the wire. This year she was traveling 38.2 miles per hour.

Must have been that extra carrot she ate Saturday morning that slowed her down.

Flores, who was aboard Zenyatta for the first three races of her career, did some keen race riding as the field of six turned for home in the Hirsch. With Zenyatta and Smith closing to his right, Flores deftly allowed Dance to My Tune to float the winner about five wide into the stretch.

“I saw David kind of look back and look for me,” Smith said. “So I decided to just play it safe and just go on around and not get cute.”

Smith decided cute would play better on a different day, like maybe Nov. 6 when Zenyatta, if all goes according to plan, tries to successfully defend her title in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.

Until then, she’ll have one more race — either the Zenyatta/Lady’s Secret Stakes at Oak Tree in early October or the Beldame Stakes at Belmont Park on Oct. 2. Let’s hope it’s the Beldame so she can get off these tracks that truly hold her back and show her critics just how truly great she really is.

Not that Shirreffs needs any convincing.

“She’s the best horse in the country,” he said.

Not only the best horse in the country, but also a candidate for entertainer of the year. Her dance routine in the paddock and playing to the crowd in front of the grandstand after each victory are just two elements that make up the Zenyatta mystique.

“It’s a fun thing for her,” Smith said. “She should be entertainer of the year all the time because she loves to entertain.”

And Smith is one of her biggest fans.

“I’m a fan along with those people,” he said. “I just happen to be sitting on top of her. That’s why she came back, for her fans.”

Smith, a Hall of Fame rider who has done some of his best work aboard Zenyatta, just hopes that before her career is over she’ll be truly recognized, not just in California, but all over the country for just how great she truly is.

“To me, I appreciate her more than my life itself,” he said.

Another Hall of Famer, trainer Jack Van Berg, also has an appreciation for Zenyatta.

“I’ve seen a lot of great mares in my day,” Van Berg told Jay Hovdey of The Daily Racing Form. “Ruffian was awful good. And Rachel Alexandra, you can’t take nothing away from her. But I’ve seen Zenyatta do things I’ve never seen the best colts do.

“She comes from dead last every time. She’s got in trouble, overcome obstacles. She’s never had a rabbit for her to set the race up, and she’s had paces where they were walking up there.

“I’ve watched her train from Day 1, before she even started. When she gets rolling, it seems like she’s taking her one stride to everybody else’s two or three. Last time she ran at Hollywood Park, when it looked like she was beat, it looked like she just looked over at that other filly and took off that last little bit.”

That “other filly” was St Trinians, another of those tomato cans that Zenyatta keeps beating. Yes, the same St Trinians who defeated 2009 Ladies’ Classic champion Life Is Sweet, whom Zenyatta treated like a kid sister each time they squared off against each other during the 2009 campaign.

When Zenyatta scored victory No. 17 in the Vanity, not only did she catch St Trinians when it appeared at the sixteenth pole that she was beaten, but she also beat a horse named Zardana. Another of those tomato cans she keeps beating.

You remember Zardana, right? Beat a filly by the name of Rachel Alexandra back in March at the Fair Grounds.

In horse racing, you must be careful which cans you go around kicking.

Would Quality Road have beaten Zenyatta in 2009 Classic?

Speculation is always fun when debating what would have happened if one great Super Bowl champion from the ’70s had played another from the ’90s, if a heavyweight champion from one era had fought another from a different time period and if a talented race horse that was scratched at the gate of last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic would have found a way to do something 11 other males couldn’t do that day — beat Zenyatta.

How about it? If Quality Road, a winner of 7 of 10 lifetime starts and an ultra-impressive winner of this year’s Donn Handicap and Met Mile, had not been scratched from the Classic last November at Santa Anita, would he have beaten the great Zenyatta, thus depriving the exceptional mare of her place in history as the only female to win the Classic?

The question was put to Todd Pletcher, trainer of Quality Road, this week as his talented colt prepared to meet five rivals in the $750,000 Whitney Invitational at Saratoga on Saturday.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I certainly think that he’s a horse that is good enough to do just about anything, as he’s proven in the Donn, the Met Mile and setting track records in the Florida Derby and the Amsterdam. I mean, he’s an extremely gifted animal.

“I just don’t know with the synthetic surface (how he would have run). It’s a special surface that some horses handle and some don’t, and from our experience with it, you really don’t know until you run on it. So it’s impossible to know (if he would have won), but I do know that he is talented enough to compete with anyone.”

It’s my opinion that Zenyatta would have charged past Quality Road in the stretch last fall as she did Gio Ponti, Summer Bird, Einstein and Colonel John, among others. She was by far the best horse in America last year — male or female — on Breeders’ Cup day.

Now, if the two of them meet this year in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on Nov. 6, it’s a whole different ballgame. Quality Road is a year older, bigger and more mature. He’s a better race horse now than he was last November. That’s pretty apparent when you watch him run.

Is Zenyatta a better horse in 2010 than she was last fall? The jury is still out on that one because she’s 6 now and it’s impossible to tell how much this year’s campaign will have weighed on her come November.

If I had to pick a winner today, I’d go with the unbeaten horse who’s proven at 1 1/4 miles and who would be running over a preferred surface — dirt — as opposed to a synthetic surface that she doesn’t like but has managed to stay unbeaten over.

If they meet, it will be a heck of a horse race and likely will decide Horse of the Year laurels.

Zenyatta to arrive at Del Mar on Wednesday

It looks like it’s about 99.5 percent certain that the unbeaten Zenyatta will run in Saturday’s $300,000 Grade 1 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes, according to Del Mar officials.

A Del Mar spokesperson said early Sunday evening that the 6-year-old Street Cry mare, 17-0 in her career, will gallop at Hollywood Park on Wednesday morning and then ship down to Del Mar later that day.

Zenyatta is scheduled to gallop over Del Mar’s synthetic Polytrack surface Thursday morning and then will school in the paddock later that day during the afternoon’s eight-race card.

Trainer John Shirreffs is expected to enter Zenyatta in the Clement L. Hirsch when post positions are drawn Wednesday. He could still scratch her later if the track is not to his liking.

Zenyatta, 3-0 in 2010 following victories in the Santa Margarita Handicap at Santa Anita, the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park and the Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park, would be trying to become the first horse to win the Clement L. Hirsch three times. She became the first three-time winner of the Vanity on June 13.

Shirreffs told The Daily Racing Form late last week that Zenyatta could possibly run in the Grade 1 Beldame Stakes at Belmont Park on Oct. 2, which could set up a possible showdown against 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra.

Rachel Alexandra, 2-2 this year, is scheduled to run in the $300,000 Grade 1 Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 29.