10/06/2010 8:07PM

Goodbye, girl - Rachel Alexandra heads toward a new life

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Scott Blasi led the quiet filly to the waiting horse van, as he’d done many times before on shipping days. She dutifully followed him, and Scott stroked her neck and adjusted her mane before leading her up the ramp. He backed her into her temporary stall, straightened her foretop and carefully unclasped the shank. 

Just eight days earlier, when Scott let her go, the scene felt so different.

* * * * *

The way Scott released Rachel Alexandra on Monday, Sept. 27, was the same as on countless other mornings. Rachel generally worked in the second set on Mondays, but this morning was near pitch-black. She stepped onto the Oklahoma track after the 7:30 harrow break.

As usual, she sauntered down the track the wrong way. Dominic Terry was aboard and Scott alongside on the grey stable pony Dakota. Other horses danced by, and trainers called out their ‘good mornings.’ Rachel seemed to enjoy the ritual, her white-rimmed eyes surveying the cloud-draped morning and her hips swaying as she walked.

The quartet strolled past the finish wire, slowed and turned out. Rachel usually didn’t stand long before Scott led her back the other way, but this morning was different.

They waited, and I felt a sudden wave of melancholy. I wondered if Scott, thinking it was her last Saratoga workout, was taking it all in, or maybe he realized Rachel’s career was waning and simply wanted to take his time.

A minute or two later, Rachel Alexandra set off down the racetrack one final time.

Recently I’d studied Scott as he rode alongside Rachel, admiring his ever-vigilant watch. The riders aboard Rachel had changed – Dominic, Calvin Borel, Shaun Bridgmohan, Erik McNeil, Joel Dominguez and Dominic again – and the racetracks, too, had varied. But whether in short or long sleeves, jackets or rain gear– and in rain, fog, sunlight, darkness – Scott remained the constant.

Each morning, he guided Rachel from a walk to a trot, the leadshank extending from his hand down to her bridle. They accelerated slowly and Rachel would start to bounce, an ear flicked toward her guardian, patiently, as if to say:

Let me go, Scott, please let me go. Please, please, please.

Scott would, and Rachel floated on her way. She often leapt in her eagerness before settling into her gallop or work, seemingly always hoping for just a bit more rein.

I wondered if Scott ever thought about his unique view through Dakota’s ears. Would he miss it?

On this Monday morning, Rachel looked invincible as she blazed a bullet four furlongs. Scott watched from his parking spot along the rail on Dakota. Steve Asmussen stood nearby.

Long since gone were the large Monday morning crowds that savored Rachel’s workouts the previous year, when Rachel Madness was at its height. On this Monday, I saw neither fans nor photographers - just racetrackers going about their business, while keeping a respectful eye on the Horse of the Year. 

After the work, Scott picked Rachel up along the backstretch and led her back to the barn, past my favorite Oklahoma tree. Near the Phipps barn, it always bursts into autumn color earlier - and more brilliantly - than others. For weeks I’d waited for peak color, and this was the week.

Back at the barn, Rachel remained calm during her bath, only occasionally pinning her ears and swishing her tail. Yet when she walked, she was so energetic that hotwalker Juan Gonzalez slipped the chain over her gums. She looked so ready.

The next morning, Rachel Alexandra’s retirement was announced.

* * * * *

Eight days later, the Asmussen barn shipped to Kentucky.

Scott’s heavy clothing matched the gloomy day as he called out to grooms and hotwalkers, listing the horses by stall numbers or names. People scurried, some leading horses to vans as others loaded mattresses and buckets. Wet autumn leaves – brown, red, gold - laced the ground and floated in puddles.  A few barns away, in front of the Phipps barn, my favorite tree was losing its leaves.

A crumpled yellow sheet of paper in Scott’s hand listed which horses went where. Three vans filled slowly with stakes performers like Kensei, Wine Police and Abide.

Kantharos and Majesticperfection went too, their front legs heavily wrapped after suffering career-ending injuries.  While photographing them, the magnitude and emotion of this moment struck me. Here were two of the barn’s most promising horses – both dazzling winners of prestigious Saratoga stakes at the meet, and both, like Rachel, never to race again.

There was one horse left to load. 

Scott led Rachel from stall 2 – where, by my count, she resided for 198 days since late June of 2009. She stepped out of the empty barn, past wilting flowers in the yard and to the idling van. Her ears were forward, her eyes keenly interested, and that blaze was unmistakable. It stretched from her forehead to her nostrils, but it always appeared to me as if someone had thrown a brown snowball right between her eyes.

Several backstretch workers watched.  One groom, standing in front of his dorm room, quietly said, “Goodbye, Rachel.”

Scott stopped at the bottom of the ramp, gently fixed the filly’s foretop, then her mane.  He rested his hand on her neck and slowly led her up the ramp. He put her in her stall, fixed her foretop one more time, and unclasped the leadshank.

Six minutes later, the van slowly rolled away and, a few minutes after that, Scott’s pickup truck, with its Oklahoma license plate, followed.

 

To view other photographs of Rachel Alexandra's final workout, please visit http://barbaradlivingston.photoshelter.com/gallery/Rachel-Alexandras-final-workout-Saratoga-9-27-10/G0000mi9oG_e80rs/

To view other photos of Rachel Alexandra's shipping day, visit barbaradlivingston.photoshelter.com/gallery/Rachel-Alexandras-shipping-day-leaving-Saratoga-October-5-2010/G00008LK_VbyYo_w/

I'll post more photographs of Rachel Alexandra in an upcoming blog.