09/07/2009 10:42AM

Rachel!

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   Twentysomething racing fans - all six of them - lament having missed the Sensational Seventies and the chance to watch Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid, Affirmed vs. Alydar, and Forego.

    Similarly, I have wished I was cognizant of something other than The Beatles during the 1960s. The Super Sixties were short on Triple Crown winners but no less prolific in producing memorable thoroughbreds, such as Dr. Fager, Buckpasser, Damascus and Kelso.

     But today’s horseplayers of all ages should savor the opportunity to watch Rachel Alexandra, who in Saturday’s Woodward Stakes proved conclusively to even her doubters that she belongs high on the list of the greatest female racehorses ever to run in this country. 

     Ranking horses of different eras is subjective, of course, but in my eyes, Rachel Alexandra is now a clear No. 1 ahead of Ruffian, Miesque, Personal Ensign and Busher. Comparing Rachel to Ruffian is especially tricky, but unfair or not, Ruffian’s only start against males was in the match race that ended with her demise. The others on that list defeated top-class males.

     Zenyatta would certainly merit inclusion if she wins the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and although the dream matchup with Rachel might seem unlikely now, it could still happen at some point.

     If it doesn’t, it’s wrong to point the finger entirely at Jess Jackson.

    Last year, Jackson was strongly counseled not to run Curlin on a synthetic surface in the Classic, but overruled his advisors. Curlin wound up claiming Horse of the Year despite his fourth-place finish, despite some of his supporters switching their votes to Ladies Classic winner Zenyatta, whose late-running style benefits from synthetics and whose California-centric campaign was infinitely more conservative than the route Jackson chose for Curlin.

     Now Jackson has again aggressively handled a superstar, sending Rachel Alexandra against 3-year-old males, older males and to major stakes races in Maryland, New York and New Jersey after she had already run in Louisiana, Arkansas and Kentucky. By comparison, Zenyatta has again been handled with kid gloves, remaining exclusively on the West Coast to prepare for a second straight Breeders’ Cup at Oak Tree.  As was the case last year with Curlin, Jackson could pull the plug on Rachel Alexandra today and be virtually assured of Horse of the Year, yet he has stated he is willing to run her against Zenyatta for $1 million in the Beldame Stakes at Belmont Park, or possibly in a post-Breeders’ Cup race at, say, Churchill Downs or Fair Grounds. Rachel Alexandra has raced and won over synthetics once, but her best races have been on dirt, and the general tendencies of synthetic surfaces would give Zenyatta a built-in advantage. Jackson can’t be blamed for wondering why he should be the only one to make all his decisions based on the good of the sport.

     Perhaps the connections of Zenyatta will relent on the Beldame to chase the Horse of the Year title, or agree to a post-Breeders’ Cup matchup, or keep her in training long enough in 2010 to get it done.

     As for the way Jackson and trainer Steve Asmussen have handled Rachel Alexandra thus far, they deserve nothing but platitudes.

     Prior to the Preakness, I thought Jackson was unnecessarily risking Rachel’s future by bringing her back just 15 days after her historic Kentucky Oaks performance. I expected her to win the Preakness, but thought she instead should have been pointed for the Belmont Stakes three weeks later; she would have won that, too. In fact, I told a USA Today reporter that based on careers of other recent racehorses put through similar stress, she had a 50/50 chance of running only once or twice following the Preakness before being sidelined by injury. 

     The rest of Rachel Alexandra’s ambitious 3-year-old campaign has proven she is more durable than the average equine superstar. Jackson was right and I was wrong.

     More recently, it was easy to understand the basis of Jackson’s choice to run his colt Kensei in the Travers and point Rachel Alexandra to the Woodward. Still, I argued that the Travers was a more challenging spot with a higher profile. It can hardly be debated Rachel-in-the-Travers would have given the sport far more national publicity - and aside from broader TV coverage and the point that Saturday marked college football’s opening weekend, I’d wager most general sports fans recognize the Travers and think the Woodward is a musical instrument. But the importance of such extra exposure is difficult to quantify, and hardcore fans recognize Rachel added another paragraph to her sparkling resume Saturday by beating older males. She also seemed to need the extra week of rest she wouldn’t have gotten by running in the Travers.