05/01/2010 2:38AM

Slow Boil


This is all getting very complicated. I was told that I could enjoy horse racing without requiring too much math. Andy Beyer would do the figures. I've got Mugsy for the clockings. The tote would calculate my winnings and the valet would find my car. But now, in the wake of Rachel Alexandra's second loss of 2010, we are confronted by the following bizarre equations:

(Rachel x 80%) + 3/4 of a length = Zardana

(Rachel x 90%) + one head = Unrivaled Belle

(Rachel x 100%) +/- X = ??????????

I can never remember if racing is a game of unreasonable expectations or shattering disappointments. They would seem to be related. Rachel Alexandra set a high bar for herself in 2009 when she won the Preakness, the Haskell and the Woodward against males. The fact that she has lost to a pair of talented but unheralded mares in her only appearances of 2010, though, is only cause for alarm if you are among those who thought she was the greatest filly to come along since the Korean War.

Her owner, Jess Jackson, is among the believers, and good for him. Like a proud father -- or the guy who bought an $8 million Picasso -- Jackson has championed Rachel Alexandra in word while the filly tried to keep up in deed. Until this year, she was doing pretty good.

Jackson's words have failed him, though, now that the harsh reality of Thoroughbred unpredictability has smacked Rachel Alexandra square in her gorgeous face. So far this year, trainer Steve Asmussen has asked her to do nothing remotely as difficult as go after a Preakness, or a Woodward, or even a Man o' War, as he did with Jackson's Curlin when they flirted with the turf. The New Orleans Ladies Classic and the La Troienne were solid, reasonable places for Rachel to run. Jackson said she was 80 percent fit for the first one and 90 percent fit for the second. Anyone want to bid 95?

This is coachspeak, a perversion of the racing language that has been adopted by some trainers in the face of a sports media and an ownership class increasingly unfamiliar with the subtle challenges of keeping a racehorse in peak form. I miss the days when horses were either dead short or dead fit. The in between was not calibrated, certainly not in terms of conditioning percentages. Jackson, an attorney who speaks with precision, even when being vague, has latched onto coachspeak big time in an attempt to explain away Rachel Alexandra's struggle.

(Jackson also declared to the media, after Friday's loss, that Rachel Alexandria was sound and a long way from retired. What was the hurry? I like to wait a day before I decide if breakfast sits well. Given Rachel's inability to deal with Unrivaled Belle, and the hard-rolled nature of the Churchill strip, I'd rather let Asmussen lead her out of the stall Saturday morning before sounding all clear.) 

As a reigning Horse of the Year, slow to regain that form, Rachel Alexandra finds herself in good company.One Count, the ultimate champ in 1952, won one of five starts in 1953. Sword Dancer, king of 1959, lost eight of 12 in 1960. In 1983, All Along was all but unbeatable on both sides of the Atlantic, but in 1984 she went 0-for-4. After a brilliant 1986 Horse of the Year campaign, Lady's Secret could win only two inconsequential allowance races the following season. Ferdinand, narrowly voted Horse of the Year in 1987, lost all six starts in 1988.

Affirmed It happens. A Horse of the Year campaign takes a toll. Since 1936, there have been only eight horses to repeat--Challedon, Whirlaway, Kelso, Secretariat, Forego, Affirmed, Cigar and Curlin. Break into that crowd and someone cues the choir. Right now, Rachel Alexandra's role model for her evolution as a 4-year-old needs to be Affirmed, who was Horse of the Year in 1978 when he won the Triple Crown. Affirmed began 1979 with two losses at Santa Anita against horses he should have crushed. His jockey, Steve Cauthen, was summarily replaced by Laffit Pincay, and Affirmed never lost again.

This is not to say a jockey change is the key to Rachel Alexandra's woes. She is not running poorly. She's just getting beat. Calvin Borel seems to be riding to instructions, keeping the lid on Rachel Alexandra early while running with horses at the head of the pack. Her fans would love to see her out there winging, reins dangling, sucking the competition along and wearing them out in pursuit. When she does this, she will be winning again. Of this I am 100 percent certain.