07/29/2009 12:00AM

Busher set the bar high for Rachel


DEL MAR, Calif. - In this era of overblown bombast, when rock stars get send-offs like heads of state, it is no surprise that a filly who has done what Rachel Alexandra has done is being anointed as the second coming of Kincsem.

Make no mistake, the game is much better off for her presence, and her race at Monmouth Park on Sunday, the Haskell Invitational, against 3-year-old males should be a treat. But even if she wins, she'll still need to beef up her historical resume.

Not long after Rachel Alexandra won the Mother Goose last month by a country mile, it was offered by a respected colleague and backed with compelling detail that no modern-day 3-year-old filly had ever accomplished as much at that particular point in a career. This technically may be true, but only because of the bitter European winter of 1945 and the continuing struggle of the war.

If the 1944 Allied invasion of Europe had gone as drawn, and the German army had simply fallen like wheat before the eastward onslaught of the Allied Expeditionary Force, there might not have been the sickening panic among America's leaders as 1945 approached that the carnage might go on a lot longer than they thought. But then came the nastiness in the Ardennes forest, and the ensuing Battle of the Bulge, and it was clear there was hard work yet to be done.

As a result, after four years of rationing both goods and activity to aid the war effort, U.S. citizens were facing even more restrictions, and among them was a ban on horse racing, beginning Jan. 3, 1945. The ban ended May 9, 1945, the day after the Germans finally surrendered.

This is why - thanks for asking - a 3-year-old filly named Busher did not make her first start of 1945 until May 26, at the delayed Santa Anita meet. What ensued was a Horse of the Year campaign, the likes of which has not been witnessed since, comprised of 13 races in 134 days, with 10 victories over all manner of competition.

The stories of Busher and Rachel Alexandra intersect in a handful of intriguing places. Like Rachel, Busher was initially campaigned by her breeder, a Kentuckian, and then sold for an outrageous amount to a Californian who could buy just about any horse, or anything, he wanted. Speculation about the price wine mogul Jess Jackson paid for Rachel Alexandra usually starts around $7 million. Hollywood studio boss Louis B. Mayer, whose movies were a license to print money, bought Busher from the aging Col. E.R. Bradley for the jaw-dropping sum of $50,000, in March 1945.

Like Rachel, Busher grew bored competing against her own classmates. With George M. Odom now training, she won her comeback by five, the Santa Susana at Santa Anita by seven, and the Cleopatra at Arlington by 4 1/2, giving 10 pounds to the runner-up. So much for the 3-year-old fillies.

It was against the other divisions that Busher made her bones, just as Rachel Alexandra did facing colts in the Preakness and now sets forth to do again in the Haskell. At Santa Anita, Busher won the San Vicente against colts and the Santa Margarita Handicap against older fillies and mares, spotting weight to all concerned. Later in the year, she added the Hollywood Derby against the boys and the Vanity Handicap, once again giving weight to older females.

In between those two California swings, Busher nailed down her place in history with an Arlington Park meet that set a lofty standard for 3-year-old fillies. After warming up in the July 25 Cleopatra, she went for the Aug. 4 Arlington Handicap at 1 1/4 miles against older males. This is roughly the equivalent of Rachel Alexandra stepping up to try the Woodward at the end of the Saratoga meet. In the Arlington, Johnny Longden put Busher on the engine from the drop of the flag and won by 4 1/2 lengths.

In her next start, two weeks later in the Beverly Handicap, Busher carried 128 pounds against older mares and finished third to former champion Durazna, who carried 118, and Letmenow, under 102. Then, on Aug. 29, Busher and Durazna threw down in possibly the best match race that no one ever heard about - or at least made a movie about - going a mile at level weights. With Longden on Busher and George Woolf aboard Durazna, they punched and counterpunched without relent until the remarkable 3-year-old won by three-quarters of a length. Historian William H.P. Robertson described the match as a "thrilling spectacle of gameness."

The zenith of Busher's 1945 season occurred on Sept. 3, still at Arlington, in the Washington Park Handicap. Durazna was back for more, as was Pot o' Luck, one of Busher's Arlington Handicap victims. But the spotlight was on Calumet's rising star Armed, who was not quite yet the Horse of the Year he was to become in 1947. But he was close. Busher tracked Durazna, took the lead, and opened up, then held off Armed's charge to win by 1 1/2 lengths in a track record clocking for the 1 1/4 miles.

There are no equivalents in U.S. racing today, nor has there been for quite some time. Three-year-old fillies simply do not run against older males, at least they don't over a classic distance of ground (note that in 25 years worth of Breeders' Cup Classics, only one 3-year-old filly has run, the European Jolypha).

If Rachel Alexandra steps up to such heights - say, in the Jockey Club Gold Cup or even the Classic itself - then she truly will occupy her own special place in the history of the game. Until then, as grand and exciting as she is, she will have to settle for being Busher-lite.