09/03/2009 12:00AM

With this filly, the deal's for real


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The main street in downtown Saratoga Springs is lined with banners reading, "Rachel Alexandra: Run Like a Girl." The mayor has declared Saturday to be "Rachel Alexandra Day." A press release declares that the filly's impending appearance is one of the most anticipated races in Saratoga's 141-year history.

Casual fans might be skeptical about all of this ballyhoo. Every year, it seems, some young horse is anointed as the sport's next superstar, and almost every year the hype turns out to be wrong. But this time it's different. Rachel Alexandra is indeed the real thing.

Her accomplishments this year suggest that she is one of America's best female racehorses of all time, and she will attempt to enhance her credentials Saturday when she challenges older males in the Woodward Stakes. In its 55 runnings, no female of any age has ever won the Woodward, and only one 3-year-old filly has tried. Rachel Alexandra's presence in this prestigious event underscores an important factor in her ascent to stardom. She has an owner and trainer willing to let her show how good she may be.

Although it seem be premature to assess Rachel Alexandra's place in history - she has another full year of racing ahead of her - few females have ever put together a string of races as dazzling as her last four starts. She won the at Monmouth, where she trounced Summer Bird - the Belmont Stakes winner - by six lengths. Her Beyer Speed Figure of 116 was the best by any horse in North America this year.

Rachel Alexandra's achievements have few precedents, because most America horsemen are reluctant to run fillies against colts. (Europeans, by contrast, have no such qualms. Their fillies frequently win the most important grass races on both sides of the Atlantic.) Many of the best U S. filly champions - such Go for Wand, Sky Beauty, and Inside Information - never raced against males. The ones who have challenged males on dirt have recorded only sporadic success. Azeri, the Horse of the Year in 2002, was 0 for 2 against males. Lady's Secret, the 1986 Horse of the Year, beat males in only 1 of 7 attempts.

Rachel Alexandra's previous owner was one of the many conservatives in the sport who don't believe in racing fillies against colts. If Jackson hadn't bought her, the filly would not have run in the Preakness, Haskell, or Woodward. But the owner of Kendall-Jackson Winery got into the sport because he relishes challenges - he put his champion Curlin through an ambitious campaign last year. He also, however, understands that the condition of the animal dictates what he can do.

Jackson relies on trainer Steve Asmussen and assistant Scott Blasi to assess Rachel Alexandra's health and fitness. As the owner, he said, "I'm looking at the long-term schedule and taking into account the business aspects." So far the team has made all the right decisions about where to run the filly. "It's a process of defining her greatness," Jackson said. "Each time she passes one test, she goes on to another." Running a 3-year-old filly against older males is a choice that few trainers - including Asmussen - would make on their own, but Asmussen believes that the filly has retained her peak form, and he gave the green light to Jackson's aspirations.

Asmussen knows that the outcome of this race is not foregone conclusion, even if most people think Rachel Alexandra is unbeatable in a field that is sub-par by the Woodward's historical standards. The trainer recalled that Curlin was supposed to be unbeatable in the Woodward last year, but the champion had to fight hard to beat Past the Point by just more than a length. Past the Point is in Saturday's field along with six other battle-tested veterans.

"She's going to have to run equal to or better than Curlin in order to win," Asmussen said.

Rachel Alexandra will win if she produces her best form, but she is not an indefatigable machine. The racing record books show that

3-year-old fillies who beat top males have usually tailed off after their great triumphs. Winning Colors captured the 1988 Kentucky Derby brilliantly and never won another race of consequence. Rags to Riches defeated Curlin in the 2007 Belmont Stakes, lost her next start, and never raced again.

If Rachel Alexandra wins the Woodward, her place in history will be secure. It will not be an exaggeration to call her the best American filly since Ruffian. Although Ruffian was one of the fastest Thoroughbreds who ever lived, even her overall accomplishments don't match Rachel's, and her only venture against males - her match race with Foolish Pleasure - ended with her fatal breakdown.

Rachel Alexandra can lock up the Horse of the Year title with a victory, but she can also earn an even rarer distinction. While other members of her sex have won the sport's top award without beating the best males, this will be the first time in the postwar era that a filly, running on dirt, will be regarded as America's best racehorse, regardless of gender.

(c) 2009, The Washington Post