07/26/2010 12:40PM

Rachel Alexandra back on track for meeting with Zenyatta

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postedWhen a reigning Horse of the Year returns for another season, expectations are understandably high. When said Horse of the Year is Rachel Alexandra, the winner of the 2009 Eclipse Award in, arguably, the most hotly debated race for seasonal honors ever, hopes were stratospheric.

The dream matchup of Rachel Alexandra vs. Zenyatta dominated the minds of racing fans throughout 2009. Who was better? Was it Rachel Alexandra, who embarked on the most ambitious 3-year-old filly campaign ever and still remained perfect at the end of the season? Or was it Zenyatta, the immovable juggernaut, undefeated throughout her glorious racing career and a heart-stopping winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic? When both superstar female competitors remained in training over the winter, the clamor for a mouth-watering, stretch-long battle was deafening.

So, when Rachel Alexandra was defeated by Zenyatta’s stablemate Zardana in the New Orleans Ladies at the Fair Grounds on March 13, some of the air was let out of the balloon. When Rachel Alexandra’s owner, Jess Jackson, and trainer, Steve Asmussen, opted to skip the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Invitational, and the long-awaited showdown with Zenyatta, racing fans directed raspberries. And when Rachel Alexandra was then beaten by Unrivaled Belle in the Grade 2 La Troienne Stakes on the Kentucky Oaks undercard, it seemed that her bandwagon was emptying, en masse, in favor of Zenyatta and handicap kingpin Quality Road.

Surely, this wasn’t the Rachel Alexandra we’d seen bullying males in the Preakness, Haskell Invitational, and Woodward. With each defeat, the luster of her 2009 season was wearing off and a potential meeting with Zenyatta looked even more remote. Rachel needed a win.

She got just that in the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis Handicap at Churchill Downs on June 12, rocketing away from next-out Grade 1 winner Jessica Is Back at the quarter pole to win by 10 1/2 lengths over a hard-trying but overmatched Distinctive Dixie. Although Rachel Alexandra earned a 109 Beyer for the Fleur de Lis, the same number she received for her historic Woodward victory the previous summer at Saratoga, some racing fans remained unconvinced that she was back on the beam.

When Rachel Alexandra was entered in the ungraded Lady’s Secret Stakes at Monmouth Park, most fans ho-hummed. Rachel was sure to be 1-10 against six overmatched foes and many of the 12,589 in attendance that braved the sweltering heat anticipated a double-digit length thrashing a la the Fleur de Lis.

In that regard, they were disappointed. But, only in that regard. Rachel Alexandra won by three lengths over a game Queen Martha, a winner of two meager turf races in England, but she did it the right way.

Rachel Alexandra broke sweetly from post 5, and jockey Calvin Borel, hoping to get his filly to relax into a comfortable rhythm, took Rachel Alexandra deliberately wide on the first turn. Borel prompted the pacesetting Queen Martha from the two-path down the backstretch and went after her in earnest on the final bend. Turning for home, the outcome wasn’t in doubt. Rachel Alexandra made the lead from Queen Martha and no one else was coming. Borel never resorted to the whip and Rachel Alexandra stopped the timer at 1:49.78 for the nine furlongs, good enough for a 105 Beyer Speed Figure.

“She won very easily again today,” said Borel after the Lady’s Secret. “I let her run a little bit in the stretch to make sure she got something out of the race, but I think we saved a little bit in the tank for next time. I think she’s best when she can sit right off the pace like she did today.”

“I love where her mind is at right now,” said Asmussen. “She’s more mature and she’s carrying a little more weight. She’s very focused and nothing surprises her.”

What next for Rachel Alexandra? To be honest, this race did nothing for her bid to repeat as Horse of the Year. She would likely have to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic over Zenyatta and Quality Road to earn her way into that discussion. Jackson has mentioned that Rachel Alexandra would have two more races between now and the Breeders’ Cup.

A logical next step would be the Grade 1 Personal Ensign at Rachel Alexandra’s summer base, Saratoga, on Aug. 29. The Personal Ensign would be Rachel Alexandra’s first race at 1 1/4 miles. If all goes well, she would be one step closer to the Breeders’ Cup Classic. And one step closer to Zenyatta.