07/05/2012 12:56PM

For Rachel Alexandra, motherhood brings out sweeter side

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Barbara D. Livingston
Rachel Alexandra grazes with her foal, by Curlin, in the background.

By the time the fireflies came out, I had decided this was one of the most magical nights of my life. It was June 20, the evening of the summer solstice. When I arrived at Stonestreet Farm in Lexington, Ky., a couple of hours earlier, an entrancing scene greeted me – the golden sunlight of late afternoon, a deep-blue sky, pastel-toned clouds.

It got only better, because I had come to photograph Rachel Alexandra and her foal. Rachel captured my heart – and probably your heart, too – three years ago when she beat boys in the Preakness and then older males in a rock-the-house Woodward. She had a tough attitude back then, and it’s safe to say she didn’t suffer fools lightly – fascinating, but no cuddly toy.

At Stonestreet, I was in for quite a surprise. Rachel the mother has turned downright sweet.
She shares a 10-acre field with the stakes winner Hot Dixie Chick and Silky Serenade and their foals. Rachel and Dixie have been pasture mates and close buddies since soon after their retirements.

Amy Kearns, a free-spirited, perceptive woman who served as a bodyguard at the track first for Curlin and then for Rachel, is now in charge of the farm’s digital media. She observed Rachel and Dixie during their racing days and now visits them daily.

“It’s like they flipped,” Kearns said of the two mares’ personalities. “Rachel was incredibly fierce and competitive and intimidating at the track, and Dixie was so laid back. Now, Dixie, as the mom, is so much more protective, and Rachel is just warm and fuzzy and as patient with her colt as can be.

“The other part of Rachel is still there, but I think it’s that transformation that makes it all the more poignant.”

As Kearns and I stood in the field, Rachel grazed, and her foal, nicknamed Taco, latched onto Kearns’s long skirt and started munching. Dixie’s foal, nicknamed Chili (real name: Union Jackson) watched, his thick chestnut tail swishing.

Taco and Chili? Well, you see . . . the farm held a foal-naming contest for Rachel’s baby, and 6,521 names were submitted. Stonestreet has not yet announced the winner, but one suggestion – Wild Taco – was so amusing it took root with the farm crew. They started calling the foal Taco. And Chili? Simple. It goes with tacos. So there you go.

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Chili, a powerfully built chestnut son of Curlin born Feb. 7, resembles his Horse of the Year sire. But Rachel’s colt – also by Curlin, born Jan. 22 – favors his Horse of the Year mother. Some red patches of baby fuzz still cling to Taco’s deep-bay coat, but Rachel shines through in his build, color, star, two stockings, and white-traced eyes.

On this hot evening, Taco and Chili, their coats damp with sweat, were low key. Every so often one moseyed up to the other and started pushing or playing that classic old “grab the halter in the teeth” game. Silky Serenade’s colt by Eskendereya occasionally joined the fun. Mostly, though, the foals grazed or wandered, with occasional trips to their milk-station mothers.

Even though I had looked forward to this visit ever since Rachel had given birth, the sight of Taco, proud and self-confident, was more powerful than I had imagined. Jess Jackson wanted to own top horses, so he bought Curlin and Rachel, and after they captured racing’s highest honor, he paired them in the breeding shed. Jackson did not live long enough to see the results – this handsome colt, a living testament.

For much of the evening I tried to photograph what I considered the perfect portrait of Rachel. It eluded me until, suddenly, I realized: My portraits of Rachel the racehorse – head up, nostrils flared, eyes keenly interested – were a thing of the past. Photos now should reflect Rachel the mother – gentle eye, quiet manner, grass at the edges of her mouth . . . at peace.

Although it was the solstice – the day with the most daylight hours – the sun eventually dipped behind trees. The last red-gold sunlight faded from the horses’ coats.

As we watched the sun slip away – at 9:01, according to my camera – the broodmares and their foals sauntered away across the expansive field. The sky and clouds turned even richer shades of blue, purple, and orange. Fireflies appeared like tiny beacons. Crickets chirped. It grew darker until, through the gloaming, the mares and foals became ghostly figures.

All of a sudden, I heard the sound of hoofbeats. Up the field came the mares and foals, and leading the pack at a joyful pace, her silhouetted tail on high, was Rachel. They had seen the groom, barely visible, who had come into the field. He quietly snapped a lead-shank onto Rachel’s halter. As her pasture mates milled around, he led Rachel and her Taco inside for the night.