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Rachel not first champ to run out of gas
In January, racing's collective brain had a one-track mind: Rachel vs. Zenyatta. The 2009 Horse of the Year facing the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic winner, the champ versus the would-be champ. And then Rachel Alexandra made it back to the races. She lost the March 13 New Orleans Ladies by three-quarters of a length to the unheralded Zardana. That was a Saturday. By Sunday evening, the $5 million Apple Blossom showdown between Rachel and Zenyatta had been called off by Rachel Alexandra's majority owner, Jess Jackson. All right, give Rachel a comeback mulligan. But April 30, in the La Troienne at Churchill Downs, Rachel Alexandra went down again, defeated by little known Unrivaled Belle.
So now it is June. Zenyatta will likely face five horses Sunday in the Vanity Handicap at Hollywood, seeking victory 17 without a loss. A day earlier, halfway across the country, Rachel Alexandra is scheduled to start in the Fleur de Lis Handicap at Churchill Downs, caught up in a new collective racing narrative: Rachel Alexandra vintage 2010 is not the Rachel Alexandra of 2009.
The sentiment comes with a disappointed shrug. It comes with confusion and surprise. But anyone with a longer view of racing history should not be that surprised by Rachel Alexandra's struggles. Among the last 30 3-year-old filly Eclipse Award winners, dating to Kentucky Derby winner Genuine Risk, who won the award in 1980, only two came back to be a champion older female the next season. They were Ashado, who did it in 2004 and 2005, and Life's Magic, who did it in 1984 and 1985.
Those 30 filly champs can be roughly broken into three categories: One group came back the year after their 3-year-old season and showed the same form. That list is only eight horses long: Wait a While, Ashado, Xtra Heat, Banshee Breeze, Serena's Song, Heavenly Prize, Hollywood Wildcat, and Life's Magic, and only five of those were top dirt-routers - like Rachel - at 3 and 4. Four other fillies were good at 4, but not nearly as good as they had been the year before. The rest either never came close to their 3-year-old form or were injured and retired before racing at 4.
A saying around the racetrack sums up the difficulty of repeating: You get paid for what you do, but you pay for what you do.
"It is amazing," Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott said when told the number of repeat filly champs the last three decades. "I think a lot of them were good 2-year-olds. Very seldom do you see a horse that has more than two really, really top seasons. It's a rarity any more to see that. Even Cigar, he was good at the end of his 4-year-old year, good at 5, and then good the first half of his 6-year-old year."
Mott trained Ajina, a foal of 1994. At 2, she won the Demoiselle by seven lengths. At 3, Ajina was slow to get going, but eventually won the Mother Goose and Coaching Club American Oaks, and capped her season with a victory in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. Five months later, she finished eighth at odds of 2-5 in the Bayakoa at Oaklawn. Ajina won her next start but lost two more times and was done in July.
"By the time she was 4, she had just about quit," Mott said. "It had even taken me a while to get her going at 3."
Silverbulletday won 6 of 7 starts at 2, including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, and then went 8 of 11 at 3, winning the Kentucky Oaks by two lengths and the Alabama by nine. She was named champion filly that year, but by the Breeders' Cup, Silverbulletday had tailed off. At 4, she won a listed stakes by a neck to start her season, lost four races, and made her career finale in July.
"I ran her in the Belmont, and I think that was a mistake," trainer Bob Baffert said. "When you look back on it, we probably shouldn't have run her so many times."
Silverbulletday banked $1.7 million in her 3-year-old season, and she took her connections to eight venues, one more than Rachel Alexandra in 2009.
"I ran her at so many tracks, and I think that wears on them more than anything," Baffert said. "Just like Rachel. That really stresses them, you know. It's a lot of road games."
You get paid for what you do, but you pay for what you do.
"We started Proud Spell's season very early that year," former trainer Larry Jones said of his filly's 2008 campaign, which earned her an Eclipse. "She stayed good all year long, but we chased the high-dollar races that year, the Delaware Oaks and the Cotillion. We were asking her pretty hard every time we went out there. We had to have her right. It wasn't one of those deals where she could go out there in a slow four furlongs. It did - it took its toll on her. It compromised her long-term career."
Proud Spell briefly was retired but came back into training early in 2009. She started once, finishing second in an allowance race, and was gone from the track for good.
"She kind of ran the same race like Rachel had first time back," Jones said. "It wasn't an embarrassment, but it wasn't her 'A' game."
In 1980, Genuine Risk won the Kentucky Derby, finished second in the Preakness and the Belmont, and started twice more before calling it a season. The next year, she twice ran fast scoring blowout allowance race wins, but she started only three times and never even raced in a stakes.
"I think you have to remember that for any horse to be a champion, particularly a 3-year-old, the season starts early, and it goes for a long time," said Genuine Risk's trainer, LeRoy Jolley. "There's a lot of traveling involved. Some travel better than others, some take the wear and tear better than others. It's tough on them. It does take something away from them."
Genuine Risk, Proud Spell, Silverbulletday, Ajina - all showed precociousness and raced well at 2, and many trainers believe this kind of animal is inherently unsuited to go forward and hold form at 4.
"Look at Zenyatta," Baffert said. "If she would have run as a 2-year-old, I don't know if she would have held together."
Zenyatta not only went unraced at 2, she barely started before the end of her 3-year-old season, racing twice in 2007. She is much more closely linked with those few 3-year-old filly champs who returned at 4 with form as strong as the year before. Heavenly Prize made three starts at 2, and at 3 raced only once until mid-June. Banshee Breeze started once at 2, bucked her shins, and was sent home for the rest of the year, cut out all along to be an older horse.
"She was a big, lanky, tall filly about 16 [hands] 2," trainer Carl Nafzger said.
And then there are the iron horses: Ashado, Serena's Song, and Life's Magic. Ashado made six starts at 2, five in graded stakes, and even won the Demoiselle after finishing second in the Breeders' Cup. At 3 she went 5 of 8, winning the Kentucky Oaks and BC Distaff. At 4, she won the Phipps and the Beldame and took the Go for Wand by more than nine lengths.
"She was one of those remarkable mares that reminded me of some of those mares that Wayne [Lukas] had, like Serena's Song," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "Thrived on competition, thrived on training. The more that you did, the more they wanted to do."
Ashado was "big and strong, well built all over, powerful like a colt, but feminine in her appearance," Pletcher said.
Lukas describes Serena's Song as "medium sized, very hearty, very tough." Indeed. Serena's Song raced 10 times at 2, 13 times at 3, and 15 times at 4. In her 37th career start, she finished second in the Breeders' Cup Distaff.
The Lukas-trained Winning Colors, though, went 2 of 7 in 1989 after her championship 3-year-old season, never anything like her best younger self.
"She went through the Triple Crown series, which was very strenuous, and she was probably not going to have a great 4-year-old year in light of how much she did," Lukas said.
Even Ashado, one of the two repeat champs, lost her first two starts at 4, finishing fifth in the Apple Blossom at odds of 1-2 and second in the Grade 3 Pimlico Distaff at 3-10.
"I was a little concerned after the Pimlico race, because she appeared on paper to stand out in that field," Pletcher said. "Maybe as she got older and bigger and heavier, it might have taken her a race or two for her to round back into form."
Ashado's 4-year-old season should lend hope to the Rachel Alexandra camp, though it must be pointed out that Ashado beat out Pleasant Home for her 2005 Eclipse, whereas Rachel's path goes through Zenyatta.
And few, if any, 3-year-old fillies have had a campaign as adventuresome as Rachel's in 2009. Rachel tackled males three times last year, just like Serena's Song did in 1995, but whereas Serena's Song went from winning the Haskell back into filly-and-mare races, Rachel went from the Haskell into the Woodward, beating older male horses.
"Rachel Alexandra ran hard, and I admire the spots they put her in, but she ran hard," said Shug McGaughey, who trained 3-year-old filly champs Heavenly Prize and Smuggler. "And it's hard to say if she's going to come back. In the Woodward, she laid it on the ground that day as hard as a horse can."
Rachel Alexandra looks the part of a repeat champion. Her 2010 self is heavier and more powerful than the filly of 2009. She turned in graded stakes-class performances in both her losses this year. And given that Rachel Alexandra's early 2010 training wound up being somewhat rushed in an effort to make the New Orleans Ladies and the Apple Blossom and that her training also had been interrupted by bad weather throughout the winter, the comeback loss was excusable.
But shortly after the La Troienne loss, trainer Steve Asmussen (who declined to be interviewed for this story, citing restrictions placed by Jackson on discussing Rachel Alexandra) said Rachel Alexandra still had not come back to her best self.
"She's just not quite as fast as she was last year," Asmussen said. "She was steady today but not quick. I don't see any reason for her not to ultimately be as explosive as she was last year. She's just not there yet, and it's possible this is somewhat of a hangover from her hard campaign last season."
The following day came more of the same. "She's just a bigger, heavier mare now, and at the moment not as explosive as she was last summer," Asmussen said.
Before the La Troienne, Jackson told the New York Times he had "no regrets" over Rachel Alexandra's 3-year-old campaign.
"I didn't overwork her," he said. "She was in peak condition and up to everything we threw her way, and she handled it beautifully."
Rachel Alexandra definitely got paid last year. She earned more than $2.7 million, and beyond the cold cash, was paid the ultimate compliment with her Horse of the Year award. May 31, she worked six furlongs at Churchill in 1:11.20, as fast as most horses run races at that distance. Great things still lie within range. A date with Zenyatta might yet beckon - unless Rachel Alexandra, like so many champions past, still has payments to make on her memorable 2009.
* Handicapping roundups from Belmont, Churchill, Hollywood, Monmouth, Calder, and Woodbine
* Jay Privman's Q&A with Laura de Seroux, who trained Azeri
* Glenye Cain Oakford on Drosselmeyer's breeders
* Plus video analysis of the weekend's biggest stakes