09/05/2009 11:00PM

Rachel notches Woodward

Barbara D. Livingston
Rachel Alexandra (right) digs in to defeat Macho Again in the Woodward.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The 3-year-old filly Rachel Alexandra turned into the Saratoga stretch with a 1 1/2 length lead over seven older males in Saturday's , and a volcano of noise erupted from the rickety grandstands seldom heard at this historic venue.

Those among the raucous crowd of 31,171 that turned out on a gorgeous late-summer afternoon hoping to witness history had to hold their collective breaths as a gray streak named Macho Again came bearing down on the filly, whom was sent off at 1-5 odds. Showing the determination that she had seldom been asked to display before, Rachel Alexandra held on for a dramatic head victory over Macho Again in the 56th Woodward. It was 1 1/2 lengths back to Bullsbay, who was followed in the order of finish by Asiatic Boy, It's a Bird, Past the Point, Cool Coal Man, and Da' Tara, who was eased.

In the process of winning her ninth consecutive race - her fifth straight Grade 1 - Rachel Alexandra became the first filly to win the Woodward, a race won by such male legends as Kelso, Forego, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, and Cigar.

The victory more than likely clinched Horse of the Year for Rachel Alexandra, even though she will not compete in the Breeders' Cup in the fall. Rachel Alexandra has beaten males three times, adding the Woodward to victories in the Preakness and Haskell Invitational.

"Somebody else will decide that, but I would hope so," Jess Jackson, who owns Rachel Alexandra with Harold McCormick, said when asked if Rachel Alexandra should be Horse of the Year. "I think she's something for the ages and she certainly proved her mettle."

"I thought she truly showed she was a champion today," winning trainer Steve Asmussen said. "I can't say enough about Jess and Hal, and we'll call it guts that they've shown by continuously putting [her] out there and raising the bar with a tremendous filly. I'm extremely proud to be associated with her and this group."

The win was the 4,984th career victory for Asmussen in North America - but perhaps the most special.

"Nothing compares to that, and I don't know whether it's right now or what," said Asmussen, who added he had never been as emotional in his life. "Maybe it's just everybody rooting on her, maybe it's how brave Jess has been, maybe it's just how good she is."

There were a few anxious moments in the post parade when jockey Calvin Borel jumped off Rachel Alexandra after she got spooked by an excited crowd. Borel quickly remounted and jogged Rachel Alexandra around the turn to warm her up.

In the race, Rachel Alexandra broke alertly and found herself dueling with 2008 Belmont Stakes winner Da' Tara through an opening quarter in 22.85 seconds. Past the Point was attending the pace from the outside.

At the 6 1/2-furlong pole, Rachel Alexandra moved to the lead and ran a half-mile in 46.21 seconds and three quarters in 1:10.54 with Da' Tara and Past the Point on the chase.

Borel was actually able to give Rachel Alexandra a little breather around the turn, and she came into the stretch with a clear advantage. But Macho Again, under Robby Albarado, had launched his bid around the far turn and had moved into third, just behind Bullsbay - who had run at Rachel Alexandra at the quarter pole - turning for home.

In midstretch, Borel had to pull out his stick and went left-handed five times on Rachel before switching to his right hand, which he used 14 times through the lane. It's questionable whether Rachel Alexandra was responding to the whip or the challenge from Macho Again, but she fended off that 5-year-old horse to hold on for the win.

Rachel Alexandra covered the 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.29 and returned $2.60 to win.

"I switched sticks on her twice today, and that's more than I ever did," Borel said. "Hitting her is not going to make her run faster. I think when a horse is going to come up to her, that's when you'll see her run. She does what she has to do."

The vanquished could do little more than salute the winner.

"I had the best chance at her," Albarado said. "At the point of the five-sixteenths pole I had momentum. Calvin pulled his stick already - at that point I figured he had his work cut out for him. Macho's no slouch, but you're looking at a champion - maybe the greatest of all time here."

"Extraordinary, absolutely extraordinary,'' said Graham Motion, trainer of third-place finisher Bullsbay. "With everything they threw at her today, I thought that was extraordinary. She had every right to get beat today."

Jackson would not commit to running Rachel Alexandra again this year, but he does plan on running her next year.

"I've got an instinct to try and put another hurdle up to see if she can achieve it," he said.