03/09/2009 11:00PM

'Rachel' taking owner to new heights

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Jeff Coady/Coady Photography
Rachel Alexandra will continue on her path to the Kentucky Oaks in Saturday's Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks.

Dolphus Morrison spent much of his childhood on a farm in northern Alabama, his father a farmer of corn and cotton.

"He used Missouri mules on the farm," Morrison said. "He bought green yearling mules and broke his own. My father, he hated horses."

The elder Morrison should see the one his son has now.

Rachel Alexandra won the Grade 2 Golden Rod at Churchill Downs last November like a good thing, dashing away from the likes of the talented War Echo to score by almost five lengths in her first route race. Her 3-year-old debut tilted more toward freakish than good. She won the Martha Washington Stakes on Feb. 15 at Oaklawn - geared down the last half-furlong - by eight lengths, going one mile in 1:36.40. That translated into a Beyer Speed Figure of 100, a number higher than the winner of the Kentucky Oaks has earned three of the last six years.

Saturday, Rachel Alexandra takes the next step on what her connections hope is a path leading to the Kentucky Oaks when she starts in the $400,000 Fair Grounds Oaks. Five others were entered in the Grade 2 race, including Four Gifts, who is a decent filly. Still, Rachel Alexandra figures to be an odds-on favorite.

"If we don't have any bad luck, we'll do real well with her," Morrison said, reached by phone at his home in Missouri.

The "we" includes Morrison and Hal Wiggins, who has trained Morrison's horses for almost 30 years. And as with Morrison, Rachel Alexandra appears to be the best horse with which Wiggins has been associated.

"I think this filly has a chance to be the best of her division, or right there with it," said Wiggins, who has won just three graded stakes in his career. "I've never had a horse that I could say that about."

Morrison, 75, is retired - comfortably retired despite "coming up hard," his words for the Alabama childhood. An athletic scholarship got him into David Lipscomb College in Nashville, and Morrison took over from there. He got a degree in accounting, worked for the IRS, practiced law, and eventually found his way into the steel business. By the time his career arc had reached its zenith, Morrison was setting up steel operations - top to bottom - for the likes of major corporations like steel giant Nucor.

"I was one of these kind of guys where I had enough background with hands-on kind of things, I felt like there was never a problem I couldn't solve," Morrison said.

He has just eight mares now, and Rachel Alexandra is a third-generation Morrison horse. She is a daughter of his talented mare Lotta Kim, whose career was cut short by a freak backstretch accident at Fair Grounds. Lotta Kim was produced by another Morrison mare, Kim's Blues.

Morrison's name might have spread widest for its association with You, the multiple Gradeo1 winner of $2.1 million whom Morrison bred and sold early in her 2-year-old season. You's dam, Our Dani, had been purchased for just $1,900 by Morrison, who gave her away to the University of Louisiana before You turned from a tiny yearling into a successful racehorse.

Morrison has campaigned many homebreds but said he's in the business to sell, not race.

"People think I'm a race breeder, but I've always been a commercial breeder, and I just keep what I can't sell," he said.

Rachel Alexandra was withdrawn from the 2006 Keeneland November sale after Morrison and his representatives calculated that she wouldn't fetch the $100,000 Morrison believed she was worth.

"We projected she'd bring $50,000 or $60,000," Morrison said. "We take a reading on these things all the time. It worked out. I'm glad they didn't take her."

Like all the Morrison horses that aren't sold, Rachel Alexandra went to the Diamond D Ranch in Lone Oak, Texas. There, she was broken and put into early training by Ed Dodwell and his son Scooter.

"When we first got her, she came highly acclaimed," Wiggins said. "Scooter, he always said this filly was very, very fast. Before we ever started her, I told my wife, 'I think this filly could be as good a horse or the best I've ever had.' "

Then, Rachel Alexandra set out to make a liar of Wiggins. Rachel Alexandra is by the first-crop stallion and route horse Medaglia d'Oro, so it was surprising that she was ready to start as early as May 22. Or, maybe not quite ready. Sent off at odds of 26-1 in her 4 1/2-furlong debut, Rachel broke quickly from the rail, but just as quickly lost position, finishing sixth by eighth lengths.

"First time out, it was like she was lost," Wiggins said. "My wife looked at me like, 'Do you really know what you're talking about?' "

It took Rachel Alexandra only one race to get things right. Just three weeks later, she broke on the lead again, and this time stayed there, winning a five-furlong Churchill maiden race in impressive fashion.

"Her second race, that's when I felt maybe like we really had something," Wiggins said.

Rachel Alexandra was precocious, but Wiggins's racing career evolved more slowly. Wiggins was born in Port Arthur, Texas. His father was a supervisor on oil rigs, but his son only wanted to be around racehorses.

"In 1957, I went to Ruidoso for the summer to work for Ab Simpson, who was leading trainer there," Wiggins said. "I was 14 years old. I thought I was in hog heaven."

Wiggins - whose son, Lon, also trains - started with Quarter Horses and bush tracks, then moved on to small-time racing in western Louisiana, eventually growing out of Louisiana Downs and into Fair Grounds, Oaklawn, and finally Kentucky. His stable got large enough to split between Oaklawn and Fair Grounds over the winter, but now is down to 20 head. It's not surprising that the Wiggins stable hasn't grown indefinitely: Soft-spoken and polite, Wiggins's personality lies some 180 degrees away from the stereotypically self-promoting horseman.

And that has been fine with Morrison, who has employed no other trainer the last 29 years.

"We've done very well," Morrison said. "We've won and lost a lot of money."

Rachel Alexandra's bankroll is up to $231,440, but barring misfortune, there's plenty more to come. After finishing second in the Debutante on June 28 at Churchill, Rachel Alexandra had a non-displaced bone chip removed from her left-front ankle, but came through the injury a bigger and stronger filly. She appeared to have grown several inches at the time of her October allowance-win comeback over Keeneland's Polytrack, and after a tough-trip second in the Pocahontas Stakes, Rachel Alexandra found her true calling - racing around two turns.

"I really thought she'd go long," Wiggins said. "She had the size, too, and even though she had that tremendous speed, she just relaxes so nice."

Morrison said he sold half of Rachel Alexandra to Mike Lauffer last November; the pair race Rachel under the name L and M Partners, with Morrison calling the shots. Rachel Alexandra, named for Morrison's granddaughter, was to ship Wednesday from Oaklawn to Fair Grounds. She'll be Wiggins's first starter of the meet, and the trainer will be saddling his star with confidence.

"The anxiety and the nervousness, I had that before the Martha Washington because I didn't know how fit I had her," Wiggins said. "There was a little uncertainty in my mind then, but she showed me what she had and what she was."