09/09/2009 12:00AM

Rachel took fast lane to greatness


PHILADELPHIA - I have been spending the last few days trying to find the proper context for Rachel Alexandra's season. I came to the obvious conclusion. There is no context.

Think about this. If somebody had told you in January that one horse would win the , what would you have thought?

All of us would have said that's impossible. First, what horse would even try such an agenda? Why would a 3-year-old filly run in the Preakness 15 days after the Oaks? The Woodward? Isn't that for older males?

I am not quite sure why we are limiting the discussion to where Rachel fits among the great fillies in American racing history. I really think it should be widened to try to figure out where she ranks among the great horses in American history.

In recent years, I can think of only one 3-year-old who did anything remotely like Rachel has done this deep into the season. That would be Point Given who won the Preakness, Belmont, Haskell, and Travers. Even the great Curlin lost the Belmont and Haskell. Some of the other really good 3-year-olds got through the Triple Crown and could go no farther.

I can't think of any 3-year-old of recent vintage who held top form with a race in February, March, April, two in May, followed by one each in June, August, and September. Certainly, none won by eight lengths, 8 3/4 lengths, 20 1/4 lengths, 19 1/4 lengths and six lengths.

We can all debate the "what-ifs" of the sport. But there are a few facts that can't be disputed, that speak to the true greatness of a horse: margins and times.

Rachel has the margins. She has the times.

She blew up in the Oaks with a 108 Beyer, followed by 108 (Preakness), 111 (Mother Goose), 116 (Haskell) and 109 (Woodward).

In this era of the bounce, real or imagined, there is no bounce. She shows up. She runs fast. She wins.

And the horses she beats, often badly, come back to win, often impressively. Flashing and Gabby's Golden Girl got distanced by Rachel and came back to win Grade I stakes in their next starts. Big Drama dueled with Rachel in the Preakness and came back to win a stakes at Charles Town with a 105 Beyer. Summer Bird got blasted by Rachel in the Haskell and came back to win the Travers with a 110.

Then, last Saturday, Rachel won the Woodward three times.

First, she ran the other speed horses to the back of the pack. Da' Tara (How did this horse ever win the Belmont? Does Nick Zito have a deal with the Triple Crown devil?) took the first shot and got eased for his troubles. Past the Point and Cool Coal Man chased and got beaten 18 1/4 lengths and 20 3/4 lengths. That was one race.

Whitney winner Bullsbay took a big run at the quarter pole and faded badly in the stretch. Rachel ran away from him like the race was just starting. That was the second race.

Finally, Jim Dandy and Stephen Foster winner Macho Again made the kind of rally that has beaten beleaguered speed horses since the beginning of time. Only, Macho Again never looked like he was going to get there because Rachel never looked she was not going to get there. That was the third race.

When was the last time you heard a rider on a closer who almost got there say he wasn't going to win if the race had been a few more yards? Well, Robby Albarado, who rode Macho Again, said it, said he was never going by his friend Calvin Borel and Rachel Alexandra.

Eight starts in 2009. Eight wins. More than $2.7 million in earnings. That all matters.

Still, a very wise man once said that it is not always how fast a horse runs but how a horse runs fast. It is only the great horses that run fast under all circumstances.

Well, Rachel ran fast when it was easy in the Oaks and Mother Goose and fast when it was hard in the Preakness and Woodward.

One of the single biggest myths in this sport is the one you hear after some horse wins by a big margin in really fast time. You know the one. Just imagine how fast the horse could have run if the jockey had really asked him.

Here is the reality. Horses often run their best when they are under no pressure. Once they get pressure, from other horses or their jockey, they often fold.

Rachel Alexandra is the exception to that rule as well. She won the Oaks by a record margin and got a 108 Beyer. She won the Preakness by one length and got a 108 Beyer. Borel posed in Louisville, worked hard in Baltimore. The figure was the same in both places.

Whether she runs again this year (does not seem very likely) or ever runs again (we can only hope she does a Curlin and comes back in 2010), Rachel's 2009 season is one for the ages. You can't compare it with anything because there are no comparisons. But you can quantify it and, by any measure - margins, time, results - Rachel Alexandra is every bit as good as she seems, maybe better.