09/03/2009 12:00AM

Rachel's agenda a perfect fit

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Barbara D. Livingston
Rachel Alexandra, with Dominic Terry up, exercises Thursday at Saratoga in preparation for her try at an historic Woodward win.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Win or lose on Saturday, Rachel Alexandra's appearance in the Woodward Stakes was both the most ambitious and appropriate place for the next stop in what already has been a historic campaign by a sensational filly. You might not gather as much amid the constant carping about her accomplishments and her schedule, from a variety of self-interested media outlets and from those still miffed she's not going to run in the Breeders' Cup.

The first half of last week's ESPN telecast of the Travers seemed devoted largely to Rachel Alexandra's absence from a race that would have repeated rather than enhanced her standing. Why exactly did she need to run again against Summer Bird, whom she had just dispatched by six lengths in the Haskell?

She had already beaten the Derby winner in the , it was time for her to face her elders - whether or not the most challenging opportunity to do so fell on the opening weekend of college football season.

The idea that Rachel Alexandra "ducked" the Travers for an easier spot in the Woodward is preposterous. The seven 3-year-olds who ran in the Travers had combined to win 21 races, $3.5 million, and 10 graded stakes. The seven older horses she will face in the Woodward Saturday have won 44 races, $8.5 million, and 14 graded stakes. It's not a stellar group, but it's a better one than assembled for the Travers.

So instead of doing something she had already done twice this year - beating 3-year-old males - Rachel Alexandra will try to beat older males in the Woodward, something that has never been done by a filly of any age. It's the toughest assignment of her career, and she's no cinch. A victory would be a major achievement. The complaint that the Woodward isn't what it used to be, because it has been moved from Belmont to Saratoga, doesn't quite jibe with the last two runnings, won by Lawyer Ron, the champion older male of 2007, and Curlin, the Horse of the Year last season.

The choices made by her connections, led by majority owner Jess Jackson, have been perfect to date, but seem to annoy people who are grudging about the filly because they're not crazy about her owner. Jackson's arm-twisting to get the purses of the Haskell and Woodward increased have struck a sour note, simply because his personal wealth so dwarves the added purse money, but his frustration is understandable: He thinks he has the best dirt horse in the world, but the two richest races that used to be run on that surface - the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic and the $6 million Dubai World Cup - will be run on synthetic tracks in the months ahead. The Woodward, a far better indicator of genuine quality than races on experimental surfaces where championship form in highly suspect, was worth only $500,000 until Jackson wrangled a 50 percent increase out of Saratoga management.

Jackson's choices have not dovetailed with national television schedules, but it is hardly his fault that ESPN is not televising the Haskell and Woodward this year, or that the Breeders' Cup is being run on a synthetic racetrack. Her absence from races that do not suit her is discomfiting to promoters still laboring under the delusion that a few star turns on network television will make racing wildly popular. Does anyone really believe casual viewers were hungering to see Rachel Alexandra-Summer Bird - The Sequel?

There's a similarly silly emphasis on how many people Rachel Alexandra will attract to Saratoga on Saturday, as if this is some sort of referendum on racing's popularity or a make-or-break financial proposition for the New York Racing Association. Labor Day weekend is a tough sell for live attendance, not because Rachel Alexandra is or isn't a great filly, but because people tend to have longstanding, traditional plans for the last weekend of summer and aren't suddenly going to run out to a racetrack they don't usually visit to see any particular horse.

Last year, NYRA pulled out the marketing stops when Curlin ran in the Woodward, and the turnstile count in perfect weather was 22,572. They will probably do better this year, given Rachel Alexandra's greater popularity, but a turnout of 25,000 vs. 30,000 or 35,000 isn't going to say anything meaningful about the sport or its following. What matters is whether Rachel Alexandra, already a filly for the ages, can become even more so by winning the Woodward.