10/01/2010 3:32PM

Reflecting on Rachel Alexandra's next chapter

Barbara D. Livingston
Rachel Alexandra at Saratoga on Monday, the day before she was retired from racing.

Rachel Alexandra came onto the racetrack in April 2008. Except for time spent on horse vans or airplanes, and a short spell at a veterinary clinic to have surgery during the summer of her 2-year-old season, she has never left.

A major change in lifestyle is at hand.

Rachel Alexandra worked a half-mile in 48.40 seconds Monday over the Oklahoma training track at Saratoga, and that was probably the last time she will set foot on a racetrack. Tuesday, the day after a work, was a walk day for Rachel Alexandra. By late in the afternoon, her retirement had been announced.

Rachel Alexandra remains stabled at Saratoga this week. Plans hadn’t been completed Wednesday, but assistant trainer Scott Blasi, who has been with Rachel Alexandra nearly every day since she joined Steve Asmussen’s barn in May 2009, said Rachel is tentatively scheduled to be shipped to Churchill Downs on Tuesday.

“We’ll let her down a little bit there,” Blasi said. “We haven’t made any plans yet to get her to the farm. She’s done going to the track. We’ll walk her a few times a day, and take her off her vitamins and stuff. Without her being in training, she won’t need the quantity of feed she’s used to getting, but we’ll do it gradually.”

Sometime in the coming weeks, Rachel Alexandra will board a horse van at Churchill not bound for another racetrack but for the Stonestreet Farms of Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke, on Old Frankfort Pike in Lexington. Substitute paddock turn-outs for 1 1/2-mile gallops. Instead of rivals on the racetracks, there will be field companions. No more racing boys, but mating with them: A date with Curlin has been scheduled for the upcoming breeding season.

How will fiery Rachel Alexandra take to life at the farm? Probably with no problem.

“She’s more laid back this year,” Blasi said. “I think she’ll handle it nicely.”

Hal Wiggins, who trained Rachel Alexandra for the first 10 races of her career, shares that belief.

“I remember when she came into our barn,” Wiggins said. “They brought us three or four at the same time. It was still dark early in the morning on a Monday or a Tuesday. Me and another fellow went down and walked them to their stalls. She walked right in her stall just like an older horse. But her disposition was like that – she never gave us one moment of trouble the 12 months we had her. Her left eye is one of those white-type eyes. A lot of horses like that are kind of skittish, but she wasn’t. Knowing her, I don’t think [going to the farm] will be any different. I think she’ll settle right in.”

Azeri, the last filly to be named Horse of the Year, spent time at an equine clinic after having surgery following her final start, a sixth-place finish behind Ghostzapper in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Azeri’s trainer for most of her career, Laura de Seroux, saw Azeri the next June at Ashford Stud.

“She had adjusted very, very well,” de Seroux said. “They didn’t put her in a huge paddock, and she had one friend that she bonded with right away, and she seemed perfectly content. Her transition was pretty seamless, but she didn’t go immediately from the track to the field.”

Some great mares, though, have been programmed to keep running. Bayakoa, female champion in 1989 never got accustomed to life at Pennbrook Farm in Lexington.

“She was a unique kind of mare,” Pennbrook owner Frank Penn said. “She pretty much ran herself fit all the time. I don’t mean that she was race fit, but you’d turn her out, and she’d just run. She wasn’t a bad mom by any means. She just liked to run, and that could be hard on her foals. She never really did let down completely.”

Azeri resides in Japan but twice was part of a mating with another Horse of the Year: Her 2007 foal by A.P. Indy is a winner named Take Control, and she had a 2009 foal by former rival Ghostzapper. Lady’s Secret, a female horse of the year, once was bred to Horse of the Year Skip Away, but neither that foal nor anything else Lady’s Secret produced amounted to much on the racetrack.

It won’t be until 2014 at the earliest that a Curlin-Rachel Alexandra offspring would make the racetrack, and for now, racing fans will be left to contemplate the arc of Rachel Alexandra’s career. There have been questions about her somewhat abrupt retirement Tuesday after Rachel Alexandra had been put through two swift workouts following her second-place finish in the Personal Ensign Stakes on Aug. 29 at Saratoga. But Blasi (trainer Steve Asmussen could not be reached for comment) insists nothing went amiss during the Monday workout.

“She worked beautiful,” Blasi said. “She went off in 24 and 4, galloped out in 1:01.”

Blasi said there had been talk of retirement before the Tuesday decision.

“We had discussed it, Mr. Jackson and Steve and me.”

Jackson and Asmussen could not be reached for direct comment on the retirement but issued a statement Tuesday acknowledging what had been clear for months.

“As you know, despite top training and a patient campaign, Rachel Alexandra did not return to her 2009 form,” Jackson said in the prepared statement. “I believe it’s time to retire our champion and reward her with a less stressful life.”

Rachel Alexandra remained a willing participant in daily racetrack life to the end, according to Blasi.

“I’m just very happy and proud of the condition she’s in, how willing she was to train,” Blasi said. “She’s a pretty happy girl. I’m very happy to have been a part of history. At the end of the day she’s retiring healthy and sound, and that’s all I could ever want for her.”

Rachel Alexandra’s defining moment of 2009, and the performance that might well have won her Horse of the Year, was the Woodward Stakes on Sept. 5. But to Blasi, Rachel Alexandra’s best race was her six-length win over 2009’s 3-year-old champion, Summer Bird, in the Haskell Invitational, a victory that followed wins in the Kentucky Oaks, the Preakness, and the Mother Goose Stakes.

“I’d say probably her best race was the Haskell,” Blasi said. “She was a little tired after the Preakness, running her back quick, and we had to give her some time in between the Preakness and the Mother Goose. When she came out of the Mother Goose, there was not a horse in training that could beat her at that level. The Woodward, that was guts, determination. To be at Saratoga, to witness something like that happen – the whole place blew up. But if I had to pick her best race, I’d have to say it was the Haskell.”

The Stonestreet Farms web site has a “Rachel Alexandra” link. Her career record is listed at 14-11-2-0, which is where things stood at the end of her 2009 campaign. No mention whatever is made of 2010, when Rachel Alexandra mustered two wins and three seconds from five starts, never reaching the level of brilliance she displayed through an 8-fpr-8 season in 2009.

In the web site’s world, Rachel Alexandra walked off into the sunset on her way out of the Woodward winner’s circle. Actual animals have good days and bad, try to win, often lose. But at her peak, with that white eye Wiggins mentioned, her statuesque head and bright white blaze, her long legs whirring perfectly, Rachel Alexandra embodied what people go to see at the races.

Said Blasi, “If you like horses, you liked her.”