Since the start of 2010, nothing has been more baffling in the world of horse racing than the 2009 Horse of the Year’s comeback to the races. Last time she was seen, Rachel Alexandra was closing out a perfect year, with 8 wins in 8 starts, over 7 different race tracks, having defeated males her own age and beyond, obliterating her own sex by stratospheric margins. Her first start of 2010 marked the first time she’d been defeated in over a year, and it was to a mare—fittingly, Zenyatta’s stablemate, Zardana. Though Rachel lost the New Orleans Ladies, a race designed specifically for her, only by a half-length, the upset was enough of a shock to make her connections rip her from contention from the storied showdown between her and the undefeated Zenyatta in the Grade I Apple Blossom Invitational in April. Already, her critics were saying she “wasn’t the same horse,” and that “she’d grown soft” off her lengthy layoff since her last start at Saratoga; her next start didn’t do much to turn back those criticisms.
On the site of her biggest win, Rachel Alexandra next took on Zardana and a field of other talented fillies in the Grade II La Troienne on the Kentucky Oaks undercard. Last year, Rachel won the Oaks by a record 20 lengths; but there was no display of meteoric talent in the La Troienne. Zardana did not come back to pose a threat to Rachel, but the 4-year-old filly Unrivaled Belle did battle with her down the length of the stretch, out-thrusting her in the final strides to stick a head in front at the wire. It was, to say the least, shocking. Only the year before, no other female could look Rachel in the eye; this year, it seemed to be all she could do but win.
The numbers have proven that Rachel’s two starts for 2010 haven’t been as bad as they looked; in the New Orleans Ladies, Rachel’s runner-up effort earned her a Beyer Speed Figure of 100; she earned a 103 in the La Troienne. In comparison, this is on par with her wins in the first half of last year; in the Martha Washington, Rachel won by 8 lengths and received a 100 Beyer. In the Fair Grounds Oaks, her winning performance received a 103 Beyer on a sloppy track. If the trend continues to mirror her Beyers of last year, Rachel’s next start will be somewhere around a 101, which is what she received in the Fantasy, her last start before her break-out victory in the Kentucky Oaks, which received a 108. Some people argue that Beyers don’t really prove anything, but here, at least, they are worth looking at in terms of how Rachel’s form is comparing to last year’s. Even though she has not won her first two starts, she is running at the same level as she was in her first starts last year, it’s just that she had a later start to her 4-year-old campaign.
This is all interesting because while Rachel faced some pretty decent graded stakes winners in her first two starts as a 4-year-old, her next start will be her softest bout yet. This Saturday, Rachel Alexandra will attempt to break her slump in the Grade II $200,000 Fleur de Lis Handicap at Churchill Downs against a field of only 4 rivals. Only one other stakes winner is in the field—Made for Magic, the winner of the Grade II Milady Handicap at Hollywood Park on May 16th. What’s more, for her last two races, majority owner Jess Jackson has stated that Rachel wasn’t 100% before each race. In the New Orleans Ladies, he stated her at being “80% fit,” while for the La Troienne, he said she was at around “90%.” Note, this was before the races, not as an excuse to her losses. Though no statement has been made about her fitness level going into the Fleur de Lis, Rachel Alexandra has put in a now-routine amount of workouts with a change-up in exercise rider, jockey Shaun Bridgmohan. For the race, however, regular rider Calvin Borel remains in the irons. As Calvin is king of Churchill, that seems to be the right decision.
Whatever may be the reason for Rachel’s less-than-stellar performances of 2010, the quality of foes in the Fleur de Lis is about like putting her in a glorified allowance race. This is not necessarily a bad thing. If it’s a win she needs, there would be no better place to enter her, as Unrivaled Belle is running in the Ogden Phipps this same Saturday at Belmont, and a hugely talented field of older males has lined up to butt heads in the Grade I Stephen Foster later on the card at Churchill Downs.
Meanwhile, over in Zenyattaland, the undefeated mare is taking a butter-soft campaign for 2010, as well. Instead of racing her on the East Coast against males to ready her for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which will be run over the traditional dirt track at Churchill Downs, her connections are sending her on the same path she dominated in 2008 and 2009. So instead of pitting her against some of the best dirt horses in the country, she will have her perfect record padded with the same female races she’s already dominated over the synthetics two times before. What a shame, as a win in the Stephen Foster would help cement her legacy as one of the greatest race horses of all time. Her entry this Saturday in the Grade I Vanity Handicap will be Zenyatta’s 3rd start in the race, and she will be attempting to break the winning streaks of Citation, Cigar, and Mister Frisky for winning 16 consecutive wins not restricted to state-breds. Zenyatta will be carrying 129 pounds, the same weight she carried to a win in the race last year.
There are only two factors of added interest in this race: the presence of stablemate Zardana and stakes winner, St. Trinians. St. Trinians won her first four starts after coming to America, including the Santa Maria Handicap, before finishing off the board as the beaten favorite in the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap. If you throw out that race, St. Trinians looms as a real threat. Zardana will be entered to keep the pace honest, according to trainer John Shirreffs. Though she is a better dirt horse than on synthetics, Zardana won the Grade II Bayakoa Handicap at Hollywood Park before upsetting Rachel Alexandra in the New Orleans Ladies.
The map for Zenyatta has already been laid out as far as her next start goes: the Clement Hirsch at Del Mar will be next for the undefeated mare, with the long-time goal being the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in November. So far, Rachel Alexandra is taking each race at a time before her next race is decided, but majority owner Jess Jackson has already stated as recently as yesterday that Rachel’s ultimate goal is still the Breeders’ Cup Classic, as well. With the once-touted race of the century now diluted thanks to recent events, the hope lives on that both champions will be in top form by November and be able to settle, once and for all, their merits on the track.
Saturday: The Grade II Fleur de Lis Handicap will be aired live from Churchill Downs on HRTV. Post time is scheduled for approximately 3:26pm EST.
Sunday: The Grade I Vanity Handicap will be aired live from Hollywood Park on TVG and streamed online for free at NTRA.com. Post time is 7:35pm EST.