Friday, September 11, 2009
What Rachel can do for an encore
By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com
It appears that Rachel Alexandra's year is over, ending with a performance that easily ranks among the best ever, by any horse, any age, any sex. All that's left for her to do now is collect her Horse of the Year hardware. In the meantime, it's not too early to start thinking about her 4-year-old campaign. She will be older, bigger and, presumably, better and, this time around, can end her season in the Breeders' Cup, which will be back on dirt in 2010 at Churchill Downs.
Here's a look at what might be in store for her in 2010:
She's sure to go in a different direction than Curlin did during his 4-year-old year when he was also trained by Steve Asmussen and owned by Jess Jackson. Jackson's two big goals for Curlin were the Dubai World Cup and the Arc de Triomphe, two races that don't figure to be on Rachel's schedule. The Dubai World Cup shifts to Meydan Race Course in 2010, which will have a synthetic surface. Jackson is no fan of "plastic" tracks, so a trip to Dubai is out. It doesn't sound like he'll go after the Arc or any other grass races next year. He seems to realize that Rachel is a dirt wonder and doesn't want to mess with a good thing.
His primary objective next year almost has to be the Breeders' Cup Classic. With a Breeders' Cup win being about the only thing his filly has not accomplished, it would make sense for Jackson, with the help of Asmussen, to circle Nov. 6, 2010, the date of the Classic, on his calendar and work backwards. The goal will be to have a meaningful campaign, but one that will still have her at her best come Breeders' Cup Day.
A perfect place to start would be the Louisville Distaff, which is run on Kentucky Oaks Day at Churchill Downs. It's not a particularly rich race ($350,000) and it's only a Grade 2 event, but it's a perfect way to start a year -- with an easy race against overmatched fillies and mares at the track she will presumably be training over at the time. Plus, it would be a nice gesture for Jackson to expose her at Churchill Downs during Derby time, when the sport actually gets a lot of attention.
The next obvious step would be the Stephen Foster, also at Churchill, and a race won by Curlin in 2008. She can then go back to facing the girls in the Delaware Handicap, a $1 million race that should be, but isn't, a Grade 1. That leads to a return trip to the Woodward, which leads to the Jockey Club Gold Cup, which leads to the Breeders' Cup Classic.
That's a six-race campaign spread over a little more than five months, which sounds perfect. Should she run the table she'll have won 15 straight, a second Horse of the Year title and her career earnings will equal about $8 million.
The next stop will be a farm somewhere in Kentucky and a date with Curlin. Want to get really ahead of ourselves? The foal should debut sometime during the 2013 meet at Saratoga before winning either the Spinaway or Hopeful.
Other Rachel tidbits:
In the Woodward, Rachel Alexandra became the first filly to win three Grade 1 races over males in North America in the same year since All Along captured the D.C. International, the Turf Classic and the Rothman's in 1983. During the same year, she also won the Group 1 Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
How much more popular is Rachel Alexandra than Curlin? In 2008, NYRA heavily promoted Curlin's appearance in the Woodward and got a crowd of 22,572. A year later, NYRA heavily promoted Rachel Alexandra's appearance in the Woodward and got a crowd of 31,171.
The forgotten person in the Rachel Alexandra drama is her former trainer, Hal Wiggins. You have to feel bad for the guy. He had a once-in-century-type filly in his barn one day and nothing but a bunch of forgettable horses the next. He's won six races since Rachel won the Kentucky Oaks for him and three of them have been maiden claimers.
How do you figure Rachel Alexandra's first race? Sent off at 26-1 in a 4 1/2-furlong maiden special weight race at Churchill, she finished sixth, beaten more than eight lengths. How could she ever have been that bad, no matter the distance? The race was won by a filly named Songtress, who is trained by none other than Steve Asmussen.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at email@example.com.