LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The stage is set for greatness to emerge, for it to somersault onto the proscenium, burst into Violetta's aria, leap into the upper gallery while still singing and then, with a boldly theatrical flourish, plant a lusty and loud kiss on the lips of the chairman of The Jockey Club.
Now, that would be greatness. That, in fact, would be very close to what happened in 2009, when greatness last emerged on this first weekend in May at Churchill Downs. No, not in the Kentucky Derby -- although it's always possible to reveal itself there, too -- but in the Kentucky Oaks, where Rachel Alexandra won by 20 lengths.
Rachel Alexandra went from being an extremely talented filly to being a superstar when she won the Oaks here for Mr. Wiggins.
"-- Steve Asmussen, trainer for Untapable
Yes, in 2009, the stage was set for Rachel Alexandra, and she didn't so much rise as soar to the challenge. Well, the stage is set again, for Untapable.
Some comparisons, it's true, are more wishful than insightful, and this might be one of them. And it hardly seems fair at this point to burden any young horse with a comparison to such a great one as Rachel Alexandra. After winning the Oaks, she went on to beat the "boys" in both the Haskell and the Preakness and then became the first female ever to win the Woodward Stakes. After an historic and unbeaten campaign, where she generally seemed invincible while dominating her division and repeatedly stepping beyond it, she became the first 3-year-old filly in 64 years, the first since Busher in 1945, to be named Horse of the Year.
And yet comparisons are inevitable. At this point in their careers, the accomplishments of Rachel Alexandra and Untapable are indeed comparable.
As a 2-year-old, Rachel Alexandra won the Golden Rod Stakes here at Churchill. As a 2-year-old, Untapable won Churchill's Pocahontas Stakes. Rachel Alexandra began her 2009 campaign with easy victories in the Fair Grounds Oaks and the Fantasy Stakes, winning them by a total of 10½ lengths; and so she returned to Churchill for the Oaks with a record of six wins in nine races. Untapable began this season with facile victories in, appropriately enough, the Rachel Alexandra Stakes and the Fair Grounds Oaks, winning them by a total of 17 lengths; and so she has returned to Churchill with a record of four wins in her six starts.
Back in the spring of 2009, many horsemen openly wondered if the best 3-year-old in the country wasn't in the Kentucky Derby, where such horses are usually found, but might instead be the Amazonian filly in the Oaks, the 3-5 morning-line favorite who had observers bug-eyed with amazement. And after a romp that dropped every jaw in the house and elicited a standing ovation from an admiring throng, the speculation and the debate ended.
Jockey Calvin Borel even made the unprecedented move of giving up the mount on the Kentucky Derby winner, Mine That Bird, to ride another horse in the Preakness: Rachel Alexandra. Fans were quick to accept her greatness, freshly minted although it was, and made her the 9-5 favorite in Baltimore, where Asmussen saddled her for the first time. She beat Mine That Bird by a length.
Untapable enters this year's Oaks with a similarly formidable reputation and an equally intimidating demeanor. As a 2-year-old she was "leggy," as Asmussen described her, perhaps even lanky and delicate, an appearance that belied her conspicuous and uncommon talent. But over the winter in New Orleans, as he accompanied her to the racetrack in the mornings on his pony, Asmussen literally watched her grow, he explained. His pony supplied the metric: Once much larger than the filly, he seemed to lose his physical advantage and shrink in comparison as the weeks went on. But, of course, the pony wasn't shrinking; Untapable was undergoing a transformation.
And it's not a butterfly that has emerged from the leggy chrysalis. Untapable has developed into a robust, sinewy and willful brute of a filly that's capable of dragging the pony around the oval as if he's a surrey. When she worked here Sunday morning, going onto the track before sunrise with a pony alongside, her eagerness overflowed; she pulled approaching the half-mile pole, and then she pulled for a half-mile, eager to do more, until exercise rider Angel Garcia had to feel as if he had arms of taffy, and still she completed the half-mile in 48.60 seconds.
"She's by far the best 3-year-old filly in the country," said trainer Bret Calhoun about Untapable, "and maybe the best 3-year-old period." Calhoun trains Fiftyshadesofgold, the distant runner-up in the Fair Grounds Oaks. Rather than take on Untapable again, Fiftyshadesofgold will run in the Eight Belles Stakes.
Still, it's the Oaks, one of the most prestigious races of the year, and so Friday afternoon 12 fillies will line up to take on Untapable, the 4-5 favorite in the morning line. Many opposing trainers are hoping for rain. They're hoping, in other words, for anything that might distract or compromise Untapable -- an invasion by the Duchy of Grand Fenwick probably wouldn't do it.
In last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies event at Santa Anita, Untapable finished far back in eighth. But why?
Asmussen, meanwhile, worries about the details, as trainers will. "After that work Saturday, I knew she was going to make it fun for us this week," he said, sounding like a parent boasting about a kid's boundless energy. "We have to keep her on the ground for just three more days," he said Tuesday morning, referring to the filly's high-strung, willful nature and her inclination, or so it seems, to leap over the grandstand at the least provocation.
And, more than anything, Asmussen said, he worries about the aberration, that one inexplicable moment when she didn't even try to run. In last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies event at Santa Anita, Untapable finished far back in eighth. But why? Before the race in the paddock, she was restive and antsy, but she's always a powder keg. The performance, or lack of performance, remains a mystery, one of those questions that will have to remain unanswered and, it's hoped, buried beneath a tall pile of accomplishments.
Asmussen has been intimate with greatness -- not just Rachel Alexandra's but also Curlin's. Asmussen knows greatness and can recognize its harbingers. Could Untapable be on the cusp, at a liminal moment in her career, like Rachel Alexandra in 2009? Could Untapable possibly, just maybe -- and dare we even say it -- be on the verge of greatness?
"The stage is set," Asmussen said.