SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- As the late, great Woody Stephens said about summers spent at Saratoga: "I'm here for a reason, not the season."
So, too, was Calvin Borel, king of Kentucky jockeys, ruler of the rail at Churchill Downs and a face in the crowd at the Spa, where his winners have been few and far between this summer.
"I'm here because of Rachel," Borel said a day before the defending Horse of the Year was scheduled for her first meaningful test of the season, very deep into the eighth month of 2010. "We've had a few seconds in some big races, but we're having a good time."
She looks so good. She's blossomed, put some muscles on. I think we'll see the real Rachel. She's not the type of horse to let you down.
”-- Jockey Calvin Borel
A good time was never the mission faced by Rachel Alexandra and the humans attached to her fortune. Substantiating the stature built during a memorable 3-year-old campaign, an unbeaten tour de force that went through Churchill Downs, Pimlico, New York and Monmouth Park and ended in the shadow of the ancient Saratoga grandstand with a historic victory over older males in the Woodward Stakes, a victory met with a thunderous roar of approval that echoes in the memory of each human present that day -- that was the mission. Yet with the autumn at hand and most of her 4-year-old season gone without particular distinction, 2010 had provided neither a good time nor a mission accomplished for Rachel Alexandra, an ordeal unlikely to end short of her retirement after what may be seen as her darkest hour, fittingly perhaps at the scene of her finest hour.
"She looks so good," Borel said before the Personal Ensign. "She's blossomed -- put some muscles on. I think we'll see the real Rachel. She's not the type of horse to let you down."
We have not seen the real Rachel in almost a year. Chances are, if you missed the 2009 Woodward, you will never again see her at her best.
The weekend had not begun well for Borel, who on Saturday partnered Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver in the Travers, an effort that stamped the first leg of the Triple Crown as a muddy-track aberration and its winner as the most forgettable Derby champion since Mine That Bird. "I had no pony," Borel said after returning Super Saver to trainer Todd Pletcher, immediately turning his attention to Sunday and Rachel Alexandra's appointment in the Grade 1 Personal Ensign Stakes, her first meaningful engagement of a season that had seen her embarrassed in two of four soft spots.
On Sunday, Borel and 23,347 others assembled at the Spa because of Rachel, to witness either her return to superstardom or the next swirl in a downward spiral, perhaps, if she were again defeated in what may be her last race. On this day, he had some pony, but not enough.
There was no evidence before the Personal Ensign that any of the four fillies who would oppose Rachel Alexandra posed a threat. Clearly, the $300,000 purse and guaranteed payday were sufficient to lure at least a couple of pretenders and a Grade 1 placement will inflate the value of a prospective broodmare. Life At Ten, the only other Grade 1 winner in the starting gate, owned a six-race winning streak, but had not faced a filly of Rachel Alexandra's established ability. The 5-year-old mare had, however, answered the question in the Delaware Handicap that the champion had not -- the ability to stay 10 furlongs; a truly great horse stays 10 furlongs -- and Rachel Alexandra's established quality was essentially in the past tense going into Sunday afternoon and remains so.
I thought Rachel Alexandra might be vulnerable at a mile and a quarter, but we were going to be fine with second.
”-- Persistently's trainer, Shug McGaughey
Persistently, ironically racing beneath the silks once carried by the undefeated Personal Ensign, ran down a staggering Rachel Alexandra in the 10th furlong, delivering another crushing blow to a once-unbeatable filly who is far less now than she was a year ago. Rachel took the race to Life At Ten and left her gasping on the stretch turn, but at great cost and with nothing more to offer. The 2010 model of Rachel Alexandra, staggering at the end of the Personal Ensign, is indeed the type that will let you down even at 2-5 when it means something. Borel's win total at the Spa stands firm at three.
The "Graveyard of Champions" has seen these upsets before but seldom one so stark. The 4-year-old Persistently, highly regarded at age 2, had made a career of disappointment for the Phipps Stable. She arrived at the paddock before the Personal Ensign 3-for-13 off a victory in a $50,000 optional claiming race for nonwinners of two other than maiden or claiming. Having moved beyond that humble condition, she beat what is left of the 2009 Horse of the Year in 2:04.49, pedestrian time for 10 furlongs anywhere.
Shug McGaughey, who trains Persistently, may be counted among the shocked. The distance -- one never attempted by the winner -- he said, was probably the difference, but the winner and Rachel Alexandra were in different zip codes when the leader moved into the backstretch. Persistently responded willingly to jockey Alan Garcia's emphatic urging on the turn and even before Life At Ten gave up the chase, she was closing ground.
"I thought Rachel Alexandra might be vulnerable at a mile and a quarter, but we were going to be fine with second," McGaughey said, "but [Persistently] kept coming and coming and coming. She ran a great race."
"There were two races," Garcia said, "the first part and the last. There was plenty of pace and my filly was running good. When I saw [Life At Ten] giving it up on the turn, I thought I had a chance to be second. I knew my filly would give me everything she had and she did. My filly was running and she was responding. Anything can happen and today it happened for me."
"I don't want to give up on getting back to where we were a year ago," trainer Steve Asmussen said of the fading ex-champion. "If she isn't exactly where she was last year, hopefully she can get back there. We just want to evaluate who we are and who she is and where she's at. We're just worried about her well-being."
But it may be time to look in the mirror and admit the obvious.
"We are disappointed in the result, as we are sure her countless fans are," principal owner Jess Jackson said in a prepared postrace statement, "but we are certainly not disappointed in her. She is still a superstar in our hearts and minds. The old sports adage applies … on any given Sunday, anything can happen."
Nice try at a positive spin, but football clichés do not apply to racing and Rachel Alexandra remains a superstar in the present tense only in Jackson's heart and mind.
She has been sufficiently embarrassed by losses to Zardana, Unrivaled Belle and, now, Persistently.
"She wasn't really there," Borel said. "I had everything my way and she just got outrun."
And there is the problem.
Perhaps she has simply had enough
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.