Friday, July 2, 2010
A Race to Remember
by Dani Pugh
I haven’t been in the game for 30 some odd years. I’ve only heard stories of the greats of old. How stands shook when Secretariat opened up 31 lengths, in conclusion to one of the greatest Triple Crown victories of all time. I’ve only read of the dominance of the great and mighty Man o War. For many of the all-time greats, I have no recollection, except through my books, Youtube, or word of mouth. However, to say my short time as a fan of racing has been void of great horses or truly outstanding performances would be a lie.
I remember seeing Funny Cide beat my favorite, Empire Maker, in the Kentucky Derby. I also remember Empire Maker exacting his revenge, five weeks later, in the Belmont Stakes. I watched as Lawyer Ron, a talented three year old, blossomed into a monster as an older male. I remember Barbaro’s Derby, the Rags vs. Curlin Belmont, and Curlin’s 07’ Classic. Other horses I recall include the ever consistent Invasor and the brilliant Bernardini. Overall, I have seen a great deal in a short time, though only one performance will still draw a tear, and leave me breathless, and that was the 2009 Woodward.
In the beginning, I was not a huge fan of the wonder filly, Rachel Alexandra. I felt she was a nice filly who was facing hopelessly outclassed opponents. I kept that point of view all the way up until the fleet footed filly left the Kentucky Oaks field in her wake by a widening 20 ¼ lengths. The performance, was literally jaw dropping for me, and forever changed my perception of Rachel Alexandra.
I continued to watch her season, scraping up any news I could find on her. I watched captivated, as she defeated her male peers in the Preakness. In awe, I saw her again easily dispatch of two talented, but overmatched rivals in the Mother Goose, before blasting her way to a 6 length triumph over the Belmont Stakes winner, Summer Bird, in the Haskell Invitational. All these races, all of her victories, were beautiful, brilliant, practically perfect, but even they cannot touch her final victory of 2009.
Defeating older males was the only accomplishment that remained unlitted on Rachel Alexandra’s glittering 2009 resume. It was the one thing she needed to do, before she could be considered a true great, and her owner Jess Jackson knew that. After taking his time, carefully considering every possible option for his superstar, Jackson gave Rachel Alexandra her chance to make history, and make history she did.
Entered against a solid field that included the likes of Stephen Foster winner, Macho Again, Suburban victor, Dry Martini, Dubai World Cup runner-up Asiatic Boy, and Whitney winner, Bullsbay, the race figured to be Rachel Alexandra’s largest test that season.
It was a nail-biter right from the start. Rachel leaped out of the gates to grab the early lead with the speeding Da’Tara and Past the Point right in toe. The first quarter mile was a punishing one that went in 22.85 seconds. Shortly after a half in 46.41, Da’Tara, the 08 Belmont winner began to fade, but Past the Point was still there breathing down her neck. As the field flew past the 6 furlong marker, Past the Point was visibly being urged, but to no avail, he did not have enough to pass the classy filly.
As the field turned for home, Rachel was still in front, and I had begun to call out my encouragements, willing her to hold on just a little longer. After such a blistering pace, it still looked as though Rachel Alexandra would do the impossible, after scorching her foes early on. The battle, however, was far from over as Bullsbay launched a menacing rally early in the stretch. Again, the gallant filly dug in, repelling his charge, but after him came Macho Again, who was bearing down with alarming rapidity.
By now I was screaming, punching the arm of the couch I was hunched over. Macho Again was coming, and he wasn’t stopping. Time seemed to be moving all too slowly as the Stephan Foster winner cut into Rachel’s lead. Then, in the shadow of the wire, Rachel showed her class once more, digging in valiantly, and just holding off the charging gray by a head, as the pair flashed under the wire.
I was literally shaking with excitement, my heart beating as though it may come out of chest at any moment. She had done it. Rachel Alexandra had done the impossible. Digging in, repelling every challenger that came to her. It did not matter they drilled her into the ground the entire 9 furlongs. It did not matter that pace was so demandingly quick, and two grade one winners took dead aim on her in the stretch. Nothing mattered to her, except for getting to that wire first.
I saw my all time favorite horse Curlin, duke it out with Lawyer Ron and Rags to Riches in some of the most thrilling stretch drives I’ve ever witnessed. I saw Lawyer Ron’s brilliant scores in the Whintey Handicap and Woodward Stakes. I can recite Curlin’s campaign almost by heart, with each race giving me some sort of chills or goose bumps.
He was an amazing horse, and still remains my favorite. However, none of his races, not the ones where he demolished his foes, nor the ones where he showed every ounce of heart he possessed, can match what Rachel Alexandra did that day. She laid her body down, repelling every single challenge, and simply refusing to lose.