Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Rachel Alexandra: An Appreciation

I couldn't decide whether I wanted to write anything about Rachel Alexandra's retirement...and then I read through some of my old pieces about her and realized that I really owe her (and her team) a sincere thank you for two spectacular racing seasons. (And she appears no less than 28 times in the 150 or so blogs I've posted.)

The first time I ever even heard the name Rachel Alexandra was when she emphatically won the Kentucky Oaks, before Jess Jackson, before running against the boys. I remember hearing Tom Durkin's voice escalating with excitement as she pulled farther and farther away from the field. As I walked in from the kitchen to see what all the fuss was about, there she was...a big, beautiful bay striding, almost gliding, over the sloppy track at Churchill Downs. Had I really seen that? A few quick keystrokes brought me to a race replay that confirmed what I'd just seen. It was love at first sight.

From then on I followed her 2009 campaign like I suspect little boys once followed Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak or Lou Gehrig's consecutive game streak, I was an obsessed fan. I'd be fidgety the day of her race (like I was racing myself!) and make myself practically sick. I wasn't ever concerned that she'd lose, I was worried that she'd break down. I've loved a lot of horses, but this time, thanks mostly to the Internet, I was able to follow and fuss over her workouts and race placements in a way I'd never really been able to before.

So when the opportunity arose to see her for myself, I knew I needed to make the quick trip down to Belmont. She wasn't slated to have much competition in The Mother Goose Stakes, but I was there to see her--for all I'd have cared she could have been racing against a stable pony. All my expectations were met and exceeded when I saw her in person, she was gorgeous and she ran like the wind that day. I practically floated home from the track, thrilled that I'd been able to see her race in person.
Rachel Alexandra heading out in the Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont

Flash forward to the Woodward, also known in my personal memory as "the day I couldn't watch the race." My maiden trip to The Spa to see Rachel again, this time, running against older males. I knew she had a Herculean task ahead of her, but I'd potted myself right by the finish line along the apron so I'd have a good view--regardless of the outcome. Well, it suffices to say that when she tossed Calvin Borel during the post parade, my heart sank like a rock. So after an entire day of camping out on the benches, I left and watched the race, chewing on the sleeve of my cardigan, from the televisions beneath the grandstand. The reverberation and screaming as she came down the stretch battling Macho Again would have led any sane person to believe that not only were the rafters being raised at The Spa, they'd soon be caving in, too. It was a collective and epic release of joy when she crossed the finish line first. Post race I was calling everyone telling them what I'd just witnessed. Driving home with the Adirondacks behind me and the Catskill's on my right, I felt like I was soaring over them all!

And when she won her controversial Horse of the Year award in January of this year, I celebrated with a split of pink Veuve Clicquot in her honor...it sits on my desk (labeled with her victory and the date) next to the old-style pink baseball cap that I have (in her original Dolphus Morrison silks) with the words Alexandra the Great across the front.

This year, even when it became clear that Rachel version 2010 wasn't the same Rachel as 2009, I still hoped she'd finish out the season at the Breeder's Cup Championships. Even if she isn't the same as last year (and hey, who amongst us really is...) I love watching her compete and would've enjoyed seeing her race. I'm insanely loyal and as long as she came out of a race okay, I could never really think less of her or her efforts. Losses are tough and disappointing, but there's so much to be enjoyed and praised in the effort and she never gave less than 110%.

However saddened I am about her retirement, I'm grateful above all else. Grateful for all the anxiety, thrills, chills and tears. Grateful for getting to see one of my equine athletic heroines in person and be there to cheer for her win or lose. Thank you Rachel Alexandra, for sharing your gifts of blazing speed and great heart with us for a few short months. Thank you for making my heart beat faster and sending my thoughts wandering about the true nature of greatness. Your career would never be long enough for those of us who enjoy watching you, but that's okay, we'll remember you--and your singular and beautiful blaze--fondly for decades. This racing fan is in your debt.

And here are my pieces--with photos--from Rachel's 2009 campaign:

Rachel running in The Mother Goose

Rachel's victory in The Woodward


Brian Zipse said...

I was there! ;-)

The Paper Tyger said...

Wish we could have seen her run once more...but I realize that sounds a little greedy, lol :) Thanks for reading and commenting, Brian!