Saturday, July 09, 2011

Million Dollar Baby or Rocky V?

Dog days.



No man’s land.

Gray area.

Neither here nor there.

Whatever you want to call it, such is the time between the end of the Triple Crown and Saratoga. What’s to sustain the narrative of the 2011 season of racing? It’s not too hard to find horses that can carry the story—as it would appear—we’ve just been so incredibly spoiled the past four years. Think about it. It’s the equivalent of the first four Rocky movies.
2007: Great Triple Crown and emergence of Curlin and, subsequently, Jess Jackson.

Street Sense becomes the first juvenile winner to complete the double by winning the Kentucky Derby below Calvin Borel. Borel won his first of three Derbys in four years. The Preakness saw one of the great stretch duels you will ever see between Curlin and Street Sense, with Curlin winning by a sneeze in the silks Midnight Cry Stables (Oh, fen fen). Three weeks later Curlin gets beat by a similar margin by a filly—Rags to Riches. Better Than Honour becomes the bees knees as the dam to two Belmont winners in a row (Jazil in 2006).

A little-known mare named Zenyatta wins first time out. How long can she keep that up?

2008: The emergence of Curlin as super star.

Jess Jackson announces to the world that Curlin will remain in training. He goes to Dubai and has the most smashing victory of his career (it would mark the beginning of the end of his form). Curlin placed second to Red Rocks in the Man o’War, became North America’s all-time money leader, the finished fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Jackson’s “plastic” to who—Raven’s Pass. Exactly.

Let’s not forget Big Brown, Rick Dutrow, Jr., Michael Iavarone, steroids, the Rivalry that never was, quarter cracks, turf racing, etc.

Casino Drive pulls out of Belmont with injury, disappointing his mother—Better Than Honour.

2009: The emergence of Rachel Alexandra (and the continued excellence of Zenyatta)

Jess Jackson, for a third-straight year, is at racing’s epicenter with the filly who went 8-for-8, beat the boys three times and became his second Horse of the Year (but third in a row).

Rachel Alexandra’s Woodward win forced the hand of Team Zenyatta to slay the boys in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Zen wins and the frenzy begins.

2010: The emergence of yet another rivalry that never was.

Rachel wins Horse of the Year, Jerry Moss looked more miffed than Dr. Evil, and the Apple Blossom debate began.

Rachel never returns to form, Zenyatta was stunning, and lost her only race when Michael Smith gagged worse than Richie Tenenbaum.

2011: ?

See how spoiled we who follow horse racing have been? The past four years have been absolutely incredible, so now if Rocky V should happen, well, we can’t say we didn’t have a nice run. Now, the real problem would be if 2012 becomes “Rocky Balboa”.

The Triple Crown provided some buzz, but it looks like Barry Irwin’s super European, indestructible, calculus solving, 80 word-per-minute typing, wine connoisseur, astronaut, cancer curing, mega horse Animal Kingdom is out of service. The good news is that he came out surgery just fine, thanks to Dr. Dean Richardson, the man who put Barbaro’s indiscernible hind leg back together. The bad news is we will likely never see this horse run again. Won the Derby? Second in the Preakness? Had an excuse in the Belmont? So long, farewell, don’t let the stall webbing hit you on the way out. Thanks for the memory.

Again, it looks like it could “ladies first.” Havre de Grace and Blind Luck are steamrolling through their races. HdG is 3-for-3 and Blind Luck just took the Vanity in style. Havre de Grace crushed Blind Luck in the Azeri back in March, so a rematch would be nice somewhere in Upstate New York at ten furlongs.

It’s looking like, for a third consecutive year, that a filly or mare could be Horse of the Year.

Maybe 2011 ain’t so bad after all, more Million Dollar Baby than Rocky V.

Brendan O'Meara is the author of Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year. It is available for at SUNY Press. Read about narrative nonfiction at The Blog Itself, more horse racing at The Carryover Classic, follow him on Twitter, or "like" his book on Facebook. His website is

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Saturday, July 02, 2011

“Six Weeks in Saratoga” Excerpt: Chapter 1—Knock, Knock, Knockin’ on ‘Toga’s Door (Continued)

The following is the third part in a series of excerpts of Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year.

Calvin Borel won the Kentucky Oaks on Friday and the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. Everyone wanted a piece of Calvin Borel—The Tonight Show, The Late Show, and Pardon the Interruption, not to mention all the print outlets that gave his phone insomnia. It had yet to reach the point of nausea, though that would come. Borel was the rock star of a dying sport.

Back when Rachel Alexandra was simply an impressive female horse lacking the crossover appeal that turned the filly into an icon, Borel rode her to five straight victories at a slew of tracks in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Kentucky.
Rachel Alexandra was so good, so swift and fast, that Borel would often showboat on her back, much to the chagrin of her owner, as well as of those who hate basketball players who flex after a dunk, football players who dance excessively after a touchdown, and baseball sluggers who stare too long at that magnificent parabola. The consensus is, “Act like you’ve been there before.” He had, and he hadn’t.

When he won the Fair Grounds Oaks, Borel peeked back at the field, steered Rachel Alexandra in a hand ride, and celebrated from the sixteenth pole, indicating that they were a sixteenth of a mile from the finish line. Dolphus Morrisson, then the owner of Rachel Alexandra, clouded more by rage than jubilation, roared up to his jockey, and said, “Borel, if I ever catch you doing anything like this on a horse of this caliber, anything at all that would’ve caused her to swerve a little bit, you would’ve been face first in that mud out there.”

Borel was no stranger to the winner’s circle, and at the time Rachel Alexandra’s first trainer, Hal Wiggins, was giving Borel a leg up on her back, Borel was near five thousand wins. In horsemen’s circles Borel was well known, a jock who woke in the mornings to darkness, whose early days on the Louisiana bush tracks hardened his ethic and calloused his hands while he mucked stalls and rubbed horses. But with a near last-to-first ride on Street Sense in the 2007 Kentucky Derby, the world soon met Calvin Borel and, it seemed, was better for it. So it was, in this instance, that yes, he had been there before.

Out of his near-five thousand wins, he had never been on a horse as good as Rachel Alexandra, and until a jockey has sat on a chest of buried treasure like her, he’d best keep his tongue tied about at-the-wire antics. Already comparisons had been made to Ruffian, regarded as the greatest filly in the history of horse racing. Ruffian’s only defeat came when she catastrophically
broke down in a match race against Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure. Comparisons have been made to the late-great Secretariat, namely because he and Rachel Alexandra have such long strides, freakishly long. When in full gallop, Secretariat could cover nearly half the distance between home plate and a major league pitcher’s mound. Rachel Alexandra possessed that stride, the way a certain measure of afflatus is dolloped on the most fortunate of athletic specimens. She was in that company. Which is why Borel, who normally takes the summer off, turned the ignition, shifted into “D,” and motored east to Saratoga Springs to ensure that she wouldn’t get away. His fear was that if he was out of sight, then out of mind would follow, and he’d be damned if he were both. Not with this filly.

Not ever.

Come back Saturday July 9th to see what Rachel Alexandra was up to in Six Weeks in Saratoga. You can order a copy from SUNY Press or from a your favorite bookseller. "Like" "Six Weeks in Saratoga" on Facebook and follow Brendan O'Meara on Twitter.

Posted by permission from Six Weeks in Saratoga by Brendan O'Meara, the State University of New York Press (c)2011, State University of New York. All rights reserved.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Friday, July 01, 2011

“Six Weeks in Saratoga” Excerpt: Chapter 1—Knock, Knock, Knockin’ on ‘Toga’s Door

The following is the second part in a series of excerpts of Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year.

The bell screamed. The gate erupted.

Jockey Calvin Borel’s grip on the reins was al dente as he toed his irons in the saddle of Rachel Alexandra, the lone girl in a race against boys, colts and geldings, the 2009 $1 million Preakness Stakes. She broke from the far outside and swerved to her right. Borel knew he had to hustle her. The ground was like quicksand under her as she struggled to center herself. Borel gave her a smooch, and she blitzed forward.

Rachel Alexandra cleared the field, felt comfortable. Borel told her, “That’s enough,” and she came back to him.
Twelve horses chased and drummed a war beat into the Pimlico Racecourse dirt. Behind her coasted the 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, a gelding whose very jockey in that race sat chillingly still in the saddle of Rachel Alexandra. This had never been done, this abdication.

Rachel Alexandra’s ears flicked to the outside, pivoting to absorb her surroundings, surroundings that included the fatigued exhalations of her pursuers. Her stride unfolded like a spool of ribbon. The colts’ strides behind her shortened and chopped. And like a tide, most receded into the ocean of dirt, with maybe one more wave swelling from the rear.

The turn for home came quickly, and Borel went to work and let his filly uncork that near-thirty-foot long stride down the Pimlico homestretch. Borel’s left arm chicken-winged while he let out more slack on the reins. He went to the stick and popped her twice. He switched arms and popped her again. Mine That Bird was that final wave, the tsunami, the pregnant energy
billowing from beneath the water. He took flight and split horses, gaining.

Borel kept Rachel Alexandra to task as the wire drew near, its invisible laser waiting to break. Down the center of the track bombed the Kentucky Derby
winner, and the question became: Will there be enough room to catch her?

Borel flattened his back and tucked his head into Rachel Alexandra’s ribboned mane. His arms extended, his eyes peered to his right, he knew he had it. Rachel Alexandra’s eye, ringed in fire, bore down her foe.

Race caller Tom Durkin trumpeted his words at the wire, “And the FILLY did it! Rachel Alexandra has defeated the Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird by three-quarters of a length. . . . A magnificent victory. An exquisite filly. And a THRILL to see!”

Borel wagged his right index finger in the air and gave Rachel Alexandra one congratulatory clap on her neck as the pair continued to glide around that oval.

She became the first filly since 1924 to win the Preakness, this after she handed her own sex a 20 1/4-length sock-to-the-stomach in the Kentucky Oaks, a race for three-year-old fillies run the day before the Kentucky Derby.

The rumble of hooves and the effort with which Rachel Alexandra crushed her feet into the dirt signaled that someone new was at the door, an equine figure trampolining her profile to the pages of every racing periodical in North America.

She banged, she knocked, no, she smashed down the door, this very door.


Snow blankets Saratoga Springs, New York, and Saratoga Race Course. It buries memories to create geologic striations, each layer an epoch, each a season of racing. Plows leave banks of crusted snow trash as tall as a high school point guard. Salted streets smear with sludge, an unappetizing, slushy gathering by the curbs and on the hidden yellow line dividing lanes of traffic on Union Avenue. Trucks spray sand and salt in fans, like the expanding V behind a swimming duck. Cars purr by with snow tires clicking on the exposed tar.

An afternoon walk in the skin-cracking weather reveals a barren landscape, as if an apocalyptical event took place on Saratoga Race Course. Lone trees that withstood the blast sway but are no less daunted. The wind is eye-squinting sharp. Saratoga Race Course, first erected in 1864, creeks and moans as it endures yet another winter, weathering an off-season of forty-six
weeks. There is still time to thaw and have this track perform its calisthenics, to cast off the crust of ice and age.

Snow and ice weigh down the barns’ roofs. Plastic window insulation—or something similar—partitions the track’s grandstand from the elements. Some of it is torn and frayed, as if it quit and let the air have its way. The fans that circulate air for patrons hang like icicles, barely moving, still months away from work.

The track is indiscernible. It looks like a desert, a tundra, images of racing’s past hibernating somewhere below. Now with winter fully upon Upstate New York, when racing seems as distant a thought as Benedict Arnold’s battle against the British here in 1777, one wonders what 2009’s meet will bring and what 2009’s Travers Stakes—Saratoga’s feature race—will leave in one’s
memory for years to come. Perhaps the Travers will play bridesmaid to the 56th running of the Woodward Stakes. It was a year ago that 2008 Horse of the Year, Curlin, charged like a locomotive down the track in the Woodward, adding to his bankroll and legacy. The city of Saratoga Springs celebrated this horse like Funny Cide before him, lining its streets with maroon-and-gold
banners brandishing the name CURLIN up, down, and around Broadway. To match his feat would be spectacular: the thought of surpassing was positively
ludicrous! But this is, after all, Saratoga.

Now, skin turns pink, limbs go numb, and you ask yourself, “How is this so wonderful a place for six weeks from the end of July to Labor Day?” But the winter visions fade. The snow drifts and moguls of slush shrink, and the once-smothered grass stretches to the sky. The rivers roar, fierce with mountain snow. The days lengthen, and the air forgives. Picnic tables of previous seasons rest in stacks of three or four and wait to be scattered like seeds all over the property.

The trees remain skeletal, branches clicking and chattering like shivering teeth. Soon the red oaks start teething buds, which blossom into leaves, feathering together in a hushing swish. The weeping willows cry and moan again. Soon after the Oklahoma Training Track, opposite the main track across Union Avenue, opens for training, weeks before Season 141 readies to etch
its name alongside its 140 predecessors. That horsemen’s cologne of hay, feed, and manure wafts through the air as truck after truck buses in body upon body of horseflesh.

Downtown, motorists hurdle from traffic light to traffic light at a slug’s pace. The horse statues come out of storage, showing off their designs of jazz musicians or the local leading realtor. Restaurateurs power drill their patios into the sidewalks for the summer. The shops put their horse paintings on the sidewalks, Putnam Wine Shop’s glugs wine for free tastings, and when one looks down at one’s watch and sees that it is 9:00 p.m. and the sky is still bright, one says, “Yep, track season is right around the corner.”

She looks positively stunning, turning this way and that, ceding to Vogue photographer Steven Klein’s whims and commands. Her legs are roped in muscle, her gaze both haunting and inviting. She stood in size 6 Silver Queen shoes with white socks on two of her feet. The shutter to his camera purrs and clicks, and his lamps cast a shine on his model. She turns her head; her ears, oddly enough, fan out in a surfer’s “hang loose” hand signal. Then, there it is, the winning shot exposed when she cranes her neck over her right shoulder, as if annoyed, putting down an all-too-eager chap who might have been checking her out for too long at a bar, slaying him down almost as if to say, “You?” It’s quite the attitude for a three-year-old.

Rachel Alexandra, a filly as brown as dark chocolate, stood, her knees locked, in the gravel outside her barn at Churchill Downs. Just days prior to her photo spread in a female-style magazine for humans, this horse defeated three-year-old colts—including the Kentucky Derby winner, Mine That Bird—in the Preakness Stakes, the second of three Triple Crown races usually reserved for males. Up until this point she had proven much, but she would need to do more still in America’s “What have you done for me lately?” landscape. In these terms, she hadn’t done anything, save pose for a magazine. It’s safe to say that even with her celebrity and her magnetic pull, she would not find herself taking hits from a bong like Olympic champion Michael Phelps, or philandering like Tiger Woods. All she could be guilty of was spirited bucking in a round pen or eating her fill—four quarts of sweet feed for breakfast, six for lunch, and ten for dinner, with four quarts of cooked oats stirred in. For the remainder of this year, though, she’d have to do more if she wanted to be more than just a flash in the pan, a one-hit wonder. Scott Blasi, assistant
trainer to Steve Asmussen, who trained Rachel Alexandra, said, “After all, they call it Horse of the Year, not Horse of the Six Months.”

This being, as Blasi said, just halfway through the year, they had a long stretch ahead, many furlongs, where anything could happen, both good and bad, leaving Rachel Alexandra, and the sport of horse racing, shy of goals and heroes. And with his words it became clear that the goals this horse and her connections sought were not unlike the fruits of Tantalus, impossibly far away, but then again, Rachel Alexandra was no Tantalus, and she just might reach the grapes.

She certainly would if the man in the irons had his way.

Come back Saturday for another excerpt of Six Weeks in Saratoga. You can order a copy from SUNY Press or from a your favorite bookseller. "Like" "Six Weeks in Saratoga" on Facebook and follow Brendan O'Meara on Twitter.

Posted by permission from Six Weeks in Saratoga by Brendan O'Meara, the State University of New York Press (c)2011, State University of New York. All rights reserved.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

Comments (0)

BallHype: hype it up!

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