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

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Tuesday, June 28, 2011


“Six Weeks in Saratoga” Excerpt


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

Prologue
The Answer

The Answer waited.

It waited in the dimness of the Four Seasons Beverly
Wilshire in Beverly Hills, California. Horse people in their best evening attire
plucked hors d’oeuvres off of trays, trays that floated around the room. Their
voices hummed. There was talk of the Answer: Who would win the 2009
Horse of the Year? Soon they found their seats and tuned their frequency to
the stage for the start of the 39th Annual Eclipse Awards.
Zenyatta turned what was once unanimous into a debate. The 2009 Horse
of the Year award had already been won—it was already Rachel Alexandra’s
award. Why did Zenyatta have to go and win the 2009 renewal of the Breeders’
Cup Classic against male horses and look positively fantastic while in motion?
She let the boys from America and Europe hold the door open long enough
and unleashed her fury. Zenyatta, for those who don’t know, was the unbeaten
five-year-old mare who ran like a bulldozer on nitro down the middle of
Santa Anita’s synthetic surface to win the Classic. Perhaps race caller Trevor
Denman said it best when Zenyatta struck the front in the Classic when he
yelled, “This. Is. Un. Be. Lievable!”

It was supposed to be concrete.

Rachel Alexandra, the freakishly gifted three-year-old filly, had staved
off older horses in the Woodward Stakes on closing weekend at Saratoga Race
Course. She capped 2009 with her eighth consecutive victory—three against
males, the latest against the older, more accomplished brand. Horse of the
Year was hers. All she had to do was bask and smile for the camera. Then
Zenyatta came running late.

The debating was virulent, the words venomous. Just read some of the
forty-seven comments from Horse Race Insider editor and columnist John
Pricci’s Morning Line column, dated January 13, 2010, about the Rachel
versus Zenyatta thread. Pricci wrote that it was best for Zenyatta fans if she
lost the Horse of the Year vote, reasoning that Zenyatta would come back
with her only loss to date being one handed out on paper, should the voters
elect Rachel Alexandra over her.

Where no avatar was used, the full name has been abbreviated to simply the
first or last name.

Jeff says:

My gut feeling is that RA will be retired if she wins HOT Y and
Zenyatta stays in training. RA can’t hide in restricted 3yo races
this year, and she wants no part of Zenyatta.

Freespirit says:

Nah, I don’t think they will retire RA if she wins. Jackson won’t
do that, I don’t think. However, even though I would love to see
Zenyatta race again, not at the expense of her losing HOY. She so
deserves it. RA is great too, but I think Zenyatta is better.
Anne says:

I do not understand all of you East Coast-voters’ remarks always
against Zenyatta. It is getting to be ridiculous and childish. Did
that wine that Jess Jackson gave voters (that was announced) with
her picture on it cloud your brains? We KNOW it clouded your
votes. Stop it! RA can’t run a 11/4. She beat a bunch of has-beens
in the Woodward.

Zenyatta beat the best we and Europe had to offer in that BC
Classic this year. She ran for the first time and proved she can
handle it. She ran against the best males and beat them (why do
it in 3 when you can beat a field like this in 1 race?). She always
showed up and showed up in a fashion that we will NEVER see
again. She has class, charm and determination (her own, not that
brought on by 20+ whippings).

Give it a rest, Mr. Pricci.

Susan says:

Good Morning John,

I can tell you right now that this loyal Zenyatta fan is not rooting
for her to lose. And if the Mosses are keeping her in training, and
I hope they are, I don’t think her running hinges on the outcome
of HOT Y. Of course she is going to win, BUT either way it appears
that they may very well have a sound, fresh horse who has not
been damaged by the rigors of a gut-wrenching campaign. That is
the beauty and superiority of Zenyatta and ANOT HER testament
to her greatness.

Ron says:

Ah, come on you guys touting RA for HOT Y, can’t you read
a racing form’s past performance or watch a race? Take a look
at the older horses, horses that RA beat in NY. They certainly
weren’t the best or the same class that Zenyatta defeated in the
classic plus the three-year-old-colt crop sure wasn’t the best we
ever had. Not taking anything away from RA —she was definitely
an outstanding filly, but no Zenyatta.

Mike says:

RA is the HOY. Sorry Zenyat-iacs. Beating a few grass horses
on plastic tracks in dumpy bankrupt, fire-ridden California can’t
compare to winning 8 races on 7 tracks. The only thing preventing
RA from HOY honors is the anti-NY media bias.

Sheila says:

I love both horses. That being said, Zenyatta’s race in the BC was
great, a wow moment. Every time Rachel ran this past year was
a WOW moment. You can’t deny it! I think that’s all that needs
to be said!

ThePixiePoet says:

I’m from California, proving this is not an East Coast—West Coast
thing: I think Rachel Alexandra is the better horse. She should
(barring injuries) put a lid on all nay-sayers in this year’s campaign.
When Rachel is given more time to rest, she is a powerhouse. For
example, when Rachel was given 2 months off after the Preakness,
in her next race alone she broke 2 stakes records (time and winning
margin) and came within one second of the track record set by
Secretariat, while being eased!

Mark says:

When you go 14-0 against the best in the world, win 2 Breeders’
Cups and NOT win HOY, explain how there’s NOT an East
Coast bias?

Terlingua says:

The best horse of 2009 is quite simple. It’s not that hard, people.
Question: Who won the most money with less starts?
Answer: Zenyatta.

Anne M. says:

HOY is simple—Rachel Alexandra.
Zenyatta had one really good race the whole year and people
think she should be HOY??? NO WAY.

The room buzzed. Rachel Alexandra, as expected, won Champion Three-Year-
Old Filly. Zenyatta, as expected, won her second consecutive Champion Older
Mare. Then it was on to the big one, the Answer.

The video montage of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta’s races called
hairs to an about-face. The announcer recited the select few female horses
that have also won Horse of the Year over the decades. It is a small sorority.
Rachel Alexandra soared through the fog; she launched for the wire.
Zenyatta charged wide off the turns, straightened, and, yes, she somehow
won. Fourteen races, fourteen wins, and fourteen photographs. The video’s
announcer, cognizant of the ongoing debate of who was best, said, “Tonight,
we finally get the answer.” The Answer.

The lights remained dim over the ballroom. Jess Jackson, dressed in
a tuxedo with wide lapels, sat in his chair. Jerry Moss was nearby, equally
dapper, his features sharp, his teeth gleaming, as if shined by Windex. His
wife Ann sat beside him. All three felt confident that their horses would win.
One would lose.

National Thoroughbred Racing Association president Alex Waldrop
shook the envelope in his right hand like a Polaroid picture, drew a breath,
and said, “The Eclipse Award for the 2009 Horse of the Year . . .”

Come back Thursday for another excerpt of Six Weeks in Saratoga. You can order a copy from SUNY Press or from a your favorite bookseller.

"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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Saturday, June 18, 2011


The Triple Crown: Awe … wait for it … some


Well, the Triple Crown started with a kick to the face and ended with a fissure to a horse hock. Some folks have lauded it a boring, inconsequential, impossibly frustrating, and altogether worthless Triple Crown. They're wrong.

The average win pay out for the Triple Crown was $40.83. That ain’t boring money, it’s both celebratory and maddening money for overlooking Animal Kingdom, failing to think Shackleford could hold onto the lead, and skimming over Ruler On Ice because, well, wasn’t Nehro or AK supposed to win!?

It seems impossibly far away that Robby Albarado was kicked in the face by a horse (if you hand’t believed in karma, do you now?) which prompted him to be taken off Animal Kingdom and subbed in for by John R. Velazquez. Albarado showed them by winning a Grade 1 on the Derby undercard, but it mattered little in the end.

Most were introduced to trainer Graham Motion for the first time, whose cool demeanor and gosh-darn-so-freakin’-likeable-you-just-want-to-have-him-over-for-dinner-and-then-throw-on-Ghostbusters charm infected the racing world for five weeks.

Most were introduced to Team Valor president Barry Irwin for the first time and were, at first, put off by him. My God! Is this man offering a contrarian opinion of the status quo! How dare he!? Does he not know who we are? Huffabub frim fram! This guy should be applauded for catching us all from falling out of the rye.

Most were introduced to how Velazquez can look like he’s attending a five-year-old’s ballet recital instead of looking like he won the one race every jockey this side of Mars wants to win (I won’t pretend to know what jockeys want on the other side of Mars. Probably some intergalactic moon crown.)

Most were introduced to Dale Romans, a racetrack lifer who has won some BIG races (Dubai World Cup and gaggles of Grade 1s) but to see this Kentucky boy saddle a Triple Crown-race winner was something to behold. One of these days his mug will be emblazoned on the side of a building in Louisville along with Paul Newman and others.

Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito saddled the Derby favorite, the second coming of Secretariat. A story by assistant trainer Tim Poole about the first time jockey Julien Leparoux would ride Dialed In:

“Nick asked Julien if he’d ever seen the movie “Secreariat”. Julien said, ‘Yes.’ Nick said, ‘Cuz I’m puttin’ you on ’im.’”

Uh, ooooh. Dialed In clipped off horses in the Derby, clipped them off to finish well back. His trip was, to put it mildly, dirty. The poor colt squinted through a dust bowl and never found his rhythm. On to Baltimore for a shot at $5 million for winning the Magna Crown (Holy Bull, Florida Derby, Preakness Stakes). Nope. Didn’t happen.

Then it’s the longest three weeks in horse racing: when the Belmont Stakes waits for no Triple Crown. But something wonderful happened. Animal Kingdom, the Derby winner and Preakness runner up committed. So too did the Preakness winner Shackleford. Not only that, but the Derby runner up, Nehro, threw his hat into the bullring. Brilliant Speed too, and a no-name out of New Jersey-based Kelly Breen’s barn.

And Tom Durkin, who didn’t renew his Triple Crown contract to call the races for NBC, recited a beautiful Belmont Stakes with turns of phrase and brilliant elocution. It was Ruler On Ice holding off Uncle Mo’s stablemate, Stay Thirsty.

Isn’t He Perfect, a horse of junior varsity talent, came in on Animal Kingdom, made Velazquez lose an iron, and thus the Belmont Stakes. Irwin had a point that certain horses don’t belong in certain races. Guadalcanal came in on Big Brown in the 2008 Belmont. On paper Mine That Bird didn’t belong in the 2009 Derby field. All he did was skip over the mud, skip past Durkin’s often keen eye, and skip under a blanket of roses (never won another race, but you know who else never won another race? Dunkirk.)

And Animal Kingdom was a tad lame, brought on by a bad trip, a back slash in his hock.

On we go into the summer. Bring on the Spa.

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 pre-order at Amazon.com or at SUNY Press. Read about narrative nonfiction at The Blog Itself, more horse racing at The Carryover Classic, read his "Bourbon Underworld" stories at Kentucky Confidential, follow him on Twitter, or "like" his book on Facebook. His website is http://www.brendanomeara.com.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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