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.
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.