With less than a furlong to go in the 56th running of the Woodward, for three-year-olds and up at weight for age, the extremely fast early fractions at this demanding two-turn distance at the old Spa were taking their toll.
Bullsbay, the Whitney winner, surged up between horses with another Grade 1 winner Macho Again, racing off Bullsbay’s right hip. Then the gritty gray began to level off in earnest.
Racing fans and handicappers used to watching such developments had to think she was beaten. No one I spoke with in the immediate aftermath, no one, thought otherwise.
But the filly reached down, Calvin asking her for her life, as the racetrackers say, and she lengthened her stride, not quite re-breaking, but determinedly resurgent.
“Jumping” forward is what Borel calls it.
Now, with less than a sixteenth of a mile remaining, she was opening ground but the Jim Dandy and Stephen Foster winner lengthened his stride, too.
“It’s going to be dramatically close,” Tom Durkin warned the 31,171 onlookers.
With Rachel Alexandra straining into her bridle, and with Borel rhythmically pushing with his right hand, whipping with his left, they dug in. Somehow, they got to the wire first.
“At 22 and change, I started worrying,” said her trainer, Steve Asmussen. “I worried until they put her number up. I can’t say enough about the race she put in today under the circumstances.”
I can: She has a pair.
“Champions show different dimensions. She’s in a league of her own. She has beaten every top division we have in racing. Older horses, her age, it doesn’t matter. No matter what they throw at her, she’ll beat them.”
Three-year-old fillies have tried to win this race, and haven’t in 55 attempts. It was worthy of a standing ovation, which is exactly what the fans lining the winners’ circle, and even some in the press box, gave her.
“I wanted to win this race bad,” Borel said after dismounting from Maria’s Charm, an also-rain in the day’s 11th race.
“I had to go out there and not mess it up. [The win] took the load off me.”
And the load was a heavy one.
An excited sun-drenched crowd lined the rails three deep on both side of the horse path taken by the horses stabled across the street at the Oklahoma training track.
The first instant you knew the horses would soon be in the paddock, was a cameraman lugging his hand-held racing to get into position as the horses walked over. Then came the whooping and hollering.
The older males reacted, a slight buck-jump or two, here and there. Rachel walked in politely, her ears providing all the body language needed for the moment.
Look at all these people.
It took credentialed media, myself and Brad Telias from CBS Radio, to name just two, a solid five minutes to get past security into the paddock.
It was a panorama like no other I’ve seen in the history of this old course. Fans lined the fences five deep, straining to get a closer look, and, to their credit, the field was given an extra circumference to travel so that all might get a look.
The atmosphere was charged but reserved, almost out of respect for the moment and perhaps thinking let’s not get this filly charged up any more than need be. All the horses were well comported.
An estimated 500 people followed the horses up the gap that led to the racetrack. As I awaited the elevator to take me up to the press level, there was a commotion trackside.
When I arrived in the box, I asked Ed Fountaine of the New York Post what the fuss was about. “The filly dumped Borel.”
I didn’t believe him, repeated my question, he repeated his answer, and I turned to my right to get verification from Paul Moran, doing a turn for the Associated Press at this meet.
“Yeah, she bucked a bit, Calvin came off, then she stood there waiting for him to get back on.”
The horses lined up like Noah’s crew, two by two, and walked slowly to the starting gate in front of the stands. The loaded without incident and they were off without a hitch.
Borel knew there would be some race riding at the filly’s expense. That’s the way this game is played.
Borel wanted the racetrack and sent her to the front, but was joined immediately on her inside by Belmont inner Da’ Tara and on the outside by the speedy Past the Point.
Cool Coal Man, settled in, covered up in European fashion, saving ground behind the dueling leaders. Bullsbay had two beaten and Macho Again was last of eight.
The pace was demanding on this racetrack at the two-turn distance, a quarter-mile in :22.85 and a half-mile in :46.41. Rachel Alexandra was pressured throughout but looked to be traveling at a comfortable pace for her.
Following six furlongs in 1:10.54, her two early prompters had had enough. It’s A Bird made a move toward the lead, followed by Bullsbay, and Macho Again was beginning to roll from the back of the pack.
But just like she’s done so often this year, she put more ground between herself and her rivals after straightening away. But before she went another furlong, the pace was taking its toll and the runners-up were in full flight.
The record books will show that Rachel Alexandra was a head in front of Macho Again in a race where the ancient scale of weights handicapped the race peerlessly. Older males must spot three-year-old fillies eight pounds going nine furlongs in early September.
And it was almost a dead heat.
As for her two prompters, they finished sixth and last, respectively, Da’ Tara eased under the wire by Alan Garcia.
Previously a Belmont Fall fixture, the final time of 1:48.29 was the fastest of four Woodwards run at Saratoga, besting Lawyer Ron’s mark by 31/100s set two years ago.
“I was most concerned of any of the races we’ve been in,” said Asmussen. “There were variables we hadn’t faced in her previous races. It was a challenge for her.”
“She’s been tested early two or three times now,” said owner Jess Jackson, who raced onto the track to greet his filly and giving Borel a kiss with the rider still on her back.
“She’s had the courage and fortitude to finish, and with an attitude to hang in there and win. That’s a very exceptional horse, male or female.”
“Today she made history,” her rider said. “It was like winning the Kentucky Derby.”
* * *
12:14 PM She’s being hailed as “Alexandra the Great.”
Now, there’s nothing to it but to do it. And this will be her toughest test. No hyperbole there, make no mistake. These are older males!
There will be some “race-ridin’” going on at 5:52 PM today. Of that I’m certain. Rachel Alexandra would indelibly stamp her greatness with a victory under these circumstances.
For Calvin Borel, it could be the defining moment in what has been a career year, one that not many, if any, jockeys have had, in relation to major races and storylines.
All-time great or not, Rachel Alexandra is the definition of a modern equine legend. Her presence had the picnicers lining the gates of this old course from 7 AM. On Union Avenue, anyway. That’s Travers day stuff.
This may be college football day around the country but it’s still only Woodward day here.
There were nearly 35,000 fans here on Travers day in the rain. Today is a Chamber of Commerce day, pristine. It will be interesting to see the final tally.
This meeting, attendance wise, depends on two variables: the weather and the calendar. They’ve got the weather today. But the calendar, the vacation/school calendar, is decidedly against any records being set.
There were about 22,572 for Curlin last year. My guess is that a superstar filly is worth more than an appearance by a reigning Horse of the Year.
When I arrived in a press parking area this morning about 10:15, nearly three hours before post time, that section of the lot was half full. Why?
“The filly,” I was told.
Via e-mails, racing friends cannot believe they won't see the filly on national television today. I told them that anything that happens in this game shouldn't surprise anyone.