Is it unexpected? Not entirely, and yet it stings. Just six weeks or so before the 2010 Breeders Cup, 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra is taking her bow off the world stage. Her majority owner, Jess Jackson, announced today that her racing career is over and that she will be sent to be bred to his 2007-2008 superstar Curlin.
You may recall that last year Rachel Alexandra sat out the Breeders Cup because her owners felt the racing surface at California's Santa Anita racecourse was perhaps not to their liking and that she had nothing left to prove, no one left to beat. This year, Rachel's racing record has been certainly acceptable if not stellar, but we won't see her in the Breeders Cup championship yet again.
But we'll always have the 2009 Kentucky Oaks. That was the day that we knew that this flashing-fast filly was the real thing. Half way around the turn for home she just bounded to the lead. She ran like a deer--uphill, with her withers high, her front legs climbing. It looks like she is skipping when you watch the replay on YouTube. Rachel has one white hoof and one black hoof in front. The left front--the white hoof--looks like it is reaching forward so far. I'm not even sure her hooves touched the Churchill Downs dirt.
She won by more than 20 lengths.
Rachel Alexandra was sold a few days after the Oaks and two weeks later ran in the Preakness, where she defeated the colts and captivated the nation. But she did it by running flat, like every other racehorse. She never ran uphill again. The rest is history. She ran at half a dozen tracks, beat all comers in 2009 and earned Horse of the Year the hard way--by running for it. Sometimes she just barely won, and there was that last race where she was pushed so hard but her heart seemed to carry her.
What was different in 2010 is anyone's guess. She came back for more, to defend her title. Many horses would have quit while they were on top.
Make that most horses, especially fillies.
Presumably Rachel Alexandra is healthy and sound, and that's as it should be. Racing loses one of its greatest stars--she modeled for a fashion photographer in Vogue and earned a double-page portrait and also raised thousands of dollars for several charities.
One thing that may not change much is the devoutly entrenched Rachel Alexandra vs Zenyatta debate society. I suppose they can go on debating forever which mare might have won, had the two great ones ever met.
For me, I'll miss the funny face, the odd double-decker blaze and the small hope I held at the start of every race that she'd run like a deer once again, for the joy of it, like she did in her early days.
Maybe someday I'll be driving down some country road in Kentucky and I'll see a horse running like that across a big pasture, faster than any horse should dare to go on slippery grass. I'll know who it is, if I do.