The first time I ever saw Rachel Alexandra was on April 30, 2009 at Churchill Downs. It was Thursday morning, the day before the Kentucky Oaks. It took less than 30 seconds for her to convince me I was looking at a creature unlike anything I’d ever seen with my own two eyes.
I’d been waiting with my husband and Steve, a new friend we met at the morning works, on the landing at the winner’s circle. I was giddy with anticipation in the hopes of getting my first glimpse of Zenyatta, and Steve, a Churchill regular and great racing fan, kept telling us, “I can’t wait until you see Rachel.” And that morning, the big track screen in the infield announced her arrival for one last jog before the Oaks, and we drew in our breath as she came circling around that hallowed bend toward us. Words fail me when I try to accurately describe that moment, so I can only throw out similes and metaphors in the hopes of relating what it was really like to be there on that morning and see her.
Time stopped. Now, it may have continued to cluck on the watch of those clockers up in the stands, but for those who saw Rachel Alexandra gallop past the mostly-empty grandstands on the way to the finish line, she may have well as been traveling through her own wormhole, a flickering image out of some stratosphere none of us had ever been to before. She didn’t look like just another horse. She looked like a hurricane wrapped in horseflesh. The poor exercise rider on her back was working in vain to restrain her, the muscles in his arms bulging as she pulled against the bit with a furious hunger. You could hear her thoughts in the pound of her hoofs, “Let me go. Let me go. Let me go.” She wasn’t galloping so much as fighting down the stretch against her restraints—but she wasn’t like a rank horse caught up in a cavalry charge—this was a filly lunging in the pure joy of being allowed to stretch her legs, ravenous to run.
And during that moment when time itself ceased ticking to ogle at that filly bulleting down the track, everything else fell away. Nothing existed but her. Witnesses of Rachel Alexandra that morning felt the instinctual goose bumps of being in the presence of Greatness. True Greatness. The sort of vintage Greatness you only read about in books or watch on grainy film reels. She flashed like a bolt of lighting, leaving us thunderstruck in the wake of her brilliance. And she continued to do so throughout the year.
I could literally write a book on my love affair with Rachel Alexandra. Serendipitously, the first of my photos ever published by ESPN was of Rachel winning the Kentucky Oaks, with Calvin Borel forever frozen in the image of raising his index finger to me at the 1/16th pole. That will always be Rachel Alexandra’s indelible image to me. As a 3-year-old, the bay filly with the birthmark in the middle of her blaze did things no other female her age had accomplished on modern record. Since the first day I saw her, each time she left the gate she destroyed one record after another, like a missile devastating anything in its path. She broke the hearts of boys and men, crippling some of her rivals to the point they’d never recover. The best of these she ever beat was the first horse since Easy Goer in 1989 to win the Belmont Stakes, the Travers, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup in the same year. If Summer Bird was a throwback to the classic winners of all-time, Rachel was nothing short of a demigod, akin to Heracles, the mortal warrior son of the god Zeus.
I won’t go over the numbers and repeat her accolades, as they have been covered countless times in this column and the mass media. If you’re just now entering the game, all I can do is extend my condolences. You missed the ride of a lifetime.
Though she didn’t break any records, and she suffered three defeats during her brief 4-year-old campaign, Rachel never embarrassed herself. As became her trademark, each and every time she ran, she dove into the fray like a champion, guts on the line, never letting her competition get away with blind robbery. The pressure she put on these foes squeezed them dry. Of the three fillies who defeated her in 2010, every one of them bounced after facing the girl with the broken blaze. It was as if her will to win strangled them, so that if they should pass her, they were haunted by those bulging eye-whites ever after. How ironic it was that Life at Ten, the last filly Rachel ever laid out on the gauntlet, was ground into submission in the Personal Ensign, only to coast to victory her next time out against two of those same foes who defeated Rachel. Watching the Beldame, it was hard not to envision Rachel Alexandra in that race, leading them all to the wire in a perfect move of revenge.
But instead of running in what would’ve been her most exciting race of the year, Rachel left the race track for the last time after firing a bullet workout that Monday morning before the race. Retired without injury, yes, but retired without warning on the cusp of what might’ve been her great comeback performance. Retired out of fear, most likely, that she would not win against the fillies who had beaten her already. Retired for lack of faith.
I was lucky enough to witness Rachel Alexandra work twice at Saratoga this summer before the Personal Ensign. I stood along the rail of the Oklahoma training track, watching her fluid movement in those early morning hours, and felt blessed to be in her presence one more time, knowing full-well I may never get a chance to see another like her again. On those mornings, Rachel didn’t look like a horse going through the motions, ready to be retired. Though she was not quite as ferocious coming down the stretch as that Thursday morning before the Oaks, lunging like a banshee on the bit, she was still Rachel—full of fire, full of grace—wanting, simply, to run.
I’m sorry, Mr. Jackson. I’m not ready to say good-bye to Rachel Alexandra. Maybe I never really would’ve been, even if it had been announced prior to her last start. But at least then I would’ve been able to prepare myself for it. I could’ve let the reality of it settle in as I watched Rachel come battling down the track one last time. Instead, I had to find out from a message on my phone, and had to pull over my car to avoid getting into a wreck as a product of my shock.
Princesses get fairytale endings, but I guess demigoddesses do not.
When Heracles died, Zeus made him into a god. At least we have the peace of mind in knowing that Rachel’s conquests have immortalized her for all time.
To relive Rachel Alexandra’s past performances, see her profile on Horse Racing Nation’s website.
To view a slideshow Jamie’s Rachel Alexandra pictures, click here.