LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Today’s sixth race is the most interesting one on the 12-race Kentucky Oaks card at Churchill Downs. It’s more compelling than the Oaks, the marquee race for 3-year-old fillies.
That’s because Rachel Alexandra is running. The 2009 Horse of the Year needs to win the $400,000 Grade II La Troienne at 1 1/16 miles and, if you ask me, she needs to win it big. Rachel began her career with a loss in the New Orleans Handicap on March 13 at Fair Grounds but, it wasn’t her fault.
Her connections rushed her to that race, hoping that her talent would win out over her lack of conditioning. They were hoping she would then advance to the $5 million bonanza called the Oaklawn Handicap in Arkansas against the great Zenyatta.
Rachel Alexandra, in a file shot, in her stall at Churchill Downs last fall.
Of course, Rachel lost in New Orleans and the dream matchup never happened. The horse that beat Rachel, Zardana, is here today to try and beat her again.
Steve Asmussen, Rachel’s trainer, says his 4-year-old filly is in much better shape for this race. He expects her for run like Rachel ran last year when she was whipping off eight straight wins and beating colts three times. The New Orelans race was her first since winning the Woodward Labor Day weekend at Saratoga.
After that, she rested for the winter and didn’t get back into training until late January.
“We talked about how hard she ran last year and giving her the time and letting her stay at Saratoga,” Asmussen said. “At every stage, we were noticing something. Now, she is four and she is a lot different than last year. She is heavier, which makes her stronger but, ,she also has to do more to be fit because there is more of her to do it with. I see a bigger, stronger mare but she hasn’t proven to be as fast yet as she was last year. We’re hoping to see that Friday.”
Rachel is 3-5 on the morning line in the six-horse field and she will carry high-weight of 124, the most she has ever had to carry. Zardana, who is trained by Zenyatta’s John Shirreffs, will carry 120.
If Rachel wins, there is no guarantee the next stop will be against Zenyatta, the only female to ever win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But it would be a step towards that. First, though, she has to get through this.
“Zardana is like a pit bull, she is tough and tries very hard,” Shirreffs said.
When asked if he would like to see a race between Rachel and Zenyatta, Shirreffs shrugged.
“We will see how things develop,” he said. “I am certainly a Rachel fan and I think she is brilliant. The way Rachel has been training, you would expect her to show up.”
Asmussen said he is not looking behind Friday’s sixth race, which has a post time of 1:26 (when have you ever seen a horse of Rachel’s star power run at 1:26 in the afternoon?).
I expect Rachel will win, maybe not like she did last year when she won the Oaks by a record 20 1/4 lengths, but a convincing win. Then, maybe everyone will start talking Zenyatta-Rachel again for sometime down the road. If we don’t see a big performance, then we’ll never be talking about it again.