LOUISVILLE, KY. — — Rachel Alexandra, winner of the 2009 Kentucky Oaks and the 2009 Preakness, was hoping to return to form in Friday's $400,000 La Troienne Stakes at Churchill Downs, the site of her most impressive victory. When she ran here a year ago and won by 201/4 lengths, it seemed as if she were untouchable and possibly the best 3-year-old in the world.
But Rachel's 4-year-old campaign has been a different story. Despite going off as a 1-5 favorite, she didn't look like the super horse we saw a year ago, getting beaten by a head by Unrivaled Belle after a spirited battle.
That's two straight defeats for Rachel, who no longer seems to have that extra gear that enabled her to pull away from the field last year. Jockey Calvin Borel had her in good position, on the rail in the final turn and in the lead, but Unrivaled Belle (5-1), ridden by Kent Desormeaux, ran with her stride for stride, then inched ahead at the finish.
Zardana, the horse many expected to give Rachel a race, was never in contention and finished fifth.
Rachel just isn't fast right now and hadn't been fast all week in workouts, trainer Steve Asmussen said after the race. "She's just not been as fast as last summer," he said. "She ran a good race, but not a great race. She does carry a lot more weight.
"Calvin did absolutely nothing wrong today. I thought he got along with her great today. There's an old adage in racing: ‘You get paid for what you do, but you pay for what you do.' I think there's some hangover."
Asmussen said it's too soon to speculate whether Rachel Alexandra might be headed to the breeding shed.
"What we have to realize is there has been improvement since her last race," Asmussen said. "We don't need a knee-jerk reaction."
Rachel Alexandra's owner, Jess Jackson, dismissed retirement talk entirely.
"She's not going to retire," he said.
Earlier this year, Rachel Alexandra seemed poised for a showdown with Zenyatta, an undefeated filly who might be the most dominant thoroughbred in racing. But when Rachel Alexandra was knocked off by Zardana at the New Orleans Ladies, her handlers pulled her from a matchup with Zenyatta in the Apple Blossom and gave her time off to get back in shape.
Jackson said he still believes his horse will race against Zenyatta someday.
"Of course, but she's not ready," Jackson said. "After a six-month layoff, you don't ask a horse to come back [at 100 percent]. ... She needs another race or two under her belt, I think, before she's back."
Blind Luck wins Oaks
Blind Luck didn't dominate the Kentucky Oaks as many expected, but her performance was a thrill Friday as the 6-5 favorite came storming from behind to nip Evening Jewel at the wire in what will likely go down as the most exciting finish of the week.
Blind Luck, ridden by Rafael Bejarano, was off the pace for much of the race and looked as if she might not win. But Bejarano took Blind Luck to the outside, then slowly made up ground, and the two fillies ran neck and neck down the stretch, the lead changing with every head bob. In a photo finish, Blind Luck won by a nostril.
"I knew she was going to kick for me and show me that run," Bejarano said. "She always does. She tries so hard. The stretch here is very long, but she kept trying hard until the end. She never stopped trying. She's amazing."
Even though Blind Luck has the reputation as a closer, trainer Jerry Hollendorfer conceded that he was a little nervous. And he wasn't sure, until the results were made official, that Blind Luck really had won.
"It was tense for a few minutes waiting, but I thought we got it on the head bob," Hollendorfer said. "A great ride by Rafael got her there."
Drug testing update
This is the second year in a row the Kentucky Derby is screening for steroids, and though that seems like the right thing to do in the eyes of many outside the industry, not all the trainers think it's best for the horses.
The screening for steroids was put in place after the 2008 Derby, when trainer Rick Dutrow acknowledged that he had been giving Big Brown a regular, and then-legal, injection of stanozolol. Kentucky banned the drug. And while there seems to be general agreement that getting rid of anabolic steroids was the right thing, potentially regulating corticosteroids is a much bigger gray area for most trainers.
Todd Pletcher, who has four horses in this year's Derby and a degree from Arizona in animal science, said he thinks the blanket statement that all drugs are bad, or an attempt to cheat, is misguided.
"We have to look at every angle and everything we can do to make sure horses stay healthier longer," Pletcher said. "It's a delicate balancing act. Some science is good. Some medications are good. I think there is a misconception that we're trying to create an edge or do something illegal. That's not what we're doing. We're trying to keep the horse out there and performing at a high level over a long period. I think we have to be careful of classifying everything as a negative."