Rachel Alexandra is one of a kind

The filly is special.

No rooting in the pressbox. It’s a rule.

I wasn’t.

In the pressbox, I mean.

I wasn’t … rooting, either. That’s not what that guttural whoop was that involuntarily leapt out of the depths of my chest and exited from my throat without sanction from the central nervous system.

You’re a professional, but you’re a human being, too, so the tension of watching the closing milliseconds of the Woodward from the winner’s enclosure at the Saratoga finish line, sandwiched as I was between two TV cameras right on the rail, was enough to force some vocal release. You get swept up with the herd. Anyway, nobody heard me. Nobody could.

Rachel Alexandra, I’m not sure what she is. I know what she ain’t: “She ain’t normal,” jockey Calvin Borel said this week.

No, she isn’t, because teenage girls don’t beat 25-year-old men in pickup basketball, Michelle Wie doesn’t win PGA Tour events.

And this wasn’t Billie Jean King holding the net for Bobby Riggs to scissors his pale, bony knees over.

It was an owner and a trainer reading their thoroughbred, the equivalent of a female teenager, and deciding that she had done so much already that the only thing left to discover was how she could stack up against seasoned, accomplished male horses, an animal that instinctively runs in herds and isn’t inclined to let others pass on the right or left.

“I don’t know if you saw it, but she looked like she was only a 3-year-old, with those horses,” owner Jess Jackson said.

This is what I saw in the weeks leading up to the Woodward: Following Steve Asmussen as he walked out to the Oklahoma training track in the dark at 5:30 a.m. two Mondays ago, I saw light reflecting off long puddles on the track. Asmussen begrudgingly sent Rachel to the main track for her work that day.

Not part of the plan, the painstakingly deliberated plan. Rachel didn’t give a whit.

I saw Rachel school in the paddock on Thursday, calm as ever, pushing off her toes as she walked around the ring. I’m no expert on the visual aspect of horses, stuff like conformation and such, I couldn’t even tell at first glance if a horse had crooked legs, for crying out loud, but you can see things like balance and effortless power.

Just watching her walk reminded me of the only time I’ve seen Michael Jordan play. He was easy to spot from the nosebleeds in Boston, because he glided wherever he wanted through the mishmash of action and seemed to anticipate everything.

That’s Rachel.

This is Rachel, too: What struck me the most when she finished the long, slow gallop past the adoring clubhouse crowd toward the winner’s circle was how dramatically her sides were heaving.

Macho Again did that to her, but so did Da’Tara and Past the Point and Bullsbay, all of these tough, tough guys.

This is Rachel, too: First, a rabbit, then, a lion.

She took it out and showed everybody the way in the Woodward, then held off the inevitable onslaught down that excruciatingly long stretch. At the three-sixteenths pole, I thought they had her; at the eighth pole, I thought she was good to go; at the sixteenth pole, uh-oh (here comes Macho Again).

At the wire … release, relief, you name it. Astonishment.

When was the last time Horse of the Year was wrapped up on Sept. 5?

This is Rachel, too: as Jess Jackson stopped to watch the replay in the clubhouse moments after the winner’s circle celebration, a woman from co-owner Harold McCormick’s group, dwarfed by Jackson, walked up next to him and was engulfed in his arm, tears welling up in her eyes.

“You’re making me start crying because you’re crying,” another woman said.

Over in the jockeys’ quarters for the post-race press conference, a little kid in a Yankees cap hanging on the fence said, “Rachel rocks.”

There’s the inevitable inclination to make historical comparisons to greats like Ruffian, but the fun thing about Rachel Alexandra is that she’s outrun the competition so thoroughly that Jackson and Asmussen have to explore all options, regardless of age and gender. “Rachel’s only half-defined so far,” Jackson said this week.

He’s promised she’ll race next year at 4. You’re welcome to come along, if you can keep up.

Categories: Sports

Leave a Reply