Monday, May 18, 2009

The Day After: Still Raving About Rachel

As the field of $7,500 claimers raced into the stretch in the fourth race May 17 at Churchill Downs, there was a familiar sight for the crowd at the Louisville track: jockey Calvin Borel took Sun Button to the rail in the stretch and went on to win the six-furlong race.

For Borel, who the day before had ridden filly sensation Rachel Alexandra to an impressive victory in the Blackberry Preakness Stakes (gr. I) at Pimlico Racecourse, it was just another day at the office.

“These (types of horses) are the ones that got me here; that’s why I’m here,” said Borel, the unassuming Churchill-based jockey who not only won the Preakness the previous day, but did so with a one-length victory over Mine That Bird, whom he had ridden to a 50-1 upset in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) two weeks earlier.

View our 2009 Preakness Stakes slideshow.
Borel and Steve Asmussen, who took over the training of the Medaglia d'Oro filly less than two weeks earlier after Jess Jackson and Harold McCormick purchased the winner of the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I), both took time out from their daily business at Churchill to meet with the media. During the interview, the pair could not contain their euphoria over Rachel Alexandra’s performance the previous day.

“She’s one of a kind,” Borel said, noting that the filly overcame a lot to win the second leg of the Triple Crown. “If she had gotten beat yesterday, I would not have been disgusted. She was racing against the best horses in the country and it was over a track she didn’t like.”

Borel said the filly had to stand in the gate an unusually long time as Big Drama threw his rider and had to be reloaded in the Pimlico starting gate. When the gates opened, Rachel Alexandra stumbled slightly before Borel settled her into the lead in the 1 3/16-mile race. Finally, Borel said the track was looser than the filly prefers, since the Pimlico maintenance crew did not water it as much as normal because they had been expecting rain prior to the race.

“Yesterday, you did not see the real Rachel Alexandra,” Borel said. “She struggled so much over the track. But she showed what she’s made of. She got the job done. God knows what’s next.”

Asked about his reaction to his success over the last two weeks – winning the Derby, Oaks, and Preakness – Borel credited the improved quality of horses he is getting a chance to ride.

“I am riding so good (right now), it’s scary,” said Borel, adding that his recent successes have been due to owners and trainers giving him better horses to ride. “I always knew I had the potential to get here, but I just needed the horses. It’s been unbelievable. I am riding at the best of my ability right now.”

Asmussen was equally bullish in his praise of Rachel Alexandra, noting, “She ran an incredible race. We are extremely proud of Rachel Alexandra. She is truly a special horse in her own right. He (Jackson) was correct in his assumption she could handle the boys.”

The trainer, who also conditioned two-time Horse of the Year Curlin for Jackson and Midnight Cry Stable, said he was concerned that Rachel Alexandra was on the lead as the Preakness unfolded with fast early fractions. In the end, however, the filly won as a result of her ability and Borel’s ride.

“The only reason she won was because she was good enough and because Calvin gave her a chance to win,” Asmussen said.

The trainer said Rachel Alexandra left Baltimore early Sunday, May 17, and was back in her Churchill Downs barn by noon. He said she recovered from the race without any problems, but was non-committal about a possible start in the June 6 Belmont Stakes (gr. I).

“I don’t think there is the sense of urgency now that there was yesterday,” Asmussen said.

He added that he believes Rachel Alexandra is the front-runner for Horse of the Year honors and that the rest of her 2009 campaign will be structured around solidifying that status.

Asmussen said a decision on whether filly will be pointed toward the Belmont will be made as a result of an evaluation on how she came out of the Preakness. He said the filly will return to the track for some light exercise May 20, and would have her next workout May 25.

As he has throughout the last two weeks, Asmussen gave credit to Hal Wiggins, who trained the Oaks and Preakness winner up until she was sold.

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