Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Roaring 'Road and Ravenous Rachel

Though the field for the Travers diminished exponentially this week when it was announced that Rachel Alexandra would be pointed toward the Woodward with older horses, and today's announcement that Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird would miss the Travers thanks to a spot on his recently opperated-on epiglottis, the race will still be a momentus one.

I'll admit, my true objective for Mine That Bird to be in the Travers field was sort of a vengeful one. I spent weeks handicapping the Kentucky Derby to pick three horses I thought stood a chance, and narrowed it down after careful consideration who I would deem "my Derby horse." That horse didn't end up making it into the Kentucky Derby, or any of the other Triple Crown races, thanks to the same problem that almost kept Big Brown out last year: quarter cracks. Obviously, I'm referring to Quality Road. Yes, I wanted Mine That Bird in there, the beaten hero as he is, to be collared by the horse I felt should've won the Kentucky Derby in the first place.

But since the Derby winner will be skipping Saratoga's signature race for 3-year-olds, that still leaves plenty of other formidable opponents in the field with impressive resumes for Quality Road to check off his list. His biggest competition, in this handicapper's opinion, is Summer Bird. The Belmont winner showed a different dimension when he dared to run against form in a bid to keep rocketing Rachel within striking distance in the Haskell, running off the pace instead of from behind horses, which has proved most effective for him in the past. What was most impressive was that Summer Bird was able to maintain the quick pace and battle a game Munnings for second place in the 1-1/8 miles test. So it stands to reason, given this new show of flexibility and maturity, Summer Bird will try the same tactic in the Travers to keep the Road within his sights.

Quality Road can run on the lead, off the pace, or from the middle of the pack, as he showed in the 6 1/2-furlong Amsterdam. He has set track records in the last two races of his career. He's never gone around two turns and let a horse get in front of him (watch a replay of the Florida Derby when Dunkirk tries this going around the far turn and how Quality Road pours it on). Yeah, I'd say he's got it in the bag. Kensei did not pick a soft spot in avoiding his stablemate, Rachel Alexandra. Pointed away from one monster, he's running smack-dab into another one.

And what about Miss Alexandra? Now being targeted toward her first start against not only older horses, but against older males, Rachel Alexandra is attempting to become the first female winner of the Woodward at Saratoga. It's actually an unprecidented, historic gesture for a 3-year-old filly to be going up against this division in the middle of the summer, a plot worthy of the history books before she's even run in it; but she may not get the welcoming party she deserves.

It appears she is scaring the old men, as well as the boys: Asiatic Boy, the winner of the UAE Triple Crown, who was second to Curlin in the Dubai World Cup and the Stephen Foster, is picking up his bags and hopping on a train to California to face Einstein in the Pacific Classic instead of the 3-year-old filly. "Nobody really wants to face Rachel Alexandra these days, and to think we have to give her eight pounds is a little tough on us older boys," said Asiatic Boy's trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin. “She’s beat everybody that’s gotten in the gate with her this year... Luckily, I haven’t gotten in the gate with her and don’t look forward to getting in the gate with her with Asiatic Boy. She’s a great filly. The word ‘great’ is thrown around too often in our industry, but to me she’s one of the great ones and she’s great for the sport, and it's nice that Mr. (Jess) Jackson chose some of these spots to show how great she is. He said he’s hoping to run her next year as a 4-year-old, and that's nice to hear, but I don’t look forward to running against her ever, with anything.”

So who will Rachel be facing? Right now, the field looks pretty pale in comparison to the Travers. Macho Again, who has yet to be very consistent, but did win the Stephen Foster when Einstein was locked in traffic, may be her biggest threat; there's also Bullsbay, Cool Coal Man, It's a Bird, and oh, how can we forget--DA'TARA?! But let's face it, right now, there are no dominating older dirt horses. At the rate horses with balls and any kind of track credentials are being retired, that leaves little competition in the division. Honestly, who would you try to beat Rachel Alexandra with? Her biggest threats are in the breeding shed. We may very well see a Woodward that hands over the trophy to a capable filly simply because no one wants to take her on. If Jackson is looking to send her against a formidable dirt horse, I can only suggest taking on Einstein after he wins the Breeders' Cup. (Did I just say that aloud?) But, nevermind, he's heading for retirement after the Classic, too.

Anybody overseas listening? We want your champions. Our filly is hungry.

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