Horse racing is usually reserved for the boys -- at least on the track
Only 22 fillies have run in the Belmont Stakes, and just three of those entrants have won the event (most recently, Rags to Riches in 2007). In fact, only 11 fillies have won Triple Crown races in the history of thoroughbred horse racing.
When a filly steps into the winner's circle at either the Kentucky Derby, Preakness or Belmont Stakes, it generates a buzz throughout the sport. Casual horse racing fans are drawn in by the novelty of a female triumph in a male-dominated sport, and women in particular seem to feel an added sense of pride.
It was a blistering day at the Jersey Shore on July 24th, 2010. With temperatures approaching 100 degrees, many spent their day on a beach, boat or boardwalk. Horse racing fans, however, paid a visit to Oceanport's Monmouth Park...as one of the world's most famous fillies was slated to compete.
A hot July day at Monmouth Park
Rachel Alexandra, the 2009 Horse of the Year and winner of the 2009 Preakness Stakes, was entered in the $400,000 Lady's Secret Stakes. For the 12,859 in attendance, the race itself wasn't important. It was simply a chance to witness a thoroughbred rock star...one that captivated the hearts and minds of those who watched her race against -- and beat -- the big boys of the sport.
Rachel Alexandra (#5) was heavily favored for the Lady's Secret Stakes
An overwhelming 1-9 morning line favorite, Rachel Alexandra was expected to cruise to victory on the same track where she won the Haskell Invitational during the previous year. Gamblers who were seeking a payday did not even bother to look in her direction...while those who picked her to win essentially wanted a souvenir betting ticket, above anything else.
The champion filly makes her appearance in the paddock area
Roughly one hour before the featured 11th race, Rachel Alexandra and her team of helpers strolled into the paddock area. A large crowd was already beginning to gather, looking to catch an up-close glimpse of the muscular, chestnut-brown bay filly.
Seemingly accustomed to all the attention, Rachel Alexandra stood patiently in the #5 stall as she was fitted for her saddle. On the other side of the fence, many fans snapped pictures and complimented the horse's elegance. Some even wore hats and t-shirts bearing her name.
Rachel Alexandra seemed unfazed by the attention
Once trainer Steve Asmussen had the saddle and padding securely in place, Rachel Alexandra stepped out of her stall to parade around the English Walking Ring. It was about 15 minutes before post time, and the crowd in the paddock area continued to swell.
Parading around the paddock area
Jockey Calvin Borel, who rode Rachel Alexandra to her Preakness triumph, met his horse at the Walking Ring. As a two-time Kentucky Derby winner at that point, Borel had assembled a reputation of being one of the world's best at the mount.
Jockey Calvin Borel takes the reins
As the seven horses competing in the Lady's Secret Stakes meandered around the paddock area, the "Call to the Post" was played by the Monmouth Park bugler. From there, the horses marched -- in numerical order -- along the pathway from the Walking Ring to the track.
Despite the large crowd, Rachel Alexandra remained calm, sauntering confidently toward the track. Borel, wearing a mustard-colored helmet and mustard-and-brown shirt, displayed a similar expression. He stared forward at the track, remaining intently focused on the upcoming race.
Heading to the track for the Lady's Secret Stakes
After reaching the track, the horses broke rank and began jogging on the dirt course, to loosen up for their chance at glory. Given the hot day, the jockeys kept the horses' expenditure of energy to a minimum...and after only a couple of moments, the seven horses began striding toward the starting gate.
Warming up on the track, prior to the race
One-by-one, the fillies and mares filed into the gate. Stage Trick, Queen Martha, Ask the Moon, and Hark started the process. Rachel Alexandra was next, accompanied by cheers from those in attendance. Fabulous Babe and Yes She's a Lady rounded out the field.
The starting gate awaits its participants (Photo courtesy of monmouthcountylife.com)
It was now time for the 1 1/8th mile Lady's Secret Stakes...and the crowd began to cheer before the gates would burst open. You can feel the nervousness in the stands; the anticipation of what may happen next. Some look on through binoculars, while other take pictures. Many in the audience hold their betting slips, wondering if they'll walk home a winner.
Rachel Alexandra steps out to an early lead as the horses break from the gate. The crowd cheers as the participants gallop by on the dry and fast track, heading into the first turn.
At the quarter-mile mark, Rachel Alexandra started to fall back in the field...content with following the pace and making her move late. Queen Martha, rated by handicappers as the 2nd-best horse in the field at 8-1, grabbed the lead.
Rachel Alexandra sits in 2nd place on the backstretch
Queen Martha would continue to lead the other horses on the backstretch. Rachel Alexandra settled into 2nd place, positioned just to the side of Queen Martha's hind legs. In the stands, the crowd of 12,859 collectively began to wonder, "Does Rachel Alexandra have it today?"
Heading into the final turn, Rachel Alexandra and Borel decided to make their move. As Borel cracked the whip, his filly lunged forward with a burst of speed. As they reached the homestretch, Rachel Alexandra was a head in front of Queen Martha! Those who wanted to see her win started screaming with delight.
Rachel Alexandra zooms into the lead
As the horses raced down the stretch, Rachel Alexandra had extended her lead to three lengths. Sprinting with all her might, the champion filly was determined to not relinquish it. The crowd's ovation grew with each step, culminating with a loud "Yeahhhhh!!!" as Rachel Alexandra crossed the finish line. On this day, a legend lived up to her billing as a winner.
Rachel Alexandra and Borel finished the 1 1/8th-mile course in 1:49.78, three lengths ahead of Queen Martha...and several lengths in front of the 3rd place finisher, Ask the Moon. Those who bet on Rachel Alexandra to win received $2.20 on a $2 bet.
A celebratory Calvin Borel
Immediately after the race, Rachel Alexandra received a cooling sponge bath on the track. The scorching summer heat can take a toll on thoroughbreds, but all of the fillies and mares emerged from it without trouble.
The winner gets cooled down after the race
Following an appearance in the winner's circle, Borel appeared at the trackside broadcast location of TVG, which was at Monmouth Park to cover Rachel Alexandra's race. During the interview, Borel spoke glowingly of his horse...talking about the stretegy he had for the race, and how she made it a success.
Borel sits down with TVG after the race
Rachel Alexandra's place in horse racing history is etched in stone -- one of 11 fillies to win a Triple Crown event, and the 2009 Horse of the Year. The bay filly would be retired in September 2010, almost two months after racing at Monmouth Park. As it turns out, the Lady's Secret Stakes was her final victory.
When there is such a large target on your back, it is not easy to live up to the hype...just ask the 2010-11 Miami Heat. Rachel Alexandra came through on that hot July day at the Jersey Shore, giving those who were in attendance a story to tell for a lifetime. They saw her race -- and win.
Rachel Alexandra wins for what would be the last time