Friday, March 12, 2010
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Great Article from Daily Racing Form:
Fair Grounds | Posted 3/10/2010, 5:39 pmPrint
Tight schedule adds a hurdle for Rachel
By Marcus Hersh
Barbara D. Livingston
"I thought her 2009 campaign, by the end of it, she was just tired," assistant trainer Scott Blasi said of Rachel.
NEW ORLEANS - As any handicapper knows by now, Daily Racing Form keeps detailed trainer statistics. First-time starters, claimers, blinkers on, so on and so forth. The shorthand for one category is +180 Days - that is, win percentage with horses returning from a layoff of a half-year or longer. Steve Asmussen bats .170 in +180 Days, a good, solid mark.
Just last weekend, on March 7, an Asmussen-trained filly named Songtress made her first start in more than 20 months and won an allowance race by almost three lengths. This weekend, the spotlight shines ever so brightly on Asmussen's skill at readying a horse after a long layoff, with Rachel Alexandra set to make her first start since the Sept. 5 Woodward Stakes on Saturday at Fair Grounds in the New Orleans Ladies.
When Rachel Alexandra heads to the paddock for Saturday's 1 1/16-mile race, 189 days will have passed since the Woodward. That's plenty of time to prepare a horse to run, especially one who went out of action without an injury. But Rachel's connections gave her plenty of rest and recovery after an arduous 3-year-old campaign, and then encountered roadblocks in the form of bad weather once Rachel resumed training. With Songtress, who began prepping for her comeback at training centers before even returning to the racetrack, Asmussen could tinker and take his time. The same formula might have been employed with Rachel Alexendra, until Zenyatta and the Apple Blossom popped into the picture.
On Jan. 16, Jerry and Ann Moss, owners of Zenyatta, runner-up to Rachel Alexandra in 2009 Horse of the Year voting, officially unretired their champion mare. On Feb. 4, Oaklawn Park announced that the April 3 Apple Blossom would be changed from a stakes to an invitational and would offer a $5 million purse if Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta were to start. Late on Feb. 10, Jess Jackson, Rachel Alexandra's majority owner, issued a press release saying that the Apple Blossom came up too soon for Rachel Alexandra to be properly readied. The next day, the $5 million race was back on, rescheduled for April 9. Rachel Alexandra had a major target. And at the time of the announcement, she had all of two timed workouts.
To find an analogy for Rachel Alexandra's post-Woodward September, think NFL off-season. Rachel had battle fatigue. She had raced eight times in 2009, starting Feb. 15 and going steadily through the Woodward. Not only that, Rachel Alexandra had been in racetrack training for a solid year. She had run hard, and she had lost weight.
"I thought her 2009 campaign, by the end of it, she was just tired," said Asmussen's assistant trainer Scott Blasi, who has spent as much time as anyone with Rachel Alexandra.
After the Woodward, and after the Saratoga meeting ended, Rachel Alexandra remained at Asmussen's Saratoga barn. Gone were the crowds, gone was the pressure.
"The month [after the Woodward] was awesome for her," said Blasi, who stayed behind with the Saratoga string. "No reporters, no cameras. We spent the whole month up there. I'd turn her out in a round pen. She's smart. She figured it out, and she wouldn't want to come in. I'd leave her out there, go eat lunch, I'd come back and she'd be out laying down, sunning. I mean, you talk about a horse that absolutely enjoys her time off, it was her. She'd lay down, she'd roll. I'd take her hay and water."
"In mid-October, we moved back to Churchill, but her time till then was about getting to be a horse," Blasi said. "Her whole disposition changed within three weeks hanging out there."
Back at Churchill, and back into the bustle. The stalls at the track in Louisville housed hundreds more horses than had been stabled at Saratoga. Gone was sunshine on her back and slow afternoons. Rachel Alexandra spent more time in her stall. A saddle soon enough got cinched on, a rider legged up not long after that.
"She was definitely heavier, softer, when she came back," Asmussen said. "We tack-walked for quite a while at first."
After walking around the shed row in Asmussen's Churchill barn for several weeks, Rachel Alexandra on Nov. 23 got her first look at a racetrack since she had been led away from the Woodward winner's circle.
"We took her for a little jog around the track once or twice before we left Churchill for New Orleans," Asmussen said.
Rachel Alexandra came to Fair Grounds on Nov. 27, her connections plotting nothing more than a yet-to-be-determined 2010 comeback race.
"Nothing's scheduled," Asmussen told Daily Racing Form the day Rachel Alexandra arrived at Fair Grounds. "She won't work for a long time."
Rain defined December in New Orleans. The airport measured almost 26 inches of rain during the month, a record, and Rachel Alexandra on several December mornings found herself confined to Asmussen's barn. Between rain in December and freezing conditions during this unusually cold winter, Rachel Alexandra missed between six and eight days of scheduled training, Asmussen said.
On Jan. 20, after a spirited gallop, Asmussen said he still wasn't sure whether Rachel Alexandra could be readied for a start during the Fair Grounds meet.
"It's too early to say yet," Asmussen said.
But Rachel had, from the time she got back into training, given her connections positive vibrations.
"She's definitely not a normal horse in that sense," Asmussen said at the time. "Usually when you get started back with a horse after being off that long, they're a little sloppy and slow at first. She was not like that at all."
On Jan. 31, it was time to let the bear out of her cage, though on a short leash. Her exercise rider, Dominic Terry, let Rachel stretch her legs beyond a gallop or a two-minute lick, and Rachel Alexandra worked a half-mile in 52 seconds.
Rachel came back with another work one week later and has breezed every six days since then, an accelerated schedule. She has hit her marks, but not without impediments. Sloppy conditions on Feb. 12 forced the mildest of five-furlong drills; Rachel was timed in 1:03.80. On Feb. 18, a keyed-up Rachel started her work going faster than intended. On March 2, doing the most serious work of her comeback, Rachel Alexandra worked in company for the first time, with a horse named Depaul. This time, the work started off far too slow. Rachel was timed in 1:13.60, but Asmussen had hoped for something faster.
This is the second winter in three seasons that an Asmussen-trained Horse of the Year has regularly worked out on the Fair Grounds track. Curlin was here in 2008, readying for his trip to Dubai for the World Cup. Blasi spent day after day with Curlin, just like Rachel Alexandra.
"She's a special girl," Blasi said. "She's not as easy as Curlin was. She's more giving, more aggressive in her training, not as patient. But she's the most athletic horse I've ever seen. The way she covers ground. The part we have to work on is getting her to show a little patience."
In her routine gallops, Rachel whizzes around the track at a pace much faster than the typical galloper. She's done that since before she came into the Asmussen barn last May.
"We do a lot of walking, just spend a lot of time with her," Blasi said. "You pay attention to how she starts off into a gallop, do everything you can possibly do to make her understand."
Back at the barn, Blasi leaves Rachel to her groom, Javier Espinoza, and lets her do what she wants. Rachel's no rogue, but she will bite, Blasi said.
"I don't mess with her," he said. "I leave her alone. When she's done, that's it. I let her be a horse."
But it's not all horses whose every move inside their stall is monitored via real-time video in her trainer's office - Rachel Cam. It's not all horses whose routine, no matter how mundane, makes news. Yes: On the one hand, this is another horse coming back from a long layoff for trainer Steve Asmussen. There's a protocol to follow, and Asmussen knows it well. But there's only one reigning Horse of the Year. This year, that horse is Rachel Alexandra. Fully ready or not, it is time for her to run.