BALTIMORE - MAY 16: Jockey Calvin Borel riding Rachel Alexandra defeats Mine That Bird ridden by Mike Smith and Musket Man ridden by Eibar Coa at the 134th Running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course on May 16, 2009 in Baltimore, Maryland. The 2009 Horse of the Year was retired today by owner Jess Jackson. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
I've had a bit of time to digest the Rachel Alexandra retirement announcement and, sadly, my thoughts are pretty much the same as they always are when I hear about a top class horse heading off to the farm: disappointment. I ended up writing a bit more than I had intended but here's the Cliff's Notes version if you're in a hurry: this retirement, while not unexpected, is the continuation of a maddening trend in horse racing.
I want to get one thing out of the way right off the bat: I get the fact that the owners put tons of money into the game and that they can decide where their animals race, when the race, when they are retired and for what reason. The owner pays the bills and it's the owner's call; I get it and so do many, many others in the game. They can do what they want, it's their horse. But what the owners and connections should also understand is that they are not going to get a lot of sympathy from the racing public when top class race horses are prematurely retired. (Yes, I believe Rachel's retirement is premature.) Whether it's Rachel Alexandra, Sea The Stars, Zarkava, or any number of other healthy thoroughbreds, retirements are a blow to the enthusiasm of the fans of this game, fans who also put their money into the sport.
If this turns out to be a retirement due to physical problems, then I retract anything I've written in this post. But according to news reports covering the Rachel Alexandra retirement announcement, nothing is physically wrong with this filly other than the fact that she's not running as consistently and at as high of a level as she did in 2009. She's raced five times in 2010 with two wins and three seconds and was recently beaten by an allowance class horse, Persistently, in the Personal Ensign. But while she's clearly not the same filly as she was in 2009, it's not like Rachel Alexandra is embarrassing herself - she's still one of the better fillies in the country. Just yesterday she fired a bullet work at Saratoga.
Turning to the general issue of retirement, let's be clear about some of these retirements: they are not about money. Zarkava is owned by HH Aga Kahn IV and Rachel by Jess Jackson. Last time I checked, neither of those two is hurting for parking meter change. When we look at retirements of healthy horses I think there is a difference between owners who barely scrape by for years and finally cash in on a great runner, and those that are able to spend millions at auction. Is this a double standard? Probably. But it's also the truth.
Retirements due to injuries are one thing. They are frustrating to no end (as we've seen too many times in recent years) but we eventually come to accept it. If the horse is hurt, the horse is hurt. Injuries shed light on other issues within the sport but you can't fault owners that retire a horse that is suffering from physical problems. Retirements due to ego...well, that is something else all together.
I'll admit that I was enough of a pessimist to believe that Rachel was going to be retired back in May after she lost the La Troienne by a head to Unrivaled Belle. The connections, however, surprised me and stated they wanted to keep racing her and that she was in good physical condition but just hadn't rounded back into form. I liked that response from Jackson and Asmussen. I liked the fact that they were going to continue to race Rachel Alexandra even though it was becoming evident that she wasn't the filly she was in 2009. People wanted to see this filly run and the connections were going to oblige that.
Fast forward to today's announcement where the recent runner-up of a Grade 1, a perfectly healthy filly and one that hasn't finished worse than 2nd in any race in a long, long time, is retired. Jess Jackson's quote regarding Rachel's retirement stated that they wanted to give her "a less stressful life". I wonder if this move is about Rachel's stress levels or the stress levels of the connections?
Rachel Alexandra is a thoroughbred race horse - she was bred to run. Her sole function in life, and that of all thoroughbred horses, is to run. It's not to stand in a paddock and play with a ball. It's not to stand in a field in eat grass. And it's not to give rides to little kids at birthday parties. The sole function of the thoroughbred is to run.
We humans breed these animals to be great runners and then, if we've been successful and produced a truly great horse, we deny them the ability to do the thing that we created them to do. Unless a horse is showing signs that they doesn't want to race at all anymore (and I don't know that running 2nd is that sign for Rachel, maybe it is), retirement is a cruel fate. Retirement is a denial of what a horse is made to do.
I think most of us knew that Rachel would not race in 2011 and that she was coming up on the final one or two races of her career, so why the retirement now? Are the connections really that afraid of her losing a race? Why not run her in one more prep and then a final race in the Ladies' Classic at Churchill Downs? Even if she were to not win either of those two races would that really diminish her legacy? It's my opinion that it would not. As I noted earlier, it's not like she's finishing up the track when she's lost races. Rachel has lost three times in 2010 by a little more than 1 3/4 lengths...combined. It's one thing if this filly was showing no desire to run but that's clearly not the case. The only thing she's shown is that she's not at the same level as in 2009.
I suppose the moral of the Rachel Alexandra story, and the story of thoroughbred racing today, is never hope for a great horse to come along because it's unlikely they'll ever be given the leeway to drop below their level of excellence. Perhaps that's too jaded of an opinion - it probably is. But it's also the result of retirement after retirement of top class horses.
For Rachel Alexandra, I wish her many happy years on the farm and a sincere "thank you" for a phenomenal campaign in 2009. We can debate the Horse of the Year voting, race strength, surface, and all the other issues that have dominated the racing world over the past year and a half, but we can't deny that Rachel was a star in a sport that yearns for stars at every opening of the gate.