The words of Mr. Wilkin

I didn’t think that I would write about Rachel Alexandra’s retirement. What was I going to say?  That I was surprised? (I wasn’t.)  That I found it odd? (I didn’t.)  That I disagree with the decision? (I don’t.)  That I’m disappointed? (I’m not.)

Panegyrics have appropriately flooded the media, lauding the first three-year-old filly Horse of the Year since 1945, the first filly to win the Woodward, the first filly to win the Preakness since 1924.  Rachel Alexandra was first in a lot of categories, including a lot of racing fans’ hearts.

In the fall of 2008, my two-year-old filly of choice was Sara Louise, who was, until March of this year, most famously the last horse to beat Rachel Alexandra, in the 2008 Pocahontas at Churchill.  By the time Rachel Alexandra hit my radar screen, in the spring of 2009, she was already a Big Thing.

To my own discredit, I was one of those who couldn’t get beyond the circus to the horse. First it was the opprobrium heaped on trainer Hal Wiggins and owner Dolphus Morrison for believing that Rachel Alexandra should race in sex-restricted company. Then it was the Jess Jackson show: a filly with a bodyguard who once told fans that baskets of flowers were deliberately hung in front of Rachel Alexandra’s stall to “protect her privacy,” who told a fan who wanted to take a picture that sure, it was fine, “but please don’t come any closer than that,” “that” being about 20 feet away, and on the wrong side of the flowers.

It was pre-dawn workouts and a trainer who wouldn’t—or couldn’t?—say anything definitive about his star filly. It was gamesmanship and celebrity, even as Rachel Alexandra was accomplishing on the racetrack what none of us can ever hope to see again in our lifetimes.

I didn’t want to be a part of the circus. I didn’t want to get up at 5:00 and join the throngs at the Oklahoma—though I did, once, at the behest of some friends…oh, and friends?  Thank you for making me do that.  I didn’t want to hang around and wait for quotes that didn’t say anything. So most of the time I didn’t, and maybe I was cutting off my nose to spite my face, a habit ingrained since childhood, according to the stories of Mama Backstretch.

It didn’t bother me that Rachel Alexandra lost this year. Good horses, even great horses, lose. It’s fine. It’s OK.  In five starts this year, she’s got two wins and three seconds.  She’s made a boatload of money. It’s OK.  Good horses, even great horses, lose.

And it doesn’t bother me that she’s retired, either. Racing fans might want to see her keep racing, but she’s not our property, and the risk of her value decreasing is too great to keep her on the track. She won’t be what she was—who on earth could be?—so get her to the shed before she can lose again. The economics of the racetrack tell us it makes sense.

So I wasn’t disappointed when I heard that she was retired, and I wasn’t going to write about it. I still, you see, don’t want to be a part of the circus.

Then I read this:

So, I was up at Saratoga this afternoon… paid a visit to Rachel Alexandra… standing outside her stall, she stretched her neck to within inches of my face… assistant trainer Scott Blasi said “She is looking for candy.” I had none. Rachel showed immediate disinterest and paid me no mind… neat, neat horse…hopefully I can get back up there and get her a mint before she leaves

The wonderful Tim Wilkin, turf writer of the Times-Union, wrote that on his Facebook page yesterday.  And for the first time, at least for me, there she was, Rachel Alexandra the horse, not the phenomenon, reaching out to visitors for expected treats. She wasn’t a superstar or a pampered celebrity; she was just a horse who wanted some candy.

I’m sorry that I never got to see her that way. Certainly, part of it is my fault, and part of it is because of the perhaps-necessary citadel that surrounded her. Of everything that I’ve read in the last 48 hours, Wilkin’s words about the magnificent filly, the words that made her homely and horsy, are the ones that touched me the most, and will make me miss her.

Rachel Alexandra at Saratoga after the Personal Ensign.  Click on photos to enlarge, and here for an album of my Rachel Alexandra photos from Belmont and Saratoga.

20 thoughts on “The words of Mr. Wilkin

  1. Agree that the economics push her towards retirement, but it’s not b/c she’s decreasing her value — it’s because there’s nothing left that she can reasonably hope to accomplish that would increase it, so you might as well lessen the risk of injury and move on. She’s not going to win the BC Classic, and she’s not going to repeat as HOTY. She’s already won a pile of G1s, thrashed her own sex and generation, beaten boys three times, and won HOTY. Unlike colts, whose value is based in large measure on buzz, the value of broodmare prospects is based more directly on their accomplishments; nothing she’s doing this year diminishes what she accomplished last.

  2. Very nice tribute to the great filly. In the end, they’re all horses who like sweets 🙂
    I’m disappointed, I am one of her fans who would have liked to see her hit the track one more time, but as you pointed out, the risk outweighs the reward there. My biggest disappointment is that once again, I missed the opportunity to see one of my favorite “stars” run, and worse (to me anyway) as a broodmare I will probably never see her in retirement.

    I should have listened to my friends who urged me to make the trip to Saratoga 😉

  3. How sad that you missed the thrill, the glory of this once in a lifetime filly who did the phenomenal in 2009. I’ve watched racing many years and have never seen anything like her.

    It seems you couldn’t see the forest for the trees , and that’s a shame , but you found the real horse in a way few can , so that’s nice for you.
    I’m sorry she’s retiring , but I hope it’s best for her and racing , in that foals will come soon.
    Thanks for your column , I enjoyed it.

  4. Well from my perspective that puts Rachel on the too-long list of the immortal ones I never got to see in person.
    Secretariat, Affirmed, Genuine Risk, Ruffian, John Henry, Alysheba, Barbaro… list, unfortunately, keeps growing.

  5. Teresa,

    Thank you for putting into very eloquent words what turned me away from Rachel, too. The circus, the keeping the fans at bay (a sad necessity in this age), and the lack of conviction about her abilities this year made her a non-story for me. I’m happy she is retired sound and I hope she makes some beautiful, talented babies,

  6. It was a very nice article Teresa, very poignant when all the hoopla has died down.

    However, we never got a straight enough explanation of what may have happened. One minute she was training, preparing for the Beldame, doing well, putting in bullet works for a race less than a week ahead. Then, the announcement that was retired. Sorry but, Jess Jackson has no class. He may have a lot of money and, he may own a lot of good horses but, as far as I am concerned he has no class. For him to have no level of awareness that a lot of fans of thoroughbreds consider them to be “our equine champions.” We may not own them, or be able own them, or be lucky enough to select the right one. But, we form an emotional attachment or connection to our “heroes” just the same. Our hearts swell with their display of talent and courage. We feel so good when they succeed, almost as if we had something to do with it. We get upset when something goes wrong or, they get injured.

    It was obvious that Rachel never returned to her level of performance that she demonstrated last year. She was retired but, the public and her fans could have been given a more specific explanation of what the issue(s) were. I don’t think it was too much to ask for, to allow us her fans to understand, to be able to process a little better why she is no longer around. We all recognize that things happen, sometimes the ones we don’t want to happen. Yep, “That’s life”, we are told. We, generally, come accept the reality of what has occurred but, we do look to make sense of it all, to try and understand, in order to process the loss. I’m sorry but, Mr. Jackson’s horses show way more class and a level of awareness that he is ever likely to. I never really had an opinion concerning Mr. Jackson before but, I do now. And, it is not a good one. As I related earlier, he has a lot of money but, he has no class.

  7. August Song: “Sorry but, Jess Jackson has no class. He may have a lot of money and, he may own a lot of good horses but, as far as I am concerned he has no class.”

    When Jess and his wife Barbara Banke stop donating money to both equine and non-equine charities, I’ll agree with you. Until then…..

  8. Stuart, I believe having money and making donations are not the issue or the problem here, either in regards to Jess Jackson or anyone else. Donations can be wonderful tax write-offs, especially for people afflicted with having a lot of wealth and, the need for our government to collect taxes on everybody’s money. So much money, so many choices of where to give it. It’s not as altruistic as you might think. Hell, I even make donations to equine and non=equine charities, too. No, the classless issue of Mr. Jackson, I suggest, cuts right to the bone. It’s how he operates and makes people feel, like Theresa’s description in her story, “Then it was the Jess Jackson show.” It’s his actions, the way he treats people, or causes them to be treated and, how he makes them feel that cause me to deem him classless. I am not alone in my feeling. As I related before, I had no opinion about him previously.

    I am a horse owner and, I have never, ever heard or seen one horse have an individual body guard. I hope Jess Jackson never has another prominent horse. I hope that someone who has one doesn’t make the mistake of selling him one, either. It would be such a waste and, we would all have to endure some more of Jess Jackson’s classless behavior.

  9. Bobbie, Marg, DJ: Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Regardless of how one felt about Rachel Alexandra, it is testimony to her importance to that sport that she evokes such strong feelings.

    Linda–way to GO, Ernie!

    August: As Stuart notes, Jess Jackson and his wife have been very generous donors to charities, including the Belmont Child Care Association, on whose board I sit. I can say with certainty that he and his wife donate because they believe in the work of the Association and because they want to support the children of Anna House. Ms. Banke has spent time there with the children, and I do think it’s unfair to cast aspersions their work and commitment.

    And I certainly didn’t mean for “the Jess Jackson show” to imply that I think that he’s classless. I have had almost no first-hand experience with him, so he’s never made me “feel” anything, or treated me any way.

    Did I find the way he manages his horses at times frustrating? Yes. But I make no comment on his character.

  10. Geez, AugustSong and Haskin all in a lather. Saying we should “have been given a more specific explanation of what the issue(s) were”.

    First, the last two years Jackson has brought the reigning HOTY back to the track. I think that’s pretty cool.

    Whaddaya think the “issues” were? She showed she didn’t want 10 furlongs. So, no BC Classic and no chance for an Eclipse Award. What’s left? The Beldame and Ladies Classic.

    Asmussen: I think she’l run big in the Beldame.
    Jackson: The Beldame? I could give a rat’s a–!

    I’m not saying those aren’t important races, but they obviously don’t mean much to Jackson. Did you expect him to say that in a press release pissing off you, NYRA and the suits at the Breeder’s Cup?

    What’s wrong with retiring the reigning HOTY and rewarding her “with a less stressful life”?

  11. Here Here ljk! I don’t feel like I am owed an explanation other than what has been said. Rachel did what no other 3 year old filly has ever done, and her connections are well within their rights to retire her at their discretion.

    We could have another whole discussion on Zenyatta’s retirement and unretirement last year as being unfair to her fans….

  12. I would say that I, and most fans, did not have any issue with Rachel being retired. Her connections are not stupid, and probably had very good reason(s)for making their abrupt announcement a few days before her scheduled start in the Beldame. Obviously, there was a problem. People asked a reasonable question, “Why exactly?”, which is not a difficult question. Afleet Express did not run in the Jockey Gold Cup on Saturday. The connections had the incredible ability and “class” to explain to the public and Afleet Express’ racing fans his injury, wanting to give him some time off and, their hope to bring him back as a 4 year-old. Wow, amazing huh? So simple, yet so difficult for those, who just a few minutes earlier, were trying garner our attention, telling us why she was so good and how well she was coming up to the Beldame race.

    As far as Jess Jackson bringing Rachel back as a 4 year-old, I suspect it has the most to do with Jess Jackson’s ego and nothing else. He has a lot of money. He can buy some expensive “toys” like Curlin and Rachel. Others worked and dreamed all their careers and lives to get horses like these that come along, maybe once in a lifetime. Who do you think appreciated these superlative creatures more, a man with a checkbook like Jess Jackson with his controlling elitist manner, or the former owners, who spent their life trying to get one? Money can be nothing more than a commodity, a tool for some people. I suspect for Jess Jackson it is nothing more than his way of trying very hard to control people and situations. Teresa, I believe Jackson’s behavior speaks volumes, whether he actually says anything or not. And, that includes whether he makes donations. He convinced a lot of us that he doesn’t care. It’s all a facade. It’s all about ego, all about pretentions. I am not alone in my thinking.

  13. August, just a couple of quick points. Rachel Alexandra was never scheduled to start in the Beldame. In the weeks before the race, no one connected to her said that she would run in it. It was a logical spot, and many people assumed that that’s where she’d go, but she was never scheduled to run last Saturday.

    I was there during the Asmussen phone call; he was on speaker phone, and he conveyed that he was not in a position to comment, and that he was not going to. He was actually quite funny about it, and his comments elicited several rounds of laughter.

    Here’s a longer discussion about Tim Wilkin’s article, including some comments about what, if anything, the connections of a horse owe the public.

    I think that integrity will matters to a good deal of us; I guess it just takes different forms.

    LJK and Linda, thanks for weighing in with other opinions.

  14. “Rachel Alexandra was never scheduled to start in the Beldame.”

    Teresa, in the expanded Wilkin post that inspired your delighted post above, Scott Blasi said —

    We had her prepared for the Beldame.”

    It’s true that Jackson never sent out a press release formally announcing she was a probable for the race, but apparently even the guy who spends 10 hours a day with her, and is in a position to know what’s planned for her, thought she was possible for last Saturday.

    • Robert: You’re welcome. Wilkin is an upstate turf-writing treasure, and like you, I’m glad that, thanks to his internet work, his writing is finding a larger audience.

      Thanks for chiming in, Jessica. I guess for me it’s a matter of semantics, maybe a difference between pointed to and being scheduled for?

      Edited upon further thought: “Never scheduled” was much too categorical a phrase. I should have said that the race had never been publicly targeted, and that while, as I said originally, the spot made sense and many people assumed that she’d go in it, there was not much about Rachel Alexandra’s 2010 campaign that one could take granted.

      Thanks for the impetus to go back and look at my wording.

      And for the record, as I wrote in the post that you reference, it was Wilkin’s Facebook update, not that Times Union piece, that inspired it. Funny that you see the post as delighted; I felt, and meant to convey, resignation and regret.

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