With no more worlds left to conquer in the 3-year-old filly division, the connections of Rachel Alexandra must seek out new challenges - and challengers - in order to obtain their ultimate objective of winning Horse of the Year.
It appears as though they found just that in Sunday's $1.25 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.
Eleven weeks after defeating Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird in the Preakness Stakes, Rachel Alexandra meets Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird, the intriguing multiple stakes winner Munnings, and four others in the Haskell, the centerpiece of a 14-race card that begins at noon Eastern. Post time for the Haskell, the 13th race, is 6:15 p.m.
Rachel Alexandra, owned by Jess Jackson's Stonestreet Stable, is trying to become just the second filly in the 42-year history of the race to win the Haskell. She is also trying to become the first 3-year-old filly to beat males twice in major stakes in the same year since Serena's Song won the Haskell and the Jim Beam in 1995.
"When she won the Preakness," trainer Steve Asmussen said Friday morning at Saratoga, "[Jackson] talked immediately how he would run her against the boys this year, and this is the time and the place."
Rachel Alexandra has won all six of her starts this year and seven in a row overall. With the 3-year-old filly championship sewn up, Jackson and Asmussen would like to see the filly be considered for Horse of the Year, an award Jackson and Asmussen won the last two years with Curlin.
"To be involved with Curlin and the horse he was and the things he was able to do for us - he was unique in many ways," Asmussen said. "And to be able to follow that up with Rachel, it's a tremendous opportunity and one that we respect greatly, and it kind of goes along with Mr. Jackson thinking out of the box to a degree."
Jackson sought and received a $250,000 purse increase from Monmouth officials to ensure proper competition for Rachel Alexandra. Summer Bird and Munnings were coming regardless of the purse increase and could provide stiff competition to Rachel.
Summer Bird won the Belmont Stakes in his fifth career start. Munnings has won his last two starts - graded stakes at seven furlongs - with speed figures that rival Rachel Alexandra's. The question is whether he can do it at 1 1/8 miles around two turns.
"I'm confident he'll run to the best of his capabilities," said Todd Pletcher, trainer of Munnings. "I'm just not sure if the mile and an eighth is his best distance. He's got a good foundation to him, he's in great form, and it certainly seems like the right time to step up and find out. Obviously, he's going to have to run a superior race to compete with the filly."
The early stages of the Haskell should be interesting. While Munnings has rated kindly in his last two wins, the fractions were much faster than they figure to be in the Haskell. Rachel Alexandra won the Preakness in front-running fashion, but rated nicely under Calvin Borel when she won the three-horse Mother Goose by 19 1/4 lengths in 1:46.33, both stakes records.
In the Haskell, Rachel Alexandra drew post 6, two slots outside of Munnings, giving Calvin Borel, aboard Rachel Alexandra a slight advantage over John Velazquez, the rider of Munnings.
"Enough can't be said of Calvin to have that kind of confidence in her, it's quite obvious he's got the most confidence in her mentally as well as physically," Asmussen said. "It might come in extremely handy going forward."
Summer Bird emerged as a contender for 3-year-old male divisional honors with his 2 3/4-length victory in the Belmont Stakes. Trainer Tim Ice added blinkers to Summer Bird's equipment for that race and the horse was much closer to the pace than he had been in his previous races. Ice said he sees the Haskell as a race where his colt can validate that performance.
"I don't think it's a two-horse race, I think there's going to be plenty of pace up front for me," Ice said. "I look forward to running against her and finding out what my colt can do."
Papa Clem beat Summer Bird in the Arkansas Derby and finished ahead of him in the Kentucky Derby. Papa Clem finished third in the Long Branch -- the local prep for the Haskell -- and will be running at the same track twice for the first time since March.
Atomic Rain won the Long Branch and is 3 for 4 at Monmouth. He had a sore foot earlier in the week, but returned to the track Thursday and his new connections -- he was purchased by Godolphin Racing after the Long Branch -- are hopeful of making the race.
Duke of Mischief and Bunker Hill fill out the field.
The Haskell is the final leg of a pick four with a guaranteed pool of $250,000. The card also features a 50-cent pick five on races 5-9 with a guaranteed pool of $50,000. Haskell caps will be given away with paid admission, though the admission prices are higher Sunday than normal. Grandstand admission is $5 (compared with $3) while clubhouse admission is $8 (compared with $5).