NEW ORLEANS -- Rachel Alexandra was Horse of the Year in 2009, but before a packed house Saturday at Fair Grounds, all eyes trained on her 2010 debut, Rachel was not the horse of the day, going down to a three-quarters of a length defeat at the hooves of Zardana in the inaugural running of the $200,000 New Orleans Ladies.
The defeat put in some doubt Rachel Alexandra's participation in the April 9 Apple Blossom Invitational at Oaklawn Park, trainer Steve Asmussen said shortly after the Ladies.
"If I thought she'd get beat I wouldn't have run her today," Asmussen said. "We'll have to be cautious. We want to do what's right for the mare."
Rachel Alexandra had been on accelerated schedule all winter in an effort to make the Ladies and use this race as a springboard to the Apple Blossom and a potential race against champion Zenyatta, who won her comeback Saturday at Santa Anita in the Santa Margarita. She had made all her scheduled works, packed just six days apart since early February, but her major breeze for Saturday's race, on March 13, did not go as planned, producing a slower time than Asmussen wanted. And in the end, it would appear, Rachel Alexandra came up short Saturday.
Asmussen and Calvin Borel walked tightly together all the way from the winner's circle to the jockeys' room, which Borel entered without speaking to the media.
Later, he told Fair Grounds publicity officials that Rachel had gotten tired.
"She needed the race, that's all," said Borel. "She needed the race more than anything."
That assessment was echoed by Asmussen, who blamed himself for Rachel Alexandra's defeat.
"The filly's lacking fitness," he said. "It was my job to have her there, and I didn't do it."
Zardana, making her first start on dirt since being imported from South America, and winning for the first time on a dry dirt track, ran well in victory. Breaking outward and into Unforgotten, Zardana was taken in hand by David Flores, settling in third as Fighter Win, urged to the lead, set splits of 23.84 seconds for the first quarter, and 47.72 to the half. The half-mile split was especially fast, since the second quarter of the 1 1/16-mile Ladies was run into the teeth of a strong wind, and Rachel was no more than a length away from the leader there. Earlier on the card, a high-level allowance race at the same distance produced a half-mile split of 49.15 seconds.
Rachel Alexandra, who handled herself well while being saddled in front of a noisy crowd, broke alertly and tracked Fighter Wing's pace all the way to the second turn. There, Borel gave a glance back, and let Rachel Alexandra roll to the lead.
Borel said he rode to instructions, and would have preferred to have let Rachel take the lead earlier.
"I wanted to go on past the speed horse early," Borel said. "I'd have got by her anytime and my filly could have gone on, but they wanted me to wait and not get into her until the sixteenth pole."
When Borel made his initial move, Flores let Zardana out a notch, too, and past the three-eighths pole, midway around the far turn, Zardana attacked aggressively to Rachel's outside. She drew even with Rachel Alexandra as the two horses straightened away, but Rachel Alexandra, cornering slightly better than her opponent, regained the advantage.
"I thought she was going to pull away from me," Flores said.
Instead, Zardana quickly came back on even terms with Rachel Alexandra, pushing past her inside the final furlong, and gradually edging clear.
"She's a very strong filly, as small as she is," said Flores.
Zardana, owned by Arnold Zetcher and trained by John Shirreffs, stopped the timer in 1:43.55, and paid $21 to win. Unforgotten finished third, more than 11 lengths behind Rachel Alexandra, with Fighter Wing fourth, and Clear Sailing a distant last of five.
Rachel Alexandra is far from the first Horse of the Year to lose the first start of the next season. And Borel said she went down fighting Saturday.
"You know how I know she's a real racehorse? She was beat when that other horse went by her, but she didn't quit," he said. "She dug in and fought right back and stayed with the winner the rest of the way. That's the kind of racehorse she is."