SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Approaching the quarter pole of Sunday's Grade 1 Personal Ensign Stakes
at Saratoga, Rachel Alexandra, who had led throughout, edged away from her pace-pressing rival Life At Ten. Still, her jockey, Calvin Borel was worried.
And, as it turned out, for good reason.
When Borel asked Rachel Alexandra to accelerate in the stretch, she continued going along at the same pace. Meanwhile, Persistently, under Alan Garcia, was moving at a slightly faster pace, collared Rachel Alexandra inside the sixteenth pole, and drew away for a one-length win over Rachel Alexandra in the $300,000 Personal Ensign before a crowd of 23,347. It was 10 1/4 lengths back to Life At Ten in third.
It was the third loss for Rachel Alexandra -- the reigning Horse of the Year -- in five starts this year. And it confirmed many people's suspicions that she is not the same horse who went 8 for 8 last year, beating males three times.
"She isn't exactly where she was last year and hopefully she can get back there," said Steve Asmussen, trainer of Rachel Alexandra.
It was apropos that the winner, Persistently, a 4-year-old daughter of Smoke Glacken, is owned and bred by the Phipps Stable and trained by Shug McGaughey. That same owner/trainer combination campaigned Personal Ensign to a 13-for-13 career record in the 1980s.
This was the fourth victory in this race for the Phipps family and McGaughey. It is the second time they knocked off a Horse of the Year. In 2004, Storm Flag Flying beat 2002 Horse of the Year Azeri in the Personal Ensign.
"It's very special," McGaughey said.
This was the first stakes victory for Persistently, who as a 2-year-old finished second in the Grade 2 Matron and Grade 1 Frizette, but had not run in a stakes since. She was coming off a second-level allowance win over this track on July 30 and was being considered for the Molly Pitcher at Monmouth Park, also run Sunday.
"Mr. [Ogden] Phipps made the decision," McGaughey said about running here. "He said 'It's coming up a short field, I'd rather run here. I think she's a true mile and a quarter horse.' "
Rachel Alexandra had never before run 1 1/4 miles, though she did win last year's Preakness at 1 3/16 miles. Breaking from post 2 under Borel, Rachel Alexandra went to the front and was stalked intently by Life At Ten, who was within one-half length of her through splits of 23.66 seconds, 47.73, and 1:12.02.
Approaching the quarter pole, Borel had yet to ask Rachel Alexandra for run while John Velazquez was beginning to ask Life At Ten.
Asmussen was beginning to feel pretty good at that point.
"That was what you were hoping to see today, then she got ran down late for whatever reason," Asmussen said. "I'm very disappointed that she lost but I'm always very happy with Rachel. It hurts to lose and you're disappointed for it. But if that's the case just think how happy she's made you and all the things that she has done for us."
Garcia came into the stretch thinking he could get second but "when I saw at the eighth pole she was keeping at the same pace I think I had a shot to keep going and pass her and she did."
Persistently covered the 1 1/4 miles in 2:04.49 and returned $45. The last quarter of the race went in 26.95 seconds.
"The last eighth of a mile she did not finish," Borel said. "We must have come home in 14 [seconds]. that's not her. I was calm, cool, collected til the quarter pole. She was going good after that, that was it."
The loss most likely ended any thoughts of Rachel Alexandra running in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Asmussen was asked if Rachel Alexandra would run again this year and said he would leave the decision up to owner Jess Jackson.
Jackson, who did not attend the race, issued a statement about the result, but not her future.
"We are disappointed in the result, as we are sure her countless fans are, but we are certainly not disappointed in her," Jackson said. "She is still a superstar in our hearts and minds. The old sports adage applies ... on any given Sunday, anything can happen."