There were no excuses this time. Not a single one. Rachel Alexandra, fit and supposedly ready after her stunning defeat in the New Orleans Ladies, came up short again Friday. This time it was in the La Troienne at Churchill Downs, where she finished second behind an undistinguished Grade 3 winner named Unrivaled Belle.
Rachel Alexandra is no longer the same horse.
There was no other possible conclusion to come to after she was outfought in the stretch Saturday to lose the Grade 2 race in her second start this year. This first time out, her connections could at least argue that they had to rush to make the Fair Grounds race and they didn't have last year's Horse of the Year quite ready. Since then they have had nearly seven weeks to fine-tune her and get her right for a race everyone thought and hoped would get her back on track and, perhaps, ready for a showdown with Zenyatta.
Considering that Rachel Alexandra could not have had a better trip, she was, if anything, worse Friday than she was in March. She prompted a very slow pace Friday and took over after a half-mile had been run in :48 4/5. Never in her entire career had she gone that slowly during an opening half-mile, and it was a big advantage over her rivals.
She couldn't clear the field, but she should have had plenty left in the tank when Unrivaled Belle came to her. At the point at which she was supposed to start spurting away and draw off to win by a dozen lengths, she instead found herself locked into a fight with the other filly. The Rachel Alexandra of 2009 would have buried this horse. The Rachel Alexandra of 2010 was beaten by a head.
What's wrong? That's something trainer Steve Asmussen will have to figure out, but the best guess is that, for whatever reason, she has lost a step. It happens.
Two of the best female runners of modern times, Winning Colors and Lady's Secret, ended their careers on down notes, like old prizefighters hanging on too long. Winning Colors was 2-for-7 in her 4-year-old year, winning just an allowance and a small stakes at Turfway Park. Lady's Secret went from Horse of the Year to an over-the-top 5-year-old who managed just two allowance wins in her final year of racing. Curlin -- from the same connections as Rachel Alexandra -- clearly wasn't the same horse at the end of his career as he was before his trip to Dubai.
Perhaps Rachel Alexandra's historic 3-year-old campaign -- in which she was 8-for-8, won at seven different racetracks and beat males three times -- was simply too much for her.
"I think there's some hangover," Asmussen said after the La Troienne.
Here's just one more reason Zenyatta is so amazing. She never has a bad day. She's in her fourth year of racing and is a perfect 16-for-16 with more wins surely to come. What a horse.
Asmussen said afterward he didn't want to rush to any conclusions so quickly after the race, telling reporters: "We don't need a knee-jerk reaction." But he and owner Jess Jackson will have to quickly make some tough decisions about the filly's future. They could probably get through the year and probably win a few races, maybe even some big ones at least big ones that don't include Zenyatta. But what would be the point of that?
Rachel Alexandra set the bar so high last year that anything less than another extraordinary campaign would be unfitting and tarnish her legacy. No one, not even the Zenyatta zealots, should want to see that. Maybe Asmussen will find some very sound reason to expect he can bring Rachel back, but that's unlikely. The prudent course will probably soon become obvious to Asmussen and Jackson, and Rachel Alexandra will be retired. That sure seems like the right thing to do.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.