Ask Derek Jeter about Yankee Stadium. Ask Mark Messier about Madison Square Garden. Ask Rachel Alexandra about Monmouth Park.
Ask those athletes what it’s like to perform in front of a packed house of adoring fans – what it’s like to look into the stands and see hundreds of signs with their names on them.
It’s a rare athlete who can make an impact on an audience – a rare athlete who can elicit such emotion from a group of people.
Derek Jeter does it every night in the Bronx. Mark Messier did it for 10 years in front of the Rangers faithful. And Rachel Alexandra overcame an afternoon thunderstorm and the eventual 3-year-old champion to do it last year on Haskell Day.
If you had to label a “home track” for superstar filly and Reigning Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra, it would probably be Churchill Downs – the site of her 20 ¼-length Kentucky Oaks triumph last season.
But it’s hard to envision a bigger home track advantage or a more thunderous ovation than the one given to Rachel last year on Haskell Day.
Signs read, “I run like a girl…try to keep up.” T-shirts read, “Girls rule, guys drool. Go Rachel.”
The crowd that attended the 2009 Haskell came to cheer on royalty. Rachel Alexandra had won three consecutive Grade 1 races, including becoming the first filly in over 80 years to win the Preakness.
Maybe it was the fact that she beat the Kentucky Derby winner on national television. Maybe it was the filly versus the boys angle. Maybe it was charismatic jockey Calvin Borel.
Whatever it was, the Steve Asmussen-trained filly packed Monmouth Park with racing fans and Rachel fans alike.
There were lines for “Run Like a Girl” t-shirts. After every race, there were people asking Borel for autographs, which he graciously signed. And when Rachel won the Haskell – soundly defeating eventual Champion 3-Year-Old Summer Bird – the crowd reaction was simply electrifying.
The second Rachel crossed the wire, she became a Haskell legend. She joined Hall of Fame member Serena’s Song as the only fillies to win Monmouth’s biggest race. And the Monmouth Park fans were sure to convey their gratitude.
Spurred on by an exhilarated Borel, the loyal Monmouth Park fans – not at all hampered by earlier torrential downpours – serenaded Rachel Alexandra into the winner’s circle with a heroine’s welcome.
Saturday, Rachel Alexandra returns to Monmouth Park for the $400,000 Lady’s Secret Stakes. She returns a Haskell Champion and a Horse of the Year.
There will inevitably be catchy t-shirts and flashy signs. There will be autograph seekers and picture requesters. There might even be a celebrity or two.
Maybe it’s because Rachel’s a filly. Maybe it’s her personable jockey.
Or maybe Rachel Alexandra is one of those rare athletes who can impact an audience – an athlete who can entertain, energize and inspire all at the same time.
One thing Monmouth Park fans know for sure: she’s back.
Brad Thomas’ Thursday Theories
While the Haskell Invitational has been renowned for its importance in helping to define the 3-year-old crop since its first running in 1968, its history also provides hard examples of the evolution of handicapping theory.
In 1981, the notion of track bias was just beginning to creep into mainstream horseplaying. The Haskell had a 6-horse field, but the race really boiled down to a battle between 1980 Juvenile champion Lord Avie, a true stretch-runner, and up-and-coming speedster Five Star Flight, who figured to make a clear early lead and then pray for the wire.
After morning training had ended and the gates were opened that August day, the dirt surface was manicured with far greater intensity than for a normal racing card. The tractors just went around and around. Later in the day, the competitive action verified any speculation the course was super speed-favoring. If you believed in biases, Five Star Flight simply could not lose. He didn’t – as an 8/5 overlay in essentially a two-horse race.
In 1982, late-developing Midwesterner Wavering Monarch shipped in to challenge established East Coast stars Aloma’s Ruler and Linkage, who had finished first and second respectively in the Preakness. A few years earlier, his one-mile workout in something like 1:35 and change notwithstanding, Wavering Monarch would have been dismissed at 4-1 or 5-1 in the face of such name-brand recognition.
But the age of speed figures had arrived and enough people now used them to make the colt a close, 5-2 third choice on the basis of his big numbers versus average fields. Wavering Monarch was monstrous in overcoming a tepid pace and very wide trip to wear down Aloma’s Ruler and jockey Angel Cordero, Jr.
By 1985, historical trends were becoming popular tools for handicapping human sports, but not so much horse racing. That soon would change.
In 1974, Little Current ran in the Haskell off a 56-day layoff following his Belmont Stakes score. He lost (2nd) at even-money.
In 1983, Slew O’ Gold competed in the Haskell off a 49-day respite following his second-place finish in the Belmont. He finished 6th at even-money.
This was an era in which recency was a positive and top trainers honed their horses to a sharp point through intense racing action. Brief layoffs were something that had to be overcame, rather than being the building-up advantage they are to today’s super trainers.
In 1983, old-school conditioner Sonny Hine’s Bet Big raced at Bowie two weeks before the Haskell and finished second at 55-1, by a diminishing neck, to Preakness winner Deputed Testamony.
In 1985, Spend a Buck was the .70-1 Haskell favorite despite a 61-day layoff following his gut-wrenching Jersey Derby triumph. The second longest shot on the board at 35-1 was the Hine-trained Skip Trial, who had last competed two weeks previously at Bowie. The confluence of two trends yielded a $73 upset.
In 1982, trainer Woody Stephens took the Belmont Stakes with the physically brittle (By 1980’s standards – today he’d be called an iron horse!) Conquistador Cielo a mere five days after the colt romped against older horses in the Metropolitan Mile. Indeed, running back even top-level horses super quickly was a common practice back in the day. Many live Belmont Stakes contenders “prepped” in the Met, and the Derby Trial, once upon a time contested on the Monday before the Derby, was routinely used as a final sharpener by Calumet-owned stars.
In the early years of the Haskell, four victories had been running back on 10 days or less of rest. The last such Haskell champion was 11-1 Wise Times (eight days), who was conditioned by Phil Gleaves – then a young Woody Stephens protégé. After 1986, no other Haskell winner would ever be returning in 10 days or less. Ah, modern racing – less, apparently, isn’t always best.