It took almost twelve hours after I met Rachel Alexandra for the name Mine That Bird to pop into my head.
Saying that feels uncouth now, but would seem absurd to me a few years ago. For so long, that’s the only context in which I thought much about Rachel Alexandra, that horse who beat Mine That Bird in the 2009 Preakness.
I was following horse racing peripherally, at best, when that happened. I kept enough of an eye on the sport to care about the Triple Crown races, but nothing else. I was captivated by the story of Mine That Bird, a 50/1 shot who shot up the rail so stealthily that not even the announcer had any clue that he had made that rally until he was home free.
As compelling as the “filly against the boys” narrative was in the Preakness three weeks later, since fillies so rarely face males in this country, the longshot story grabbed me first and hardest. I wanted the 50/1 shot not to be a fluke. Yes, Mine That Bird ran valiantly to be second, but Rachel Alexandra was the horse who beat him.
Two weeks later, after a more estival kind of Bird won the Belmont, horse racing flew out of my consciousness for another 47 weeks. I missed Rachel’s easy Mother Goose win, her romp over boys in the Haskell, and her triumph over men in the Woodward.
Thanks to replays, I know those deeds. I know about the Rivalry That Never Was, how Rachel vs. Zenyatta will always be a contentious, unsettled question among racing fans. I know her place in horse racing history, but it was not something I lived through firsthand.
By the time I met Rachel Alexandra, I had connected her to something far more positive than my original impression, yet far more concrete than something I had only learned from replays.
Jess’s Dream is Rachel Alexandra’s son by Curlin. Like Rachel, Curlin is another Preakness winner, and another Hall of Famer whose other racetrack exploits I only know through replays, articles, and conversations with people who followed the sport during his career. My deep personal interest in Curlin only came through following his babies: Palace Malice, Solar Maximus, Keen Ice, Captured, and so many others who have made horse racing such a compelling sport.
Jess’s Dream had so much expectation sitting upon him as the son of two Horses of the Year. He worked, he worked…but hopes to run him at two (before the Curse of Apollo would strike!) were all in vain. He worked, he worked…yet had not raced by the time American Pharoah won the Preakness, the same Classic both his sire and his dam won.
Near the end of the Saratoga meet last year, Jess’s Dream finally entered a race. Scratches came out; he did not scratch. He came out of the gate; he had no speed. Things looked hopeless until they didn’t.
It was a maiden special weight at Saratoga, not the Preakness. But? To wait so long for him to start, to spend so much of the race dreading that he would not fire, and then see him at the wire first? I cried, and cried, and cried. The wait was worth it. Jess’s Dream had done it. Rachel Alexandra and Curlin had produced a real racehorse.
Unlike so many others who made the pilgrimage to Stonestreet Farm yesterday to meet Rachel Alexandra, my best memories of her did not come from her racing days. Even my sour one from that era was nice enough to hold off for a few hours.
As I admired her class, her sass, and her soft bay coat, I thought a bit about her place in racing history. But being up that close to a horse — even a great horse — is a personal experience, tending to inspire memory more than history. More than anything, I am grateful to her for producing Jess’s Dream: the source of such anticipation, and of such a moving moment, in my life as a horse racing fan. Her genes and her time as a broodmare were part of it, but her greatness as a racehorse had much to do with it as well. If Rachel Alexandra had not been Rachel during her racing career, so fast and so beloved by so many, her son would not have inspired such anticipation. There are many Curlin babies, but none who have brought such collective effervescence as hers.
Thank you, Rachel Alexandra.