Belmont Stakes Handicapping: Rachel Alexandra To Run in the Belmont?
by Trevor Whenham - 05/20/2009
I would not want to be Jess Jackson right now. The owner of super filly Rachel Alexandra faces a very tough decision - what should she do next? She's the hottest commodity in horse racing, and one of the hottest in recent history. That means that there are infinite options open, and almost infinite demands on her time. Jackson spent a not-so-small fortune to buy the horse two weeks ago, so he has to balance what is best for the horse, the sport, and his investment.
What most people seem to want to see is a rematch between Rachel Alexandra and Mine That Bird in the Belmont Stakes. The connections of the horse haven't given any specific indications one way or the other about her next destination, so all you can do is speculate. Let the guessing game begin.
What's the upside of heading to the Belmont? She would become the first filly ever to win more than one classic, and she would be virtually impossible to beat for Horse of the Year - another horse would have to do something truly spectacular in the second half of the year to beat her. That's obviously attractive, especially because Rachel Alexandra is already booked to be bred to another horse that Jess Jackson owns - Curlin, the Horse of the Year the last two years.
There's just one problem - what if she doesn't win? Mine That Bird has proven himself to be impressive, but he's still not widely viewed as a world-class horse - he's still less than three weeks away from being a 50/1 Derby entrant. No one else in the likely Belmont field is an elite horse right now. Rachel Alexandra is the real and perceived class of the field. If she were to run and lose then her myth would be greatly tarnished. That would especially be the case if Mine That Bird were to beat her convincingly. Given how fast Mine That Bird was closing at the end of the Preakness, and how easily he handled the Derby distance, there is a very good possibility that the plucky gelding could beat the filly over the longer Belmont distance. A convincing Mine That Bird win would put the gelding well ahead of the filly in the Horse of the Year race.
Horse racing is ultimately a business. Jess Jackson bought the filly for a lot of reasons, but an unavoidable one is to make money. He reportedly spent as much as $10 million for the filly, so he needs to maximize his return. That makes me think she won't run in the Belmont. If she was a colt then my opinion would be reversed. A colt can be bred dozens of times a year, and a second Classic win would allow the owners of the colt to charges tens of thousands more for each breeding. A filly can only be bred once per year, so the upside of another win is less, and would be more than offset by the negative impact of a bad loss.
Rachel Alexandra has had five races in 13 weeks. The Belmont would be six races in 16 weeks. That is a heavy workload for a horse of this caliber. Combine that with the fact that the Belmont is the longest race that any horse in the field is likely to ever run and you have a serious test. There's a chance that the Belmont - even if she wins - could set her back for the summer racing season. There is a lot to look forward to for the filly this summer. She could take on the boys again in one of the big summer races - the Haskell or the Travers. She could challenge Zenyatta, a four-year-old super filly. That would be an epic battle. She could find another race on the synthetic surface to prepare for the Breeders' Cup - maybe even a shot at the Classic. A rest now would set her up better for any of those options than the Belmont would.
There's another factor, too - ego. Jackson and trainer Steve Asmussen have just taken over this filly. That means that they get little credit for what she has done right since she was sold, but they would get all the blame if she were to take a misstep. Both men have reputations that are very important to them, and I suspect that protecting those reputations is more important to them than taking a risky shot at the Belmont.
As a racing fan there is nothing I would like to see more than a rematch between the Derby and Preakness winners in the Belmont. Putting myself in Jackson's shoes, though, I would definitely have to hold her out and wait for a better spot. No one is particularly going to blame him for doing that, and it would allow him to manage her year so that she is always at her best and in positions where she has a clear edge. There are too many reasons to believe that that edge isn't as big as it should be in the Belmont, so from an owner's perspective prudence should outweigh any desire for a spectacle. Those involved in horse racing at the highest levels are generally very cautious with their horses, and this is a case would caution would indicate a clear path.