In my previous post, I wrote of Groupie Doll’s stellar last start and the close of the racing chapter of her life, most likely.

Yet, racing is so cyclical that as one chapter ends there are usually multiple new ones waiting to begin or already underway.

To name a few, both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta now have 2-year-olds. While their training is just beginning, any Thoroughbred that has recently turned two is quite a bit closer to stepping on a track in competition, and to carrying the hopes present in their carefully planned existence closer to fruition. To be sure, those mares’ offspring have huge shoes to fill and may never reach the same heights their illustrious dams did. But the potential to do it is real, and waiting to be tapped into.

Of course, the Derby trail is also getting into full swing, with less than 3 months till the big day. That is an exciting time for any racing fan. This year, several sires have promising runners from their first crop aiming for Churchill Downs. It is intriguing to me to see both Cairo Prince and Honor Code on the Derby trail. Cairo Prince intrigues me the most, on pedigree alone. That has long been what compelled me to like certain horses, until their performance record could speak for them.

But for Cairo Prince, the pedigree aspect is quite unique. He marks the fourth generation from one sire line I have rooted for in the Derby. First it was his great-grandsire, Unbridled (how it seems odd to say that! It was in the very earliest of my memories of beginning to watch racing that I watched Unbridled, yet it still is hard to believe it has been long enough that I have followed his lineage this long. Time flies faster and faster, and it is so often marked by the years of certain horses and races they ran in or won.)

Then there was Empire Maker. He captivated me from the moment I heard of him. So many wanted Funny Cide to sweep the whole Crown that year; it was a great run for his owners and their smaller stable and I was captivated by their story as well, yet I couldn’t deny wanting to see Empire Maker win. So it was a thrill to see him take the Belmont, and reward the faith that he had his name on one of those TC races.

Next was Pioneerof the Nile. He first attracted my attention as a two-year-old, when he was the Keeneland paddock, and feeling a little feisty. No doubt it further interested me he is by Empire Maker, and from there he ended up on the Derby trail. Attending his Derby, my second time there, it was exciting to see him attain the lead briefly right when he ran past our section and to yell him home, though the race belonged to Mine That Bird.

And that brings us to Cairo Prince, who will also be in the gate that first Saturday in May if all goes as planned. I am also intrigued by Honor Code, for his lineage traces back to Serena’s Song, one of the first mares I followed through her career, and by Samraat for his recent determination in capturing the Gotham Stakes, keeping his undefeated record intact.

Then there is the most literal of new beginnings. Both Havre de Grace and Plum Pretty, purchased by Mandy Pope at the conclusion of their race careers, have produced their first foals, within hours of each other. It is just as intriguing to think of what potential they may someday exhibit, as with Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta’s two-year-olds.

Last but not least, Rachel Alexandra’s full sister Samantha Nicole launched her race career February 16th at the Fair Grounds in a maiden special weight. Her trip was a bit troubled out of the gate, yet she still managed to place second with a patient ride by Rosie Napravnik.

Naturally, it is all for her well-known older sister that she has garnered attention since she was born, with a photographer from the Blood Horse capturing her early days romping in the field alongside dam Lotta Kim. It has been interesting to follow her from that time to now. She went through the Keeneland sales ring as a yearling, and that was the first time I saw her in person. The resemblance to Rachel Alexandra is striking. It takes a lot more than that, naturally, to be able to even come close to what Rachel achieved on the track.

But then, in many ways, Rachel was a once-in-a-lifetime horse. Her achievements for a horse of any gender or age were incredible. For a three-year-old filly, they were nearly unprecedented. Whatever path Samantha Nicole’s career takes, I still look forward to following it on its own merits.

Part of me still did a double take seeing video of her in the paddock for her first start. There’s no shaking how much she looks like Rachel. Even while never expecting her to be the next Rachel, that’s an undeniable impression.

In the months and years to come, I hope to be able to see all these horses – from the new foals to Rachel and Zenyatta’s two-year-olds to Samantha Nicole – race in person at least once.

When Rachel and Zenyatta retired, I felt the huge void they left in the racing scene. I have since followed Groupie Doll and Mucho Macho Man and a few others with avid interest. Yet those mares were so captivating, for the first time in all my years of watching racing, I wanted the feeling they gave me when they ran to remain. I will always love the sport. It’s in my blood and soul. But those mares tore through so many expectations and raised the bar so high, even in emotional investment and not just all they did on the track, that it was hard to shake. It was unusual. Even in the days of watching Cigar run, the first truly big horse I was captivated by, when he retired it was just life as usual and racing goes on and as long the love for the sport is there, picking up new horses to follow and root for was effortless. They filled the space that had been occupied by Cigar and willing him to win time after time.

It’s got to be standard practice, for everyone from horsemen to handicappers to fans. One race ends, you turn the page to the next. One career concludes, you get invested in the next crop to hit the track. You pick your favorites. You follow them as long as interest lingers or as long as their careers last.

I’ve done that time after time. Yet something just feels different since those mares retired. There’s no mistaking the immense excitement I get just thinking of being among the electric current given off by the crowd at the Derby and hearing the call to the post for that race. There’s no hiding that my heart still pounds in my ears when the field thunders by, and going to races at Keeneland is just as essential as breathing.

Yet they were such once-in-a-lifetime horses, that is why there is still a void that a few horses collectively have almost filled, yet no single horse and not even the group, entirely.

And that is OK. It is a testament to how great they were, and how much they meant to me. I will always feel privileged to have seen them race in person, to have watched Zenyatta dance and take an apple from a child one frosty morning on the backstretch at Churchill Downs, in a near-private setting, to have been allowed to visit Rachel at Stonestreet early in her retirement and touch her velvety soft stomach in reverence, with her first foal’s gestation just recently begun.

But now I do look to the next chapter. Groupie Doll has also retired. It is natural, while knowing no horse can fill that spot, to look for the ones on the horizon. Hopefully out of this group waiting to race, or to be loaded in the Derby starting gate, or run their next race without mishap, there will be some that rise to the top. I look forward to seeing where that may lead.