“Standing in the hall of fame… and the world’s gonna know your name…”
This chorus from the song by The Script has evoked such a sense of the emotion rising to those heights of glory can create in an admirer of a truly superlative athlete admired beyond words.
I felt that long before it was announced Rachel Alexandra was going to be inducted in her first year of eligibility, along with fellow stand-out mare Zenyatta.
I have spent the last five months interning at BloodHorse, hence my hiatus from this blog. I have always felt called to the racing industry, and during those months I became even more immersed in it in a professional manner.
This blog post will be more about emotion than professional demeanor, almost in stark contrast to the skills I was honing during those months at the BloodHorse and during the years earning my degree.
But then, the flipside of a passion for the racing industry is that strong desire to turn it into a career. And the roots of that calling for it to be a profession I would imagine for most of us begins with the horses that captivate us.
Rachel has touched a place in my heart beyond words. Her perseverance and determination spoke volumes.
After the induction of the Pillars of the Turf Arthur Hancock and William Woodward and the historical inductees Tom Ochiltree and Wayne Wright, Rachel was the first contemporary inductee to receive her plaque and well-deserved spot in the Hall of Fame.
I couldn’t attend as I had hoped to when I saw Calvin Borel’s induction a few years ago, a small glimpse into what it would be like when Rachel herself was inducted. He did mention her of course, a horse who had meant so much to his career, and she received her own ovation that day.
The recently retired Tom Durkin began the introduction with a lesson in physics regarding sound and how it travels to the ear. When he called Rachel’s Woodward at Saratoga in 2009, he said the sound from everyone present was so strong it became more than a sensation registered in the ear. Everyone witnessing her courageous battle to hold on in victory past the late-charging Macho Again were yelling her home so loudly they literally shook the building beneath Durkin, leading to his famous call of “Rachel raises the rafters at the Spa!”
He said his legs were actually shaking from the intensity she evoked that day.
I got goosebumps just hearing it, and remembering that day. It was a day that showed the depths of her mettle, of all she was truly made of. It was the same strength of spirit that coursed through her years later when the fight was for her life, when she inspired people all over again.
She is a horse I will always feel fortunate to have seen race, to have visited at Stonestreet. Something about horses like those, about courage and a rare level of talent that saw her win from track to track, set track records and prove herself the best by double-digit margins of victory, becomes part of anyone who watched her run.
It is this very reason why, when my first article in the pages of BloodHorse happened to appear in the issue about her Hall of Fame induction, I couldn’t help but think how fitting that is. One of the horses who will always mean the most to me and I are together in these pages, represented by a culmination of one my career goals and the greatest and most well-deserved honor she can receive for her career.
It also why I did feel a bit emotional when her induction began, and even felt it was for “my girl.”
I feel a sense of pride in her and all she achieved as if I do have an ownership stake. But my feeling of having an ownership stake is more in how she has touched and inspired me, than in truly feeling like I own her.
The greats can do that – make everyone feel in some sense like some part of them belongs to us all.
Watching her races played at the ceremony was just as riveting as in 2009, as was hearing several of the renowned race calls that accompanied them:
“The filly did it!” and “She is indeed Rachel Alexandra the great!”
On those notes, owner Barbara Banke stepped forward to accept the honor for her mare.
“We will read her her plaque tomorrow,” she said with a smile.
She thanked Dolphus Morrison, Hal Wiggins, and all who helped shape who Rachel became on the track with her usual graciousness and poise. She also thanked the vets who helped save Rachel’s life after foaling complications, and vet tech Brent Comer, who was by her side constantly and really bonded with the mare during her stay at Rood and Riddle.
She said Rachel is happy and feisty back at the farm and this is a great opportunity to relive her career.
“She was so courageous and determined,” and noted that courage was the main thing that stood out when it came to Rachel. “She inspired young girls and women everywhere, and I still remember the ‘Run Like a Girl’ banners at Saratoga.”
She thanked all the fans, and spoke of watching at the rail at Churchill when Rachel unleashed her 20-length tour-de-force in the Kentucky Oaks, and said to her bloodstock adviser John Moynihan that she is the best 3-year-old in the country.
It was 2 days after that victory, when she was at an anniversary dinner with husband Jess Jackson that Moynihan called and said he needed to see her right away. She told him she was at her anniversary dinner but he insisted. And that was when they set the plan in motion to buy Rachel, who was for sale only if she and Jackson were the purchasers.
She said that the was beginning of Jackson’s plan for a “Path to Greatness.” Anyone who witnessed Rachel’s incredible 2009 racing campaign knows well there was an ambitious plan laid out for her after her purchase by Stonestreet, one she was more than equal to rising to meet. She had a campaign I think few 3-year-old fillies could have achieved, and that any in the future will be hard-pressed to measure up to. That was Rachel, and the more she achieved, the more and more she became an inspiration.
It all culminated in that incredible rafter-raising Woodward, where she didn’t quit, never faltered.
About that day, Banke said, “[The Path to Greatness] brought her to what no other 3-year-old filly has accomplished before or since. She was gallant in her victory…
“We want to thank you for inducting this wonderful, wonderful mare into the Hall of Fame.”
This post will primarily be about Rachel, but that is not in any way to downplay the significant accomplishments of the rest of the contemporary 2016 inductees Zenyatta, Steve Asmussen, and Ramon Dominguez.
Zenyatta also set a standard of excellence few mares or even racehorses have achieved with her nearly unbroken streak of victories, as she won 19 of 20 races and became the first mare to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Her fierce competitive nature on the track was in complete contrast to her gentle demeanor at the barn and her love of people.
Ramon Dominguez, a jockey so good that his success seemed nearly effortless, accepted his induction a few years after a racing injury forced his retirement. Even while you knew all the hard work that went into reaching the top of the game and remaining there, isn’t making it look effortless a true mark of the greats? That is what all of today’s inductees had in common, as disparate their backgrounds or as varied as their paths to the Hall of Fame may have been.
Dominguez was introduced as classy, poised, talented, and engaging, and that is indeed what always stood out about him, from his days as a jockey to the day he stood on stage to be welcomed into the Hall of Fame.
He said his career brought him so much joy that one can only dream about it, as well as friends that he can call family.
“When I reflected back on my career, I started to cry. It was tears of joy, nothing bad…. I reflect back on all the people who have been instrumental in my career. There are so many to thank.” He began with his family, and friends, and all in the racing world who helped guide his career, and also said he hit the lottery with his parents. He also shared appreciation for the “beautiful racehorses… we would not be here if not for them.”