Rachel Alexandra, still showcasing the trim athletic figure that had helped power her to an amazing array of victories, stood outside of a barn at Stonestreet to meet a group of eager admirers. On that day in March 2011, the people gathered around the recently retired mare had been selected for the farm’s first “Meet Rachel Day. ” The entree into the gates at Stonestreet was a marvelous harbinger of the hospitality and graciousness that was to be a hallmark in years to come. As promised in the first announcement of the “Meet Rachel Day” events, the farm’s illustrious star would be available to meet other admirers around her broodmare duties. While she is breeding sound, there have not been broodmare duties for several years, and the rhythm of her life has only changed in that she has no foal at foot and is pastured with several older pensioned mares for companionship, but she still lives in a foaling barn in a roomy stall.
During that first “Meet Rachel Day,” it was evident the chosen attendees were awed to be in her presence, and grateful to get time to know the mare one-on-one and have pictures taken with her. While the racehorse she had been was evident, at that time she had recently been bred to Curlin and was carrying the colt that would be named Jess’s Dream. There was a sense of reverence among some people there that day that even led stroking her soft stomach, and I for one thought of the little life just beginning. It was amazing to have those moments with her, for she is the horse of a lifetime for many beyond the environs of Stonestreet as well.
One of the incredible victories that she still appeared to be in racing condition from eight years ago was the Haskell Invitational in 2009, her second victory against male horses.
As Rachel Alexandra stepped forward into her position in the starting gate that August day, the track announcer said, “The Preakness winning filly is in the gate and there’s one left to load,” indicating even running against the likes of Summer Bird and Munnings in the seven horse field, she was the one likely gathering the most attention, also reflected in her low odds as the field went off.
When the gates sprung open, Munnings rocketed to the lead, with Rachel Alexandra quick to rush up into contention to sit off of his flank, while Summer Bird moved up equally rapidly to take a position on the rail off of Munnings’ other side.
As those two classic winners flanked Munnings, they ran on even terms by the quarter pole, dark bay head on the outside mirrored by the chestnut head on the rail, in a race all their own even as they chased the pacesetter. Summer Bird began to edge ahead of Rachel Alexandra, breathing down Munnings’ neck while Rachel still kept her position off of that leader’s flank.
Munnings appeared to be striving with all he had, pushing forward determinedly but it would not be enough. Rachel Alexandra unleashed her move past the ¾ pole and swept to the lead with an effortless surge of power. She left Summer Bird, who had looked full of run and with every chance at victory before she took over, to have to settle for second place.
It was a sublime effort, and thrilling. The track announcer burst in that she turned “for home with a four length lead” and the crowd roared at this display of superiority, unable to contain how it felt to witness such a tour-de-force.
He got it exactly right when he finished his race call with all the excitement swirling through the crowd and around Rachel Alexandra, who would not let herself be bested throughout her entire 2009 season, no matter what track she went to or what competition she faced.
“Here’s a filly for the ages, a Haskell legend….. Rachel Alexandra did it!”
She did indeed, and that was a wonderful occasion to celebrate as Stonestreet opened its gates once more July 20 for a Haskell Watch Party to commemorate her emphatic six-length victory that day, and how she rocketed to a four-length lead in almost no time at all.
The occasion was also a fundraiser for the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, with attendance capped at 50 people. It was wonderful to be among so many people united by a common admiration of and fondness for Rachel Alexandra. One attendee came from Michigan, and thought when Rachel nearly was lost due to foaling complications several years ago, that she had lost her chance to see her. She reiterated, during the wait for the bus that transported us from Keeneland to Stonestreet (due to limited parking at the farm), how much these things matter, to see these great horses that touch our lives and “speak” to us deeper than any words ever can. I understood perfectly. I love to watch my favorite horses race, but it is wonderful to get one-on-one time with them too, to truly get a sense of who they are as individuals and their temperament and characteristics.
Every party-goer aboard the bus, it meandered through the Keeneland gates, down Rice Road, and past the lovely barns of Fares Farm, where curious broodmares along the fence line nearest the road turned their heads to watch us pass. It is lovely to go down the roads in this region lined by farms and away from the urban sprawl. There is a serenity in seeing fields of corn growing tall, rather than parking lots and shopping centers, a happiness in seeing sleek mares turn to watch us pass—understood best by those that are fulfilled by a life that includes horses–and a joy in seeing a group of weanlings sprint across a pasture, full of wild young exuberance.
Alighting from the bus at Stonestreet, we were ushered inside one of the beautifully crafted barns. All the horses from that barn but Rachel Alexandra were out in the paddocks.
The party was originally going to involve watching the current year’s Haskell, but when excessive heat necessitated it being pushed back several hours later than its originally scheduled post time, the TVs on site played a loop of Rachel Alexandra’s races instead. It was a chance to pause once more and relive her greatness in races I had not often watched since they occurred, while snacking on hor d’oeuvres and chatting about the mare with other attendees. The other plus of the Haskell start time being pushed back—besides the benefits to its entrants—was now those at Stonestreet would have more time to spend with Rachel Alexandra.
The hospitality, as expected, was incredible and is well worth a description. Stonestreet staff greeted everyone warmly as they filed off of the bus, directing us into the cool of the barn. Paper fans were passed out with the names of the 2019 Haskell entrants printed on them, and a variety of Kendall-Jackson wines as well non-alcoholic beverages were on offer, and so were trays of hot browns, and a buffet set up of fruit, cheese, crackers, and mixed nuts, and later chocolate cake.
Small groups were chosen to greet Rachel outside of the barn, to keep it manageable for her, but she never minded all the people, taking a very relaxed stance as she was led under the shade of trees. She looked magnificient and filled out, and still every bit the powerhouse she had been on the track, the muscles of her frame evident even after beginning her retirement near the end of 2010.
I was chosen with several others to be in the first group to greet her, getting my first opportunity to have a meeting with her other than in her stall or from a field as she was part of the Horse Country tours to Stonestreet but whether she interacted with people then was on at her whim. Not that it made it any less wonderful to see her, but this day was extra special.
Rachel’s dark coat gleamed as she stepped from the barn into the sunshine before being stopped in the shade and people singly or in pairs stepped forward to greet her and get photos with her.
I was content to stand back for a while and observe her, soak in her presence. She is my favorite living racehorse, after all.
Even when the first group’s turn was over, people gathered at the barn door to watch her. She is deservedly every bit the draw she was when she pulled away in the Haskell and dominated that field, when she showed all determination in the Woodward that same year, and was unquestionably the Horse of the Year for one of the best campaigns it could be hoped a three-year-old would string together, regardless of gender. For even the races that she ran in restricted to gender were evidence of her superiority, most notably the 20-length romp in the Kentucky Oaks.
Rachel hats and shirts were in evidence throughout, including one that honored her Hall of Fame induction which I had not seen before, available from that Saratoga Springs institution at one time. The guest of honor also received gift bags from a few attendees, likely full of treats for her.
As the party wound down, door prizes were drawn outside of the barn, steps away from a pasture where the next generation of Stonestreet foals grazed with their dams, including Good Magic’s brother.
It was an incredible day, full of wonderful memories and further testament to Barbara Banke’s generosity and hospitality, as mentioned by the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation staff on site at Stonestreet, who also noted briefly what fundraisers like this one help them do for the horse and some of what has been learned in the process, like about leg injuries in racehorses.
Disembarking at Keeneland, the grounds quiet, immaculate, and as serene as ever, was a good bookend to the day, and worth lingering for as reflections of the day and the peace of the surroundings flowed through my mind.