LOUISVILLE, Ky. - In the paddock, Rachel Alexandra's owner, Jess Jackson, said his 2009 Horse of the Year was "90 percent.'' Unfortunately for her, that wasn't good enough Friday, when she lost a long stretch duel by a head to Unrivaled Belle in the Grade II La Troienne Stakes at Churchill Downs.
For the second consecutive time, Rachel Alexandra couldn't overcome a horse she would have crushed last year. In her 4-year-old debut March 13 at the Fair Grounds, Zardana beat her by three-quarters of a length. The 6-year-old Zardana finished fifth in the 11/16-mile La Troienne, but another girl spoiled the party before a huge crowd on Kentucky Oaks Day.
"She's just not been as fast as last summer,'' said Steve Asmussen, Rachel Alexandra's trainer. "She ran a good race, but not a great race. Calvin [Borel] did absolutely nothing wrong.''
After dueling in the two-path with 31-1 shot Be Fair, Borel sent the 1-5 favorite to the lead after a half-mile in an undemanding 48.81 seconds. Unrivaled Belle, ridden by Kent Desormeaux, made her challenge four-wide entering the stretch, and they went back and forth, eyeball to eyeball, the rest of the way, with Unrivaled Belle going by on the outside two strides from the finish.
"Oh, man, my filly was breathing fire today,'' Desormeaux said. "I feel like the mouse that stole the cheese.
"I made the lead and Rachel Alexandra passed me at the head of the lane. But my filly came again. Then Rachel passed me again at the eighth pole, but my filly came back. What a race for her.''
Unrivaled Belle, a 4-year-old trained by Bill Mott, paid $20.80 for her fifth victory in eight starts. Her time was an unimpressive 1:42.97.
"She just ran great,'' Mott said. "And I don't think that ran poorly. She ran her race, too. We just outdid her.''
Asmussen suggested his superstar still has not recovered fully from a grueling 8-for-8 campaign in which she defeated males three times.
"There's an old adage in racing: You get paid for what you do, but you pay for what you do,'' he said. "I do think there's some hangover. But what we have to realize is there has been improvement since her last race. We don't need a knee-jerk reaction.''
Jackson said he was very pleased that Rachel Alexandra came out of the race healthy. "She still has a lot of pep,'' he said. "She's not going to retire. We're happy with her. We love her, anyway.''