Robby Albarado has been that guy before. The hunted. The target. The jockey on the favorite. The man with the horse to beat.
“I never worried about anybody else, I only focused on what I was going to do,” he said. “I’ve ridden Mineshaft, Curlin and they were like that. You try to do your thing and not worry about anybody else. Good horses like that, you can do things with them that you can’t do with other horses. You can make a couple of runs with horses like that. You can get out of jams.”
Today, Albarado and six other jockeys ride against Calvin Borel and Rachel Alexandra in the Grade I Woodward. The $750,000 race drew seven older horses (three of them Grade I winners) and one super filly. Heavily favored, Rachel Alexandra faces older males for the first time and tries to become the first 3-year-old filly to win the Woodward yet casts a long shadow on the 1 1/8-mile race. She rides an eight-race winning streak, carries two wins against colts on her resume, gets eight pounds from each rival and is 1-2 on the morning line.
And those are just facts. Aura counts for something, too.
“She’s the best filly I’ve seen, there’s just something about her,” said Albarado, who rides Stephen Foster winner Macho Again. “There’s consistency in this dominance she has, it’s scary.”
“I’ve watched her train a few times and I saw her work the other day,” said Kiaran McLaughin, who trains Asiatic Boy. “It’s so effortless. She’s a great filly.”
Proven veterans who average six lifetime wins and $1.2 million in career earnings, the seven rivals didn’t show up for second money – even if their task is arduous.
Last year’s Belmont Stakes winner Da’ Tara breaks from the rail for Robert LaPenta and Nick Zito. Last of seven in the Albert The Great, he hammered out a half-mile in 47 seconds eight days ago at Oklahoma. Jose Lezcano rides the 4-year-old. Coupled with Da’ Tara, Cool Coal Man powered away with the Albert The Great, his third win of 2009. John Velazquez gets the return call, while breaking from post four – one outside the favorite.
Bullsbay returns for trainer Graham Motion after a career race in the Whitney here four weeks ago. He breaks from post three for Jeremy Rose. West Point Thoroughbreds’ Macho Again chased Bullsbay home in the Whitney and will try to run past everyone late from post five for Albarado and trainer Dallas Stewart. Edmund Gann’s It’s A Bird (Julien Leparoux) faded to seventh in the Grade II Suburban, his last foray to New York, but owns 10 lifetime wins and will try to give trainer Marty Wolfson his second Saratoga Grade I in a week from post six. McLaughlin scratched Asiatic Boy from the Whitney with a fever but has gotten two solid runner-up efforts in graded stakes from the 6-year-old, who raced overseas until this spring. Alan Garcia has the mount from post seven. Darley Stable’s Past The Point (Edgar Prado) finished second to Curlin in last year’s Woodward and exits an optional claiming win here Aug. 6, his first start since February.
Despite their credentials, the Gang of Seven will have to find a way to beat her highness.
“I hate going into a race thinking you can’t win,” said McLaughlin. “First of all, she’s a great filly. Second, we’re all giving her eight pounds. I don’t know if we can beat her. She has to have a rough trip and a rough day and it’s still going to be tough.”
McLaughlin regularly looks at Ragozin speed figures on horses and rattles off Rachel Alexandra’s string of zeros and Asiatic Boy’s run of fours. On paper, he needs to improve. She needs to regress.
Not that McLaughlin will concede.
“I don’t know how we’re going to shock the world, but we’re not going to ride to be second,” McLaughlin said. “We’re going to try to win the race.”
Trip and tactics will matter, at least to everyone else. Rachel Alexandra usually makes her luck with a long stride and the acceleration to avoid traffic issues. Albarado and Velazquez figure to be behind her early, but would appreciate a little company for the filly.
“I’m not changing my strategy,” Albarado said. “I’m going to be last, hoping they soften her up enough up front where I can make a nice run. If I try to move early, it’s going to compromise my finish. He’s just not that kind of horse.”
Cool Coal Man gives Velazquez more options than Macho Again’s big kick, but the jockey still sees himself having to come get Rachel Alexandra.
“I will be behind her because I don’t have the speed to be close up,” he said. “She’s going to be very tough to catch. She’s been in front, she’s been behind, slow pace, fast pace, she handles it. How do you beat her? Maybe she’ll break bad and she’ll get all bundled up in there and have nowhere to go. Not that you can ride for that.”
Velazquez has battled Rachel Alexandra early three times: in the Preakness, only to finish fifth aboard Big Drama; in the Mother Goose, where he wound up nearly 20 lengths behind with Malibu Prayer; and in the Haskell, only to be overwhelmed late while riding Munnings.
“Three times she beat me, with three different horses,” said the jockey. “If she runs the way she did in the Haskell, look out.”
Velazquez singled out Past The Point as the Woodward starter with enough speed to keep pace with Rachel Alexandra early. Trained by Eoin Harty, the 5-year-old gave Curlin a scare at 40-1 in the 2008 Woodward after setting the pace. The son of Indian Charlie owns two wins and two seconds in four Saratoga starts.
“We’re going to give it a go,” said Brian Ange, Harty’s assistant. “He tries real hard, he’s versatile enough where he can go wherever you want him to. If they’re walking like they were last year, he can be in front and make them come after him. If they’re just going crazy up front he can be second, third, fourth, whatever.”
Past The Point flashed through a 5-furlong work in 58 3/5 seconds Monday at Saratoga, showing his readiness for battle.
“He is a really nice horse,” said Ange. “She’s never faced older horses before and the older horses have never faced her. She’s going to have to work at it and for her to be a star she’s going to have to earn it. Nobody’s going to give it to her. If she does win, you’d have to think about Horse of the Year and say she’s that good. But I want to win, I don’t want to give her anything.”
Sent off at 18-1, Bullsbay upset the Whitney by surging around the final turn and taking control to earn his first Grade I and the slot as second choice in the Woodward’s morning line at 6-1. Motion thought of the Woodward shortly after the Whitney, and stayed on target even after Rachel Alexandra’s plans were made official.
“I’m running my horse because he’s doing really well and I don’t want to wait another month to run him,” said the trainer. “He’s also just run the race of his life on this racetrack. How can I not run him?”
The key to beating Rachel Alexandra lies in sticking to the script, Motion said. Bullsbay does not run near the pace and won’t start today.
“I can’t play her game, he doesn’t want to do that and I don’t want to blow our race by trying to beat her,” Motion said. “Settling and laying off helped him the last time but face it, he’s got to beat three or four other good horses in addition to her. He’s got to come back and run his race from the Whitney.”
Whether that’s good enough remains to be seen. Motion and the others in the race respect Rachel Alexandra’s record, her ability and her impact on racing.
“Imagine the pressure on them, just in running,” Motion said. “She makes it a special race and winning would be very humbling. To me, it’s more about what we all got into this for originally. ‘My horse is faster than your horse’ used to be why we did this and we get away from that in this day and age because it’s easy to avoid each other. We’re all here, it’s a Grade I, at Saratoga, the end of the meet.”
So let’s race.