The Outside Rail: Girl Power

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The banners on Broadway say “Run like a girl,” and now I know what theymean. Until Monday morning I had never seen Rachel Alexandra run otherthan on television.

I woke up early – tough to do on an off-day at The Special – roused my sisters-in-law Annie and Stella and went to the Oklahoma track. We drove in from East Avenue, found a spot to park along the stretch and walked to the rail. The crisp air and cool breeze felt like October. The pinking sky over the barns on the turn suggested sunrise. The crowd along the rail – despite the hour, the temperature, the other things to do – spurred thoughts of greatness. Did Secretariat draw morning-workout crowds? Did Forego? Personal Ensign? Genuine Risk? Azeri?

With the Internet, it’s a little bit easier to keep up with the schedule of your favorite Thoroughbred nowadays and Rachel Alexandra’s fans have been attending her workouts all meet. They ooh, they aah, they snap photos (though it’s a little tough given the lack of light), they commune. They refer to her by her first name, like she’s a friend. Funny how that happens to certain horses along the way.

Me? I’m a full-name guy. I love horses, but I work hard not to get too attached. She’s Rachel Alexandra, not Rachel, no matter what she does.

You can’t give them all nicknames, so don’t start, although watching that workout Monday might change my mind.

In her final serious prep before taking on older males in Saturday’s Woodward, Rachel Alexandra walked on the track with the pony, strolled halfway down the stretch to please the masses, turned to go the right way, broke into a gallop and worked a half-mile that looked as crisp and clean as the weather. She picked up speed down the back, hugged the turn like Danica Patrick and zipped through the stretch – where somehow the track had cleared for her.

“She makes a different noise than the other horses,” Annie observed.

We were all thinking it. Other horses galloping or working past that morning sounded different. Not bad, just different. Feet, breaths, effort. You could hear those from other horses. Hers barely made a sound – like a stealth horse. Woosh, she’s here and then, woosh, she’s gone.

You would need a veterinarian and a sound engineer to explain why, but some of the credit must go to the filly’s range of motion. She takes fewer strides than other horses, reaching out with her front legs and snapping her hooves out for another few inches – next time you’re in the Belmont Park paddock, look at the statue of Secretariat. That’s what he did – at the moment of push-off with his hind legs, he extended his front legs beyond that of other horses, and reached – creating more power, covering more ground economizing effort.

That does not mean Rachel Alexandra is Secretariat – it just means she possesses a similar ground-eating stride and a similar charisma with witnesses.

Jockey Calvin Borel, a fan on this day like the others, backed up from the rail and offered an explanation.

“She doesn’t touch the ground, she stays in the air longer than other horses,” he said by way of explanation. “She’s so smooth, she floats over the ground – that’s what’s different about her.”

Pulled up by exercise rider Dominic Terry on the backstretch, Rachel Alexandra rejoined the pony and assistant Scott Blasi and walked back to trainer Steve Asmussen’s barn. She came home the long way through the trees on the Fifth Avenue side – I couldn’t help but think of the view the railbirds had over by the road next to Bill Mott’s barn. The other admirers met her at the barn, watched her cool out under a blue sheet, watched her suck down a bucket of water and then watched her get a bath. Never has a dirty horse getting clean drawn so much attention.

The workout was nothing special on the stopwatch – officially a half-mile in 49.09 seconds with a 5-furlong gallop-out in 1:02.23 – but attitude might prove to be more important than time.

“She looks so happy to run,” Borel said. “I like to watch her breeze; it’s a good feeling. There’s not much I can do from here, but it’s nice to see her do it like that. I can tell she’s ready. It’s time. Those five weeks (between races) are bottled up now.”

The cork comes off Saturday.