LOUISVILLE — A year ago, when she won the Kentucky Oaks by a record 20¼ lengths, Rachel Alexandra left some monumentally big shoes for fillies everywhere to fill.
So big, it turns out, not even Rachel herself can fill them.
That turned out to be the unexpected story on a Friday afternoon at a sun-splashed Churchill Downs, where a record crowd of 116,000 showed up for Oaks day, no doubt looking forward to a daily double — watching the past queen of the dance make an expected return to form, before then crowning the new distaff champ.
Only it didn't turn out that way, not the first part, anyway.
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"She isn't quite as fast as she was at one point last year," said the trainer Steve Asmussen, matter of factly.
He was talking about Rachel, the winner of the Preakness and the Haskell and the Woodward, and last year's Eclipse for Horse of the Year. This year, however, she's the twice-beaten Rachel.
Zardana knocked off Rachel in Louisiana last month, in the New Orleans Ladies, but while disappointing, it wasn't shocking. It was Rachel's first race of the year. She wasn't ready. She wasn't fit. Excuses could be made.
Not Friday. In the $400,000-added La Troienne, a Grade II, Jess Jackson's female prize had the lead on the turn Friday, only to have Bill Mott's Unrivaled Belle pull even. Down the lane, it was back and forth, back and forth, until finally near the wire, to most everyone's surprise, it was not Rachel that pulled ahead to the roar of the crowd, but Unrivaled Belle.
"She was kind of steady," said Asmussen of his beaten filly, "but just not real quick."
Or at least not as quick as Blind Luck, the deserving Oaks successor, the Jerry Hollendorfer-trained filly who circled the field of 14 and in the middle of the stretch caught the leading Evening Jewel, the winner of the Ashland Stakes at Keeneland not quite a month back.
Or at least Blind Luck pulled even with Evening Jewel, but couldn't quite pass her. It was a great stretch duel, even better than the La Troienne. First one nose, then the other, then the other, and so on, until finally Blind Luck got a nose of a nose in front.
"I thought she had it," said Hollendorfer, the successful northern California staple who had won two previous runnings of the Oaks. "But I wasn't sure until they put the number up."
Blind Luck is a star filly. She won the Oak Leaf, the Hollywood Starlet and the Las Virgnes, all nice Grade I races. She was third in the Santa Anita Oaks, with the excuse of a questionable trip, before rebounding to take the Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn.
Yet it's difficult to see her challenging the boys, at least right away. When asked about the Preakness, Hollendorfer was at first dismissive, then hedged slightly. She's clearly not head and shoulders above her crop. Not yet, anyway. Her wins have all been rallies.
"She can give you heart failure coming down the lane," said Mark DeDomenico, head of the partnership that owns the daughter of Pollard's Vision, along with Hollendorfer. "I'm always saying to Bejarano, 'Please, please don't make it that close next time,' but sure enough the next time it is that close."
The Oaks was anything but close last year, when Rachel roasted the field, prompting the ambitious Jackson to visit Hal Wiggins barn with a check in hand. The next six months brought racing history. But that was last year.
"There's an adage in racing, 'You get paid for what you do, but you pay for what you do,'" Asmussen said. "And obviously, there's somewhat of a hangover from it."
We knew the 2010 Kentucky Oaks would probably be a reminder just how special was the 2009 Kentucky Oaks. We just didn't expect Rachel herself to be the one to show it.