LOUISVILLE — For a moment, it looked like old times on Friday with Rachel Alexandra advancing on the far turn at Churchill Downs and taking control of her would-be rivals.
But while the daughter of Medaglia d'Oro displayed the same mettle that made her the 2009 Horse of the Year, it soon became clear once again her championship form still had some catching up to do.
For the second straight race, Rachel Alexandra suffered a stunning narrow defeat when graded stakes winner Unrivaled Belle caught the champion filly at the wire to win the Grade II La Troienne at Churchill Downs.
The $418,800 La Troienne was one of five graded stakes races on the undercard of the Kentucky Oaks.
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Rachel Alexandra had lost her first start of the season to Zardana in the New Orleans Ladies at Fair Grounds on March 13, in what was her first effort since defeating older males in the Grade I Woodward Stakes last Sept. 5.
Though her connections admitted she was not 100 percent fit for that effort, the champion filly had looked much stronger in recent works and a return to her usual form was expected on Friday.
After challenging Be Fair through soft fractions of :24.79 and :48.81, Rachel Alexandra appeared ready to take over on the final turn, only to have Unrivaled Belle come surging up on the outside to draw even with the 2009 Kentucky Oaks winner.
The two proceeded to battle eyeball to eyeball in the lane with Unrivaled Belle just getting up by a head in the final stride to earn the biggest win of her eight-race career.
"Our filly ran well and I think she should be applauded for her race," winning trainer Bill Mott said. "I had confidence in my filly ... but I wasn't confident we'd beat Rachel Alexandra. But I don't think it's any disgrace for Rachel. She got beat but she ran hard."
Unrivaled Belle hit the wire in the 11⁄16-mile race in 1:42.97. Morena was 5 lengths behind the top two in third. Zardana never threatened and finished fifth in the six-horse field.
Prior to her loss in the New Orleans Ladies, Rachel Alexandra had not suffered a defeat since Nov. 1, 2008, when she ran second to Sara Louise in the Grade III Pocahontas Stakes at Churchill.
Though she has physically progressed since her effort at Fair Grounds, trainer Steve Asmussen said the filly may still be feeling the effects of her unprecedented 3-year-old campaign. She won all eight of her starts including defeating males three times.
"There is an adage in racing that you get paid for what you do, but you pay for what you do. And, obviously, I think this is somewhat of a hangover from that," Asmussen said. "The one thing we kind of discussed before is she wasn't quite as fast as she was at one point last summer. We just hadn't seen her quite as fast. But there are definitely a lot more positives today with how she acted, how relaxed she was and how steady she was. We don't need knee-jerk reaction."
Majority owner Jess Jackson said Rachel Alexandra came back to the barn "on her toes," and he dismissed any notion that this race could be her last.
"She's not going to retire," Jackson definitively answered. "This is part of the foundation you have to build race by race. We are most satisfied that she came out healthy. We have to see when she gets back to her peak what she can do this year."
Calvin Borel, who has been aboard Rachel Alexandra for her last 11 starts, did not comment after the race. When asked if Borel was certain to retain the mount, Jackson said, "Probably but that's not decided, of course. Steve and I have to talk about it."
In the day's other stakes races, 7-year-old Arson Squad defeated an accomplished field that included Grade I winners Bullsbay and Macho Again to take the Grade III Alysheba Stakes by 21/4 lengths over Flying Private, covering the 11⁄16 miles in 1:43.28.
Friday was a good day for racing's veterans as another 7-year-old, Silver Timber, rallied from off the pace to win the Grade III Churchill Downs Turf Sprint by a neck over Chamberlain Bridge in a track-record time of :55.45 for the 5-furlong test.
Dogwood Stable's Lou Brissie took the Grade III, 5-furlong Kentucky Juvenile by 11/2 lengths over Boys At Tosconova, and WinStar Farm's Doubles Partner earned his first career graded stakes win when he defeated Asphalt in the Grade II American Turf going 11⁄16 miles.