The Brock Talk

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Rachel, Ruffian and the Amazon Roan

With the retirement of 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra (photo left), I found it interesting to compare and contrast her to other great fillies of our time – Ruffian and Winning Colors. For several reasons – not the least of which is simplicity – I restricted the comparisons to the two and three-year-old campaigns of each. Although Ruffian was by far the biggest star at two, it is their sophomore campaigns in which each filly seemed to shine the brightest, whether by popularity, fate, performance, or in the case of Ruffian, fatality.

Ruffian of course, ended her 3-year-old campaign tragically in 1975, crushing her right front sesamoids in a fatal match race against Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure before 50,000 fans at Belmont Park and a July 4 national television audience. Both Winning Colors and Rachel Alexandra had forgettable 4-year-old campaigns and did not race at five. But all three gave us brilliance epitiomized, none perfected but worthy of greatness, history and glamour by any standard.

Ruffian (photo right) was the youngest to catch the eye of the national racing public, winning all of her five races as a juvenile of which four were graded stakes. Her last race of her juvenile season she won the grade 1 Spinaway at Saratoga by 12-1/2 lengths and was the landslide winner as Champion Two-Year-Old Filly of 1974. Winning Colors was undefeated in three starts as a 2-year-old, but her biggest win that year came in the restricted Las Centinela Stakes at Santa Anita. Rachel Alexandra finished sixth, beaten eight lengths in her first start as a 2-year-old and ended the year winning the grade 2 Golden Rod Stakes at Churchill Downs. With only three wins in six starts, Rachel Alexandra was promising, but far beneath the national radar. Winning Colors had much the same anonymity nationally before she turned three. But before the Kentucky Derby Future Wager and across the Southern California-Mexico border, winter bets were being wagered with her name and the Kentucky Derby on the ticket.

At three, trainer Frank Whitely sent Ruffian through easy wins in an allowance race and the grade 3 Comely Stakes at Aqueduct to start the year. Rachel Alexandra began to turn local heads early winning the Martha Washington Stakes at Oaklawn Park by eight lengths before taking the grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks in New Orleans in March. Rachel Alexandra next won the grade 2 Fantasy back at Oaklawn Park and by the time she got to the Kentucky Oaks (gr. 1), she was the odds-on favorite for the fourth time in four starts that year. Winning Colors had the slowest start of the three, running second in the Las Virgenes Stakes at Santa Anita behind another heralded filly in Southern California, Goodbye Halo.

It is difficult to say that Ruffian had any type of breakout race as a 3-year-old because she had been so dominant from the time she stepped on the track as a juvenile filly. Her grade 1 victories in the Acorn at Aqueduct and the Mother Goose and Coaching Club American Oaks at Belmont seemed nothing more than technicalities. Lucien Laurin, the trainer of Secretariat, once said to the press of Ruffian, "As God as my witness, she may even be better than Secretariat." Ruffian was never headed by any horse at any point of call at any time during her career until the match race. She won her five races during her 3-year-old year by a combined 37 lengths or by about 7-1/2 lengths a race. Ruffian set a new stakes record in each of the eight stakes she won and equaled two track records as well.

Although Winning Colors (bottom photo) started a bit slower, she breezed through the Santa Anita Oaks (gr. 1) winning by 8 lengths and seemed to handle the boys just as easily, winning the Santa Anita Derby (gr. 1) by 7-1/2 easy lengths. She was not the betting favorite in the Kentucky Derby, but stayed popular among a stellar Derby field that included Forty Niner, Risen Star, Seeking the Gold and Private Terms. But she would have nothing to do with any of them and promptly left them in her wake, taking the Kentucky Derby in wire-to-wire fashion while holding off the late charging Forty Niner at the wire. In the Preakness, jockey Pat Day aboard Forty Niner would not let Winning Colors get alone on the lead as she had in the Derby and the two cleared the path for a stalking victory by Risen Star. Winning Colors would run sixth in the Belmont and then came back to run second against older mares in the Maskette (gr. 1) at Belmont and fourth in the Spinster (gr. 1) at Keeneland. Her final race as a 3-year-old came against the undefeated Personal Ensign in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. The race was at Churchill Downs, the site of her greatest triumph, and trainer D. Wayne Lukas, and jockey Gary Stevens had every intention of taking advantage of that. Again Winning Colors sped around the Churchill Downs oval in apparent control until the final second of the Distaff, when Personal Ensign edged Winning Colors at the wire in one of the closest and most dramatic races in Breeders’ Cup history.

The day before the 2009 Kentucky Derby, Rachel Alexandra introduced herself to racing fans around the country with a dazzling 20-length victory in the Kentucky Oaks. Days later she was purchased by a group headed by Jess Jackson who summarily announced they were heading to the Preakness to take on the boys. Holding off the late rally of Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, Rachel Alexandra became the first filly since Nellie Morse in 1924 to win the second leg of the Triple Crown since 1926. She returned to her division in the Mother Goose, and again clobbered her female rivals by nearly 20 lengths. She stomped the sophomore boys again the $1 million Haskell Invitational before stepping up another level to take on holder horses in the grade 1 Woodward at Saratoga.

In a race in which her competition threw everything but the kitchen sink at Rachel Alexandra, she eventually fought off Bullsbay in deep stretch and held off Macho Again by a head becoming the only female to win the prestigious Woodward and the only 3-year-old filly to defeat older males in a grade 1 rounte race in New York since Lady Primrose won the Manhattan in 1887.

Rachel Alexandra was the only one of the three honored as the Horse of the Year but all three were named the Champion Three Year Old Filly respectively. Ruffian was the only Champion as a 2-year-old but titles seem almost trivial when remembering these three great female thoroughbreds. Ruffian almost black, Rachel a glistening bay and Winning Colors the Amazon roan.

It seems almost pointless to say which may have been bigger or faster or more attractive. All three were stunning individuals who came to the paddock as a queen would address her court. Both Ruffian and Winning Colors are in the Hall of Fame and Rachel Alexandra is destined there as well – likely in the first year of her eligibility.

I’m just glad to be counted among their subjects.


Anonymous said...

Good piece! Ruffian and Winning Colors were physically larger than Rachel; and though Rachel won HotY at 3, she didn't have Forego to contend with in 1975, as Ruffian did. Also, what's not mentioned much these days but at the time was a HUGE deal was that Ruffian was the filly triple crown winner, and she won races from sprints at to 12f at 3---the distance of the CCA Oaks, considered at the timea filly "classic" and held in much higher regard than the Kentucky Oaks.

And Winning Colors of the three won the most prestigious race of the three---the Derby. Plus, she was trained hard by a trainer noted for training his horses hard.

Brock Sheridan said...

Good points Sid. I knew that Ruffian and Winning Colors were very large fillies, but really never knew how Rachel compared because I've never seen her live. Without a doubt each brought something very special to the paddock in terms of talent, conformation and charisma.