NOTE: This story ran on B11 in the 8/7/13 edition.
For two years Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta held tight to much of the thoroughbred racing public’s affection and interest.
The lithe and long-striding Rachel Alexandra was not only distinctive on race tracks where she had wins in six different states and on eight different tracks, but she was a unique specimen with her long, white upside-down exclamation-point blaze on her forehead and considerable height at about 16 hands.
After winning the Kentucky Oaks by more than 20 lengths, Rachel won the Preakness and beat the boys again in the Haskell and Woodward. Zenyatta was unbeaten for the longest time and she also showed her dust to colts in the Breeders’ Classic.
Stonestreet Farm and billionaire owner Jess Jackson purchased Rachel for a reported $10 million after her dominating success in the fillies-only Kentucky Oaks. Jackson brought in trainer Steve Asmussen and announced a run in the Preakness.
She was a widely popular winner throughout her career and when owner Jackson decided she had done enough racing he returned her to his acreage in Kentucky. He set about the could-be-worth millions task of readying for her breeding with his other Horse of the Year, Curlin.
Two Preakness winners, Rachel and Curlin.
Two Horse of the Year Award winners, Rachel and Curlin.
Jess Jackson’s wife Barbara Banke said, “The privilege of owning these horses is like lightning striking twice. Rachel Alexandra and Curlin are true champions, both horses embody that intangible equine ideal that separate mere horse from legend.”
Rachel’s first foal was born on Jan. 22, 2012, and he was a brown colt that was named Jess’s Dream, a name selected from the 6,521 entries sent forth in a contest held to name the youngster.
Jess’s Dream is now a yearling (one-year-old) and could be racing in 2014 as a two-year-old.
Jess’s Dream is nicknamed “Taco” and is said to be “feisty but lovable” according to Banke. “Rachel let him do what he wanted to do. She was a good mom, but she let Taco have his space.”
That leads us to this past February. Rachel delivered a 140-pound filly by stallion, Bernardini. It was the largest foal at Stonestreet Farm this year. The dark brown female had a heart-shaped star on her forehead and was healthy and lively like you want a foal to be.
But Rachel Alexandra was not healthy and lively.
The day after the filly was born Rachel was hurriedly transported to Rood and Riddle Equine Clinic in Lexington. During the foaling her colon was injured and fluids, bacteria and fecal material were leaking into her abdoman.
A six-hour operation was performed and Rachel’s life was very much in danger.
Stonestreet Farm communications manager Amy Kearns reported, “Everyone understood the importance of reaching out to the fans immediately in that difficult time, and social media was the fastest way to share the information.”
A Rood and Riddle employee said, “Rachel was amazing. She just kind of went with it. We were on pins and needles, expecting problems, and they just didn’t happen.”
Brett Comer, a technician at the Lexington facility, sat outside her stall for 15 hours a day. After a few days of supervised recovery, Comer slowly walked her, hand fed her, administered the necessary medications and even brushed and groomed her mane and tail.
In mid-May, Rachel was carefully vanned back to Stonestreet. She was placed in a 16-foot by 16-foot stall that had oak paneling and monitors looking at her from all angles.
Comer was there at her arrival back home. He had been hired as a full-time caretaker for Rachel.
“I was in tears — I’m not going to lie,” Comer said. “When we arrived, all the people were there to see her; it was just amazing.”
When Rachel’s entourage reached the stall where her recovery was to be continued, the farm’s workers had taken the many cards sent by well-wishers and placed them all along the walls. Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans had sent a “get-well” banner that stretched along one wall.
Jackson’s wife, Barbara Banke, continued, “She was very sweet for me when she was just recovering at first, and now she tries to bite me so that’s a good sign.”
Since her homecoming in May, Rachel has been allowed to go outside in her own private paddock. At first, her recovery was measured in short strides and she was hand-grazed, but now she is running again. “Running is not the word for it,” Comer mentioned. “She is breezing for the Belmont. When we turn around, she’s back to her old self. She is up in the air, she rears, she runs, she bucks and she plays. She is definitely feeling good.”
The Stonestreet “Recovery Team” had proceeded with a small-step patience. They were deliberate and unhurried in their quest to restore Rachel to full health. The pace will continue to be one marked by caution.
A name has yet to be given to the Rachel Alexandra-Bernardini filly who has done well under the watch of a surrogate mother. If all goes according to plan for the little one, she will be one-year-old on Jan. 1, 2014, and could be racing in 2015 as a two-year-old.
Rachel is out of danger. And that couldn’t be said just a few months ago.