By Jeff Maday
At some point in 2009 Dark Star told Canterbury Park president Randy Sampson that if Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta were to meet on a racetrack that he would take the boss to see the spectacle. Dark’s thinking was that this magnificent match-up, as intriguing as any heavyweight bout, would take place that fall at the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita.
Rachel Alexandra’s owner, Jess Jackson, despised synthetic surfaces and vowed never to race her on “plastic” which ruled out racing’s premier day.
Breeders’ Cup came and went. Zenyatta dispatched the boys in the Classic and remained unbeaten yet had to settle for second in Horse of the Year balloting when Rachel Alexandra was awarded that honor. According to voters, Rachel was more accomplished. In the minds of racing fans however, a championship should be decided on the racetrack not on paper.
Then the news broke in early 2010 that the showdown could in fact happen and very soon at that. Oaklawn’s owner Charles Cella proposed boosting the purse of the April 3 Apple Blossom Stakes from $500,000 to $5 million should both Rachel and Zenyatta appear in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
The Rachel camp of Jackson and trainer Steve Asmussen hemmed and hawed, saying that April 3 was too quick to come back from the mare’s upcoming Fair Grounds race and that she needed more time. Cella obliged by moving the race to April 9 and the game was on. “I’ve never had so much trouble giving $5 million away,” Cella told the Daily Racing Form.
Dark invited me along and the planning for what would be an epic adventure began. Hotel rooms in Hot Springs were at a premium and nearly impossible to find without a significant investment. Working contacts in Arkansas we managed to secure a house outside of town. Photos of the accommodations indicated that this compound was fairly secluded, backed up against what looked like either a lake or a swamp, and suitable for the hi-jinks likely to ensue. It also was large enough to house the entire traveling party which now included Randy’s brother Russ and a limousine driver.
Yes, a limousine driver, because in classic Dark Star fashion we would not fly but rather Dark arranged for a limo to take us from the Twin Cities to Hot Springs and shuttle us around town during the stay.
With everything set, all we needed to do was wait for spring to arrive and it was off to the healing waters of the spas, duck boats tours and the biggest race of the decade.
The prep race for Rachel Alexandra was to take place March 13 at Fair Grounds in the New Orleans Ladies Stakes. The conclusion was forgone. This was to be a coronation of sorts. An easy win for Rachel and then on to Oaklawn to validate the Horse of the Year title.
“New Orleans was a very pro-Rachel town and people would come watch her work in the mornings,” said Eric Halstrom, at that time the man running the racing program at Fair Grounds. “HRTV had our TV guys film the works and they’d play it later in the afternoon. When Steve (Asmussen) would school her, always in the afternoon, people would be hanging over the paddock rails watching her. By the time the New Orleans Ladies arrived, the buzz was off the charts. The biggest crowd in decades turned out. We guessed it at 15,000 in a place that uncomfortably holds 10,000. No promotion or giveaway…just a huge racing crowd,” Halstrom said.
“When the horses were being saddled it was bedlam. Literally a dangerous situation with everyone trying to get a close up of Rachel. Jess Jackson was being mobbed. Steve was all business. There was a $2 million show bet…I’d never seen that number on a tote board.”
Rachel was 1 to 20 in a short field.
Randy settled into the couch in the Canterbury press box that afternoon to watch the New Orleans Ladies Stakes. I paced behind the couch in anticipation.
Rachel took the lead but was collared by Zardana as they prepared for the drive. Surely Rachel would kick on. Zardana can’t pass her. Zardana can’t ruin this.
“When they turned for home you could see Rachel was in trouble. The 15,000 people went dead silent,” Halstrom said.
Zardana did kick on; Rachel did not. Zardana made the final visit of her career to the winners’ circle that day.
“I don’t think we will be going to Oaklawn,” Randy said in a manner that only he could. And with that he left the press box.
“The owner of the Zardana was a guy named Arnold Zetcher and he was very nice and gracious. He apologized to me for what had happened. He was happy but knew the ramifications of Rachel getting beat,” Halstrom said. “The silence lasted while people filed out. It was the most depressing moment I’ve ever seen at a racetrack. And watching Rachel being unsaddled and then walked back to the barn was a sad moment because anyone that knew racing knew that she wasn’t the same filly.”
I phoned Dark later that evening to commiserate. The announcement that the big race was off was only a formality, and it did come the next day from Jackson.
Dark took it in stride and we were back at the track early that week, likely playing a Tuesday card at Parx or buggies somewhere.
When spring comes around and Oaklawn is hitting its stride, I think of the race that might have been but more so of what would have been the trip of a lifetime in a limousine to Hot Springs with the great Dark Star and the boss.