Editor’s note: Today we welcome a talented guest columnist in Marcus Schmidli, a Seattle sports fan who shares his thoughts on the recent retirement of Rachel Alexandra, winner of the 2009 Preakness Stakes. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Horse racing. Not my cup of tea. But never have I met someone more passionate about the sport than Marcus. And while I am not a big horse racing fan, myself, Marcus’s unbridled love for the Sport of Kings compelled me. I asked him to write something, anything, for this site. His style is impeccable. Please check it out.
“As you know, despite top training and a patient campaign, Rachel Alexandra did not return to her 2009 form. I believe it’s time to retire our champion and reward her with a less stressful life. We are delighted that she will retire healthy and happy to our beautiful farm in Kentucky.” – Majority owner, Jess Jackson.
With those words, the powerful engine of the “Girl Power” era of horse racing came to an abrupt and thundering halt.
In a sport historically dominated by males, Rachel Alexandra accomplished something very few athletes have ever done. She took to a race track in the crisp, rainy months of spring and over time, transcended her field. She attempted to save horse racing when men of wealth could not, carrying the sport on her shoulders, making it important again, and leaving behind a legacy that won’t soon be forgotten.
Legacies are founded on the hard work of an individual attempting to achieve greatness. Michael Jordan, Ken Griffey Jr., Jerry Rice, Barry Bonds, Larry Bird, Ichiro Suzuki, Peyton Manning — all of these athletes have one thing in common. They take on the challenge of immortality with the help of teammates, who surround them and aid them on that quest.
Horse racing is a very different sport.
Requiring a certain individual greatness, horse racing relies on the navigation of a human aboard a sleek half-ton creature that reaches speeds of 45 miles per hour. The horse’s success, unlike that of Jordan or Bonds, depends heavily on his or her bloodline. Because of that very fact, greatness can be fleeting in horse racing. Animals that spend 25 years of life on this earth, may only race for two of those years. If you are lucky, as I have been the past few years, you have paid witness to that greatness in an animal like Rachel Alexandra. Greatness on par with what people have come to expect from Jordan and Bonds, Rice and Griffey.
August 29, 2009 will go down as the last day of Rachel’s brilliant racing career. She finished second to a mediocre filly named Persistently. The time of the race was not stellar; the distance of the race was the furthest Rachel had ever run before.
The performance, as a whole, led no one to believe she would be retired. It was a subpar showing for race fans in expectation alone and, if anything, proved to her faithful following that this super horse was not immortal any longer.
She had become less regal, we thought. Less dynamic. Less reliable. And yet she still managed to finish second.
One of our flaws as sports fans is that, at times, we fail to be realistic about things. When situations don’t play out as we expect them to, we criticize, play armchair quarterback, play the what-if game, and list hundreds of reasons for why things should happen the way they do in our head. We pay no attention to the mortality of what we witness, the toll it takes on our heroes, and how much they have left in the tank for us to cheer about.
On a local scale, there are those of you who apply this stubborn mentality to the Huskies, the Mariners, or the Seahawks. I made this horrible mistake with Rachel. I forgot myself. I forgot that it was her on that track, lungs full of air, heart pounding, legs churning. She was the one doing all this work. My job was to sit back and enjoy it. Instead, I got caught up in her final days, pointing out her flaws and her imperfections because I expected that with my counsel, they could be fixed. I committed the cardinal sin of the fan. And though it’s not my fault that she has departed from the sport, I can’t help but feel a sense of guilt for my behavior.
Now that she is gone, I have the ability to look back on her legacy and relive her greatness, relive the significance for female horses and for the sport she raced in.
It’s hard to quantify Rachel Alexandra’s lasting impact on the sport of horse racing. I would compare it favorably to how Griffey helped save baseball in Seattle. It is that important, and most of you probably missed it.
Here was an athlete that in 19 career trips to the track, finished first or second on 18 occasions.
She beat the boys three times in one season.
She won the Preakness Stakes in dramatic fashion, doing so with grace and elegance.
Yet very few sports fans seemed to care and worse yet, as someone who cared wholeheartedly, I fell victim to being an overzealous fanatic with ridiculous expectations.
When great things happen to us, whether they be trivial or important, we must try and remain conscious of reality and our surroundings. When bad things happen, we must not look to tear them down so quickly. Everyone’s fandom is different. The thing that separates yours from mine is that your team returns ever year, plays every snap and doesn’t die. The things I’m a fan of fill my life with joy for roughly two minutes on Saturdays, then disappear forever within a 24-month period.
Rachel Alexandra is going to disappear to lead a “less stressful life,” as Jess Jackson pointed out. She’s earned that trip to the breeding shed. It’s just going to be different not having her around. It can be hard to comprehend that feeling of loss. We all dealt with it recently when the Sonics were taken from us, and now I will deal with it again as Rachel retires from her profession.
Dominance knows no color or race. Greatness is not reserved for a certain species. Immortality is not prejudice towards one sex. Rachel Alexandra was special. She was dominant, proud, and immortal. She leaves behind lasting memories that I’ll cherish forever. In the “Sport of Kings,” Rachel Alexandra ruled, for a brief time, like the grandest of queens.
“I am blessed to have been part of history,” said trainer Steve Asmussen. “The fans adored her, we all did. She had the most fluid and beautiful stride of any horse I have ever seen. It’s been quite a ride.”
I’m glad to say I had front row seats for the entire thing.
Merci encore, Miss Alexandra.
I leave you with this clip that truly defines the greatness of Rachel Alexandra: