Rachel Alexandra wasn't supposed to lose. The Horse of the Year for 2009 was using the $200K New Orleans Ladies Stakes as a prep for her long-awaited showdown with Zenyatta in the $5 million Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park in April.
However, those who follow the sport of thoroughbred horse racing know all too well that the best laid plans ... even when a horse goes off at odds of 1-20.
"It was kind of a shocking moment for everybody else,” said jockey David Flores, who rode Zardana to the upset victory last Saturday at odds of 9-1. "That’s the reason we went, to win the race. I don’t like seconds. The outcome was great for us."
For the fans in attendance at the Fair Grounds the sentiment was much different. They didn't expect to be holding their Rachel posters down by their side when the winner of the race was brought into the winner's circle.
"It was a moment of quietness," Flores said, describing the mood in the grandstand.
After putting away pace-setter Fighter Wing at the top of the stretch, Rachel was immediately tackled to her outside by Flores and Zardana.
“When I saw that he (Rachel's jockey Calvin Borel) pulled his whip and started hitting her left-handed, and he couldn’t pull away from me, I had a feeling the last eighth of a mile that I had a great chance,” said Flores. "She gave in at the end. She’s a good filly. You can’t take anything away from her."
Flores is no stranger to winning big races, having notched three victories in Breeders' Cup races, and winning riding titles at almost every meet in Southern California. He also won the Kentucky Oaks in 1998 aboard Keeper Hill, a race that Rachel Alexandra won by 20 lengths last year.
The irony abounds surrounding Zardana's victory. She is trained by John Sheriffs, who also trains Zenyatta, and the similarities in their names speaks for itself.
By beating Rachel with Zardana, Sheriffs cost himself a shot at running for $5 million with Zenyatta, who improved her record to a perfect 15-for-15 in the Grade 1 Santa Margarita Invitational at Santa Anita less than 30 minutes after Rachel's defeat.
The connections for Rachel Alexandra have said she will not compete in the Apple Blossom, which reverts the value of the race to $500K, and it's possible that Zenyatta will face her stable mate instead.
“She knows what it’s all about. She’s proved it running on the grass and synthetic and the dirt. She’s a game horse,” said Flores of the Brazilian-bred Zardana. “I’m not sure what they’re going to do. I’m just a passenger, and I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I just have to be ready for whatever comes.”
In today's Grade 2 $150K San Luis Rey Handicap, Flores jumps aboard Dynamic Range for the mile and a half event run over Santa Anita's turf course.
After winning two races in a row in optional-claiming company, the four-year old Dynaformer colt ran a respectable fourth in the Grade 2 San Marcos here in January before running a disappointing seventh, beaten over 11 lengths in the Grade 2 San Luis Obispo last month.
"Well, I just got to look at the tape (of his last race) again today. Study the race a little bit and see what the other contenders have and go from there," said Flores regarding his approach to riding the Julio Canani-trained colt for the first time. "I just do my job and look at what I’m riding every day and that’s my homework.”
The betting favorite will no doubt be Bourbon Bay, who crushed in the aforementioned San Luis Obispo by over four lengths after winning in similar fashion in an optional-claiming event in January.
Ridden by the meet's leading rider Rafael Bejarano, the four-year old gelded son of Sligo Bay sold for just $1,700 at Keeneland in 2007, and has career earnings of over $209K.