By Josh Cook
Last year Rachel Alexandra ran away with the Kentucky Oaks.
She won the 1 1/8-mile race by a record 20 1/4 lengths in 2009. Fifteen days later she became the first filly to win the Preakness Stakes in 85 years on her way to becoming America's Sweetheart and earning Horse of the Year honors.
Friday she'll be back at Churchill Downs for the first time as a 4-year-old, running on the 136th Kentucky Oaks undercard in the $400,000 Grade II La Troienne Stakes.
That race will be a rematch between the powerful filly and 6-year-old mare Zardana, who beat Rachel Alexandra in March 13's New Orleans Ladies Stakes at Fair Grounds Race Course.
Heading into Friday one has to wonder, will Rachel's return overshadow this year's Oaks?
"It will be (a) well-watched 1:26 in the afternoon race, won't it?" Rachel Alexandra trainer Steve Asmussen said Thursday morning.
Rachel Alexandra is the 3-5 morning line favorite in the sixth race of the day, while Zardana is the second choice at 3-1. Rachel will be looking for redemption after her nine-race winning streak was ended in the NO Ladies Stakes, which was created in part as a potential meeting point for the filly and former female champion Zenyatta. That runner-up finish, however, derailed a possible showdown between the two champs at the 2010 Apple Blossom Invitational Handicap.
"I'm just disappointed she didn't win today," Asmussen said that day. "It was a lack of fitness and it's our job to have here there and I didn't do it."
Asked Thursday about Rachel Alexandra's fitness level heading into Friday's race, Asmussen said: "I think it would be hard to say because I think that there was so much room for improvement from what she was down there to who she is here."
The filly was schooled in the paddock Wednesday in preparation for Friday's 1 1/16-mile race.
"I thought she just looked tremendous," Asmussen said. "You know,you walk up to her in the paddock and you realize that she knows everything that she's done and she doesn't blink from it. It's amazing to me. Witness what she did last year and we're amazed with how she did it but for her to mentally handle it and not let it be overwhelming I think speaks volumes about who she is and how tough she is on the inside."
"Rachel Alexandra is a brilliant filly," said John Shirreffs, the trainer of both Zenyatta and Zardana. "She won the Oaks by 20 lengths, we've never seen that. She has speed, stamina, she has a lot of great qualities.
"The way she's been training you would expect that she probably would show up, but I don't want to talk about somebody else's horse. Zardana's doing well and I hope she runs well and I wish the best to Rachel Alexandra's people."
Asked about his horse Shirreffs said: "(She's) very good. Zardana's like a pit bull. She tries very hard."
That could explain the horse's upset of Rachel Alexandra a little more than a month ago which put a possible heavyweight race between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta on hold.
"We tried to make a race and tried to adjust her schedule to that as opposed to training her and letting her indicate when she's ready. We were trying to get her ready and it's just a completely different approach," Asmussen said. "I felt that if the (Apple Blossom Invitational) at Oaklawn was going to come off we needed a race before than out of respect for the competition, so we put things in motion. With the half-mile that week she had a total of seven works in six months and that's not something from a handicapping standpoint you guys usually support.
"(But) everything happens for a reason. I don't think we're meant to understand everything when it happens but we're very blessed that she came out of the race healthy and that we have the opportunity that we have tomorrow. For whatever reason it didn't happen."
Friday, though, Rachel Alexandra gets her chance at reprisal. And if she's successful, the filly who made the '09 Oaks field look silly just might surpass the 2010 Run for the Lillies all by herself.