LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - There are several reasons why Rachel's Valentina is the 7-2 morning-line favorite for Friday's Longines Kentucky Oaks in the absence of unbeaten champion Songbird:
+ Her consistency, never being worse than second in four starts, including by a neck to the late-running Weep No More in Keeneland's Grade I Ashland in her last start. In that race off a five-month layoff, she was sandwiched between horses and did the dirty work of pushing the pace.
+ There's her second-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies won by Songbird.
+ And there's the fact that she's the second foal out of one of racing's most popular fillies in recent years: Rachel Alexandra, who became 2009 Horse of the Year over another wildly popular horse, Zenyatta, in a campaign in which she defeated males in the Preakness, Haskell and Saratoga's prestigious Whitney. Both mares are being inducted into the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame this summer in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Rachel also won the Kentucky Oaks by 20 1/4 lengths before being sold privately to the late wine-magnate Jess Jackson, the filly switching barns from Hal Wiggins to Steve Asmussen.
While the Todd Pletcher-trained Rachel's Valentina is Rachel Alexandra's second and most recent foal, there's a chance that she won't be her final baby. After two difficult pregnancies, including almost dying when having Rachel's Valentina, Rachel Alexandra has not been bred in three years. But asked if Rachel Alexandra was permanently retired as a broodmare or may be bred again, owner Barbara Banke, Jackson's widow and partner in Kendall-Jackson Wines, paused and said, "probably."
So probably she could be bred again?
"Probably," she said. "I don't know if my nerves could stand it. But, yeah."
Banke said the equine medicine experts indicate that Rachel Alexandra could be bred again without ill effects.
"But you just wonder," she said, adding with a laugh, "My focus is getting her to the Hall of Fame. That will be great."
Banke said that Rachel Alexandra is healthy and there have been no medical issues since the mare suffered a colon injury in delivering the 140-pound foal that today is Rachel's Valentina. Rachel Alexandra was brought to Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital for exploratory surgery, during which the colon injury was discovered, a major problem being bacteria released into the abdomen. The surgery to repair the injury required removing a section of intestines.
"She hangs out in the field with her buddies who are retired broodmares," Banke said of Rachel today. "She comes in and gets a bunch of treats and is fussed over ... We have 'See Rachel Days' probably every month or other month. She just has a lot of fans."
Rachel's first foal, a colt by Jackson and Banke's two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, was named Jess's Dream. Now 4, the Kiaran McLaughlin-trained Jess's Dream rallied from 20 lengths back in a 1 1/8-mile maiden race at Saratoga. He hasn't raced since but has been working at Belmont Park.
Rachel's Valentina actually beat her older brother to the races, winning Aug. 2 at Saratoga and then taking the Grade I Spinaway a month later before training up to the Breeders' Cup. Keeneland's Ashland was her first start as a 3-year-old.
"She's bounced out of the Ashland really well," Pletcher said. "That was a terrific effort on her part for first time out on the year. She fought off several challenges and was unlucky to be nailed late. But the race brought her forward, and her breeze here was excellent.
"You'd think everything about her would suggest two turns, a mile and an eighth," he said of the Oaks distance. "That's what she's been bred for and wanting to do her whole life. She's got a pedigree to handle the distance and a pedigree to handle Churchill as well."
In addition to Rachel Alexandra being a graded-stakes winner at Churchill Downs at ages 2, 3 and 4, she is a daughter of Bernardini, the 2006 3-year-old champion who won the Preakness, Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Rachel's Valentina is Exhibit No. 1 of the old horse-racing adage "breed the best to the best and hope for the best." In this case, it worked.
"The percentages haven't been large, so I'm happy to be here with her," Banke said. "I knew she was good. When she was 2, she was one of our best. And one of our best was Terra Promessa, and here we are with the two of them."
Terra Promessa is one of three fillies owned by Banke's Stonestreet Stables in the Kentucky Oaks, the third being Royal Obsession.
The homebred Terra Promessa, also a daughter of Curlin, has won four straight races, most recently Oaklawn Park's Fantasy. Royal Obsession, a $1.15 million purchase at Keeneland's November sale last fall before racing, won her first two starts, then was a good fourth in the Fair Grounds' Grade II Rachel Alexandra before finishing second in Aqueduct's Gazelle.
"I like them both, but because she is Rachel's filly, she has a special place for me," Banke said of her two homebreds in the Oaks. "Terra Promessa has done real well. I'm happy where both of them are, and we'll see how Royal Obsession does as well. I think she's thriving here."
Of Rachel Alexandra and Rachel's Valentina, she said, "It just doesn't happen that often; these famous race-mares aren't necessarily the best broodmares. You count yourself lucky figuring one and done with one that's good enough."
So why breed her again? Rachel Alexandra as a racehorse was allowed to prove the extent of her greatness in one of the greatest campaigns for a filly against the boys on dirt in modern times. Off to such a promising start as a broodmare (the racetrack struggles of Zenyatta's offspring, for instance, illustrates how hard it can be), is it a matter of giving Rachel Alexandra a chance to add to her extensive legacy?
"It's a conundrum, isn't it?" Banke asked. "But she's done well up to now. I'm lucky, so far. We'll see."