This piece looks at the living connection between Rachel Alexandra and one of her most famous ancestors. It is my tribute to Rachel whose racing career was brilliant and whom I am honored to have known, albeit from afar. I hope that Rachel’s connections will make it possible for those of us who loved her to keep up with her in retirement, visit her, feed her goodies and tell her that we will always be with her. Until that happens, this piece is my way of celebrating just how special Rachel really is…….
In 1907 one of the greatest thoroughbreds ever born stepped off the turf and into history. “The best ever” they said of her, noting, “Possibly not since the days of Eclipse have we seen such a smashing horse.” This was the Edwardian age — a time of neither radio nor rapid transit — but her every race was attended by thousands of devoted fans. This last was no different … even though it had ended in defeat. Her name was Pretty Polly and she is arguably one of the most potent ancestors in Rachel Alexandra’s pedigree, where she appears on both the top (Medaglia D’Oro) and bottom (Lotta Kim).
I don’t recall whether or not I knew about Rachel Alexandra before the 2009 Kentucky Oaks — but after it, I knew that I would never forget her. I knew that I had been a witness to one of “the greats,” even before her stunning victories in the Preakness, Haskell, Mother Goose and Woodward. On Oaks day, she set the bar for excellence with a casual nod of her sculpted head and in so doing called up memories of Ruffian showing her heels to the competition in the Mother Goose, of Secretariat’ s Belmont and Barbaro’s Kentucky Derby.
One can wait a lifetime for a thoroughbred like Rachel Alexandra and while they are among us, it’s important to celebrate their presence.
So, Rachel — this one is for you, girl.
As fate would have it, the look and feel of Rachel as she cantered to the wire in the Oaks was oddly familiar to me. A month or two before I had read a delightful little book about Pretty Polly, who had raced a little over a century earlier in England. It took me a few days to realize that not only did Rachel and Pretty Polly share an uncanny physical resemblance, but also that the two were deeply connected in other ways. Certainly their respective canters down to the finish of the Kentucky Oaks (2009) and the British Dominion for two year-olds at Sandown Park (1903) were identical.
|Pretty Polly as a 3 year-old with W. Lane up|
|Rachel at Saratoga in 2010 (courtesy Steve Haskin)|
Pretty Polly was born in 1901, the daughter of the stallion Gallinule (1884) and the mare Admiration (1892). Admiration was a rather ordinary thoroughbred, but her matings to Gallinule produced offspring who made their mark on the evolution of the thoroughbred. According to John Hislop, noted British breeder, owner and author, it was the presence of The Baron (1842) and Pocahontas (1833) in her pedigree that accounted for Polly’s stupendous abilities on the track, although the filly’s bloodlines also trace to the superlative little mare, Beeswing (1833). (The Baron, sire of Stockwell, remains one of the most important of thoroughbred sires to this day; Pocahontas was another profound influence on the breed and is also believed to be the progenitor of the big heart characteristic that is found in thoroughbreds that trace back to her, Secretariat being perhaps the most famous example. Beeswing could well be the subject of her own book. In brief, she raced until she was 9 years old and even though a diminutive 15 hands, was a fierce competitor, racing exclusively against the colts and winning 51 of 64 starts. Like Pocahontos, she exerted a potent influence on the development of the thoroughbred through daughters such as Honeysuckle, who also appears in Rachel Alexandra’s pedigree. Adored by her fans, Beeswing even had music written in her honor — ” The Beeswing Hornpipe.”)
Like Rachel, Pretty Polly was a big filly, standing just under 16 hands. She had a dark, rich chestnut coat, a white star on her forehead and one white sock on her left foreleg — this last another similarity that she shares with her famous descendant. Neither filly made much of an impression on their owners and trainers before they went into training. In Rachel’s case, she was looked upon as a “scruffy” baby and yearling. Polly tended towards a masculine body-type and was thought too muscular to really be any good by her trainer. Although gentle in nature, she was precocious for a 2 year-old, quick to display the fact that she had a mind of her own, as was the case with Rachel, according to her first trainer, Hal Wiggins.
When she went into training, Polly’s works were sluggish. In fact, she seemed fairly disinterested in the whole training process. But two weeks before her debut on the turf, Pretty Polly was sent out to gallop with three colts, one of which was very fast. Since Polly was carrying more weight than her trainer thought good for her, he decided to give her an arduous work and asked her rider to push her to the finish. To the trainer’s surprise, Polly and the speedy colt dead-heated most of the way, he finishing a short length ahead of her. The talent she displayed on that day was a precursor of what was to come on her first start — and throughout her career.
Pretty Polly broke her maiden by more than 10 lengths (according to one spectator) but the photo of the finish suggests that it was closer to 20, beating some very good colts along the way. So astounding was her lead as she continued to pull away from the other horses that the spectators thought there had been a false start. (In the absence of starting gates, false starts were fairly common. The way the crowd would recognize a false start was when they saw a horse so far on the lead that the other horses appeared to have started the race a second time.) Like Rachel’s Kentucky Oaks, which she won by over 20 lengths, Pretty Polly came home at a canter looking for all the world as though she’d simply been out for a gallop at home. Too, as the trainers of both Polly and Rachel noted, their fillies loved to race because they loved being “let loose.” However, both of these girls were decidedly feminine in other ways and Polly was noted for the sweet manner in which she accepted the sugar laying in a gloved palm of some lady or other in the winner’s enclosure after a race. Her best friend, a cob called Little Missus, accompanied Polly to the track; similarly, Rachel travelled and trained in the company of Steve Blasi’s pony, Dakota. In Polly’s case, so attached was she to her friend that when they met up in the winner’s enclosure, Polly greeted Little Missus with a whinny and a nuzzle. More than once the little cob attempted to race Polly to the start, much to the delight of the champion’s fans. Even though Polly’s sensibility seemed focused on Little Missus (it was rumored that Polly ran as fast as she did to get back to see her buddy), local and national newspapers were filled with plaudits after each of her races. The whole of Great Britain seemed to want to know her down to the most minute of details. She was given a number of affectionate nicknames by the press and her fans: “Peerless Polly,” “Her Ladyship” and “Queen of the Turf” among the most popular. There were even birthday cards. This one, made by a devoted admirer, shows Polly trouncing a colt named Zinfadel in the Ascot Gold Cup and reads: “Wishing you health, wealth, glory and good luck this season. This is how you must win!”
Birthday Card for Polly (in “Pretty Polly: An Edwardian heroine“)
In her two defeats, one in France and the other in England, the response of Polly’s fans was a deafening silence, followed — in the case of the Ascot Gold Cup loss — by weeping and a torrent of insults flung at the winner. The Times wrote of the loss in what was to be the last race of her career, “…the defeat of Pretty Polly was regarded as something like the shattering of an idol … and Bachelor’s Button was looked upon as the perpetrator of the deed.” (In both of her winless starts, Polly finished second. It was thought that her voyage to France, where she was the victim of poor sailing and rail conditions, accounted for her defeat there. At Ascot, it was the opinion of her trainer that the loss could be attributed to her jockey’s decision to move her to the lead too early, although she was also blocked at the final turn by a tiring horse, forcing her to be carried wide and likely costing her the race. And even though she was, like Rachel, very calm in the face of her boisterous fans, Polly seemed unusually disturbed by them in the walking ring prior to going down to the start.)
During the years she raced, Pretty Polly’s career overlapped that of another brilliant filly named Sceptre and although they never met, fans of each mare stolidly insisted on their horse’s superiority, not unlike the Rachel vs. Zenyatta debate of 2009. And, as was argued about both Rachel and Zenyatta on separate occasions, Pretty Polly’s critics claimed that she had not beat enough champions to be considered one herself and/or that the horses she had beaten were rather mediocre. (History has shown that these arguments become irrelevant over time. Other owners did indeed avoid running their horses against her, making it ridiculous to consider the absence of stronger competition a reason for her astounding turf record.) The “filly for the ages” retired with 22 wins in 24 starts, a total that no classic-winning filly in the 20th century would match. Her victories included the British Triple Crown for fillies, as well as the Doncaster St. Leger, the Coronation Cup at Epsom (twice) and the Jockey Club Cup at Newmarket. And even though Pretty Polly ran her final race in 1906, she was ranked as the best filly and brood mare of the 20th century internationally by the noted turf writers John Randall and Tony Morris in their book, A Century of Champions (1999).
Initially, Pretty Polly’s new career was not much to her liking. She became nervous and irritable and, perhaps because of this, proved barren the first two years and then slipped twins before producing her first offspring, a bay colt by Spearmint. With the colt’s arrival, Polly seemed to find a renewed interest in life and her sweet nature returned as she mothered her new baby. In general, she was looked upon as rather a failure in the breeding shed, largely because her admirers were hoping that she would reproduce herself. Her sons proved to be mediocre by any standard and among her daughters there were no champions who even came close to their dam, although two were fairly good runners. When Polly died, at the age of 30, this prevailing wisdom went to the grave with her.
However in one of the most important books produced in the twentieth century for pedigree researchers, Family Tables of Racehorses, written by Kazamierz Bobinski, it was found that only one mare born in that century qualified for special status as head of a special branch, identified in her own right as a prolific source of quality in the breed and the designated matriarch of family 14-c. That mare was Pretty Polly and it was her four daughters that carried her attributes into subsequent generations. Her first daughter Molly Desmond was the most prolific of the four. Molly’s descendants include Nearctic (the sire of Northern Dancer), Brigadier Gerard, Britain’s Horse of the (20th) Century and the Classic winners Premonition, St. Paddy, Flying Water and To-Agori-Mou, as well as the international sires Luthier and Northern Taste. Her other three daughters, Dutch Mary, Polly Flinders and Baby Polly accounted for Donatello II, Supreme Court, Vienna (the sire of Vaguely Noble), Carroll House (winner of the Arc de Triomphe), Psidium, Only For Life, Unite, Marwell and Court Harwell (a champion sire). When Bobinski’s text of 1953 was updated by Toru Shirai in 1990, Pretty Polly’s influence had become so enormous and her descendants so successful that the continued force of family 14-c into the 21st century is assured.
John Hislop, the breeder and owner of England’s Brigadier Gerard, bred the colt deliberately along Pretty Polly’s bloodlines. An author who has written several books on the thoroughbred, Hislop never doubted that Polly’s genetic material would carry down to the present day. In fact, Hislop was so certain of this that in 1945 he bought Brazen Molly (b. 1940, out of Molly Adare, Mary Desmond’s maiden daughter) who became the granddam of “the Brigadier.”
Rachel Alexandra’s connection to Pretty Polly is through her most prepotent daughter, Molly Desmond and the uncanny resemblance to Pretty Polly may hint of “more than just a trace” of her great ancestress in Rachel’s blood. In other words, it’s not a matter of whether or not Rachel has inherited some genetic trace(s) of Pretty Polly — she has — but rather what that might mean in her broodmare career that makes this “living connection” so exciting.
The great Vincent O’Brien, who trained Nijinsky II, The Minstrel, El Gran Senor and so many other thoroughbred champions, always referred to his horses as “individuals.” I like to use that term myself because it serves as a reminder that each and every horse is unrepeatable, hence the nouns like “gift” or “treasure” that become attached to them in our hearts. In our lives, there are thoroughbreds that help us to “grow” that appreciation — in some uncanny way they touch us deep in our souls, making their absolute “unrepeatability” clear. Then there are individuals like Rachel Alexandra, who is not only unrepeatable, but also expresses her ancestry in a way that bridges past and present. In so doing, she brings her own history to life and leads us to the understanding that she is “the work” of centuries.
Thank you, sweet Rachel, for the thrills, anticipation and excitement. Thank you for your generous heart, a heart that expresses all that is noble, courageous and mysterious in the thoroughbred. May your future shine before you as brightly as the flame you grew within the hearts of those of us who love you. And may you, like Pretty Polly, go on and on and on.
Rachel Alexandra, Kentucky Oaks 2009. Photo by Skip Dickstein for Blood Horse.
Pretty Polly — first time out; Sandown Park, June 27, 1903