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Queen's crown slips - but that's racing; ON LOCATION: Nicholas Godfrey visits Fair Grounds in New Orleans for the return of America's sweetheart, Rachel Alexandra.

Byline: Nicholas Godfrey

NEARLY everyone is expecting another easy win in the Big Easy. Nearly everyone is going to leave sorely disappointed. Rachel Alexandra, exalted US horse of the year, is returning to action against just four seemingly overmatched rivals in a $200,000 event specially created for her way down yonder in New Orleans, where she has spent the winter as part of Eclipse Award-winning trainer Steve Asmussen's talent-laden string.

America's Sweetheart has attracted the largest crowd in the modern era to the historic Fair Grounds, about 12,000-plus people squashed into the compact stand at a racetrack that has survived two calamitous fires and the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.

The bleachers are jammed; the track apron is packed solid, ready to greet the horse who last year compiled arguably the greatest ever campaign by a US three-year-old filly.

Rachel Alexandra is sent off a 1-20 shot, set to return backers just five cents on the dollar for what is designed as merely a tune-up for her highly anticipated $5 million showdown with arch-rival Zenyatta, who she beat in Eclipse Awards voting.

And then the unthinkable happens.

Rachel Alexandra cruises up to the lead on the far turn, before getting outrun in the stretch by another mare whose name begins with a 'Z' and ends with an 'A' - the ex-Brazilian Grade 2 winner Zardana, mischievously sent to Fair Grounds by none other than John Shirreffs, trainer of Zenyatta.

The sense of anti-climax is tangible. Make no mistake, this is by no means the result they were looking for at Fair Grounds on one of the highest-profile days in the track's long history, which dates back to 1872, making it the third oldest active racecourse in the States after Saratoga and Pimlico.

On the second tier of the US scene, Fair Grounds races for five months in the winter with a raft of Graded stakes, none of them at top level, the most prestigious being the Louisiana Derby, a recognised Kentucky Derby trial at the end of March.

Nevertheless, purses inflated by revenue from the ground-floor slot-machine parlour of the track's sole grandstand mean Fair Grounds can be relied upon to attract a decent-class of racehorse - for example, last year's Kentucky Derby favourite Friesan Fire took the New Orleans route to Churchill Downs.

But this is a middle-of-the-road venue in virtually every respect. Barely ten minutes north of New Orleans' celebrated French Quarter, the track is even located in the district known as Mid-City - middle-class, mixed ethnicity, in the dead centre of the city on the map. A residential neighbourhood full of overhanging branches, the veined fingers of a spindly grey hand clutching streets with romantic names like Esplanade Avenue and Gentilly Boulevard, features a handful of welcoming cafes and restaurants. My personal favourite is the faintly bohemian coffee shop Fair Grinds. Geddit? Less attractive is the racecourse exterior itself. After the old wooden stand was destroyed by an electrical fire in 1993, a functional five-storey replacement stands in its place today, a beige and terra cotta building entered via an immense car park running the entire length of the home stretch. The back stretch is flanked by the colossal green and grey aircraft hangars of the barn complex; floodlights overlook the dirt oval.

The day I visit Fair Grounds, the track is offering an 11-race card, most of them claimers with prize-money starting at just over $12,000. As well as perennial leading trainer Asmussen, there are a couple of famous feature names among the riders in Patrick Valenzuela and Shane Sellers, well known to European enthusiasts for their associations with Arazi and Running Stag respectively.

And for certain transgressions.

Indeed, one has to wonder whether a city with such a licentious reputation as New Orleans offers the most fitting environment for an intermittent dope fiend (P-Val) or a recovering alcoholic (Sellers), though the latter, in particular, appears to be doing pretty well.

Walk down boozed-up Bourbon Street on a Friday and it is quite possible to believe that Rachel Alexandra is the only female in New Orleans who hasn't been offered a string of gaudy beads in return for displaying her breasts.

Not only has Fair Grounds brought the box-office attraction, they've also booked the weather to some degree, a strong sun standing sentinel above the track in a clear blue sky, although a fierce wind ensures the majority of the crowd elect to stay under cover behind the stand's green-tinted facade.

While general entry is free, maybe the best deal is the $20 for hiring a grandstand box, which seats six with a TV monitor.

The crowd features all shapes and sizes, ages, colours and genders. As well as an unusually high proportion of women and children, the betting parlours in the lower reaches of the stand feature plenty of those slumped, haggard characters often found stooping on racetracks around the world but especially in the USA.

As might be expected, given a ready supply of cold beer, ice cream, Curly's BBQ and an inexpensive oyster bar (half-dozen on the half-shell for $8.50), the atmosphere is easygoing.

Nearly everyone is in jeans, many of them also sporting windcheaters and sweatshirts bearing the colours of unlikely Super Bowl winners the New Orleans Saints. Baseball caps and t-shirts supporting either the Saints or Rachel Alexandra are de rigueur, although the prevailing outlook is perhaps best summed up by the beer-swigging gent whose top bears the legend: "If my music is too loud, you're too old."

While dress restrictions apply in the $6-entry clubhouse, they aren't too onerous - just don't wear shorts or you won't be able to enjoy a Creole menu featuring 'po'boys' and seafood gumbo alongside other substantial entrees.

MIND you, plenty of racegoers don't leave the environs of the bijou hedge-filled parade ring behind the stand, where they are ten deep ready for Rachel Alexandra's arrival late in the afternoon. Faces are pressed against windows five floors up to get a glimpse of the champion, immediately recognisable virtue of her upside-down exclamation-mark white blaze and distinctive white bridle.

Although jockey Calvin Borel habitually refers to her as his "little filly", Rachel Alexandra dwarfs her opponents, the cynosure of all eyes as she strolls alongside the laid-back, ever-smiling Asmussen, very much in the minority in his beige suit.

As she is cheered both in and out of the paddock, any prospect of defeat seems almost inconceivable, even if she isn't entirely ready for the race, according to her trainer, after a wet winter.

But as Kauto Star's fans now know to their cost, you can't always get what you want. Courageous as she is, fighting back once headed by the emissary from the land of Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra simply cannot fulfil her allotted role. If you can't literally hear a pin drop after the race, there is just a sprinkling of polite applause for the winner - plus some natural whooping and hollering from her connections (Shirreffs absent on Zenyatta duty at Santa Anita).

Borel won't hear of any criticism of his vanquished princess. "You know how I know she's a real racehorse?" he says. "She was beat when that other horse went by her but she didn't quit. My little filly tried hard."

Facing the music from reporters, Asmussen takes the blame for Rachel Alexandra's evident lack of fitness. "If I'd thought she would get beat, I wouldn't have run her," he says.

A day later, to no one's surprise, she is ruled out of the clash with Zenyatta at Oaklawn.

Perhaps the last word on Rachel Alexandra's visit to New Orleans can go to trainer Glenn Delahoussaye, who had high hopes for his local filly Clear Sailing, diagnosed with a low-grade lung infection after finishing last.

"I knew Rachel wasn't quite at her peak in her training and I figured if there was ever a time to beat her that was it," he says.

"I was right about that, but I was thinking it was going to be my filly that beat her. That's the way this game is - chicken one day, feathers the next."

Maybe that's the local vernacular for 'that's racing', but less of a cliche.

CAPTION(S):

From top left: a glorious stage is set for the day's racing at Fair Grounds; fans show their affection for Rachel Alexandra on her return; Steve Asmussen readies his champion filly for the task ahead; but, in a shock result, she is beaten but the John Shirreffs-trained Zardana (left)
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Mar 23, 2010
Words:1413
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