By T. D. ThorntonTurn the clock back a dozen years and recall when a fledgling filly parlayed a November win in the GII Golden Rod S. into a torrid nine-stakes win streak that culminated in Horse of the Year honors. That filly, of course, was Rachel Alexandra. Now it's 2021, and the Fair Grounds annually honors Rachel Alexandra's brief (one win, one second) tenure in New Orleans with a Grade II stakes race in mid-February. Saturday's edition just so happened to feature the one-two fillies from the Nov. 28 Golden Rod S. at Churchill Downs, a race that stood out as the most visually impressive two-turn stakes of 2020 in the juvenile fillies division. Three months ago, 'TDN Rising Star' Travel Column (Frosted) overcame a slow start and multiple logjams in the stretch to bull past fast-finishing Clairiere (Curlin) in the shadow of the wire. The final clocking of that 1 1/16 miles stakes was .54 seconds faster than Triple Crown-aspiring males ran one race later in the GII Kentucky Jockey Club S., signaling both fillies (separated by only a length) might be worth watching down the road. Not surprisingly, Travel Column was backed to even-money favoritism in the 3-year-old debut for both rivals in the Rachel Alexandra, while Clairiere went off as the 2-1 second choice. Travel Column, a poised speedstress, broke running from her outside stall and asserted herself near the head of the field with a three-wide bid into the clubhouse turn. Clairiere, comfortable rating from a touch farther off the pace than in previous starts, broke inward from the one hole and hit the gate, so jockey Joe Talamo allowed the bay to settle into stride by her lonesome, eighth and last at the fence. Travel Column led the main body of the pack while sitting second down the backstretch, six lengths behind a 25-1 breakaway pacemaker who would eventually fade to last. The favorite appeared primed to pounce while getting a gift of a trip, but nemesis Clairiere more arrestingly caught the eye as she began building a wave of momentum five furlongs out with a well-measured uncoiling from the back of the pack that belied her two races of experience. Rail-running Clairiere inhaled half the field by the time the pack tightened up at the half-mile pole, but Talamo had to tap the brakes a touch over the next furlong because she was momentarily hemmed in. When he cued Clairiere to quicken three-eighths out, her response was instant, and the two shot up the reopened rail on the prowl after Travel Column, who by the midway point on the turn had seized first run on the wilting speed and was obviously the filly to beat. Turning for home, Talamo expertly vacated the rail and split foes to avoid getting trapped behind the caving pacemaker, then switched back to the fence in upper stretch to keep from running up on the heels of Travel Column. Initially, the body language of the two fillies and the actions of their riders appeared to favor Travel Column, because the even-striding gray had yet to be fully set down by Florent Geroux while Talamo was already imploring Clairiere for more after she had already given plenty. In fact, Talamo's decision to switch to Clairiere to the outside of Travel Column at the eighth pole initially had a “one lateral move too many” look to it. But when Clairiere clearly saw her target and took off in determined pursuit, it amounted to a fourth distinct move over the course of a prolonged five-furlong drive, a remarkable in-race tactical progression that is unusual for a newly turned 3-year-old filly to accomplish so deftly. And it wasn't like Clairiere was reeling in a tired filly, either. Both finished well, but Clairiere finished better. Her winning margin of a neck was augmented by a confident gallop-out that kept her rival at bay well past the wire. Clairiere's final time for 1 1/16 miles was 1:45.34. She was initially assigned a provisional 83 Beyer Speed Figure (same number as her Golden Rod second), but by Sunday that Beyer got adjusted upward to an 85. Interestingly, the final eighth for the Rachel Alexandra clocked in at 6.28 seconds, slightly faster than the 6.36 final furlong that undefeated older male Maxfield (Street Sense) ran in the same-distance GIII Mineshaft S. two races earlier on the card. Clairiere is owned and bred by Stonestreet Stables and trained by Steve Asmussen, the same connections who acquired Rachel Alexandra after her 20 1/4-length dismantling of the 2009 GI Kentucky Oaks field. She then, in succession, won the GI Preakness S., GI Mother Goose S., GI Haskell Invitational S. and GI Woodward S. Clairiere is now on a path that could very well lead to an Oaks berth. She's certainly bred to cover a distance of ground–both her sire, Curlin, and damsire, Bernardini, were Preakness victors (among other multiple Grade I stakes they won up to 10 furlongs), and her dam, Cavorting, was a MGISW up to nine furlongs for Stonestreet. Clairiere shouldn't be saddled with expectations of turning into another Rachel Alexandra. But right now she and Travel Column are supplying the sport with something sorely lacking across almost every division–a competitive, evenly matched rivalry that is fun to watch play out from race to race. The 1-2-3 finishers from last November's GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies have yet to start as 3-year-olds, but these two have already hooked up twice in that interim, delivering a spectacular show on both occasions. Here's rooting for another rematch in the near future.
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