Rachel Alexandra's Foal

This Saturday, 20 sleekly muscled and finely tuned 3-year-old Thoroughbreds will leap from the starting gate at Churchill Downs, marking the running of the 139th Kentucky Derby. Amid this display of spirit, speed and beauty, it will be hard to imagine that, not too long ago, these elite runners were adorable, fuzzy-eared foals capering around their pastures on spindly legs.

While one part of the horse racing world gears up this week for Saturday’s classic race — which is often referred to as "the most exciting two minutes in sports" — another part of it has been experiencing excitement of a different sort this spring: the birth of a new group of foals.

Away in a Manger

Not far from the bustling, high-stakes world of the racetrack shed row is the quiet oasis of foaling barns and paddocks. About a third of the approximately 25,000 Thoroughbred foals who are registered with The Jockey Club each year are born in Kentucky’s bluegrass country.

From January to June, the big breeding farms — and the smaller ones as well — anxiously wait for and then dote on their foals. As any human parent will understand, it’s a time when farm managers, veterinarians and anyone connected to the breeding industry usually go without much or any sleep.  

Because every Thoroughbred, regardless of his actual birthdate, automatically turns a year older on January 1, racehorse breeders try to time foaling due dates as early in the spring as possible. This way, when they start racing as 2- and 3-year-olds, the older colts and fillies will theoretically have a “leg up” on the younger horses.

Breeders pin their hopes and dreams on each foal’s pedigree and pore over breeding charts and statistics in order to find the right match between a mare and a stallion in order to (hopefully) produce a champion racehorse one day. In a little bit of male chauvinism, many breeders put a heavy emphasis on sire, or stallion, lines: A foal will often be described exclusively as being “by” a particular stallion.

This Year’s Most Famous Foals

Recent history, however, may be helping to change that attitude, at least a little. On a set of farms not far from the Churchill Downs grandstand where racing fans sip mint juleps and sing “My Old Kentucky Home,” two of the greatest race mares in history recently delivered their latest bundles of equine joy.  

“Super mares” Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta both rewrote the history books as they blazed through the racing scene before retiring to become broodmares. Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta each won Horse of the Year honors in 2009 and 2010, respectively, beating out “the boys” in a feat that is hard to equal. Rachel Alexandra is famed for winning the Preakness Stakes in 2009 — the first filly to do so since 1924 — among other accomplishments. And Zenyatta, who chalked up a record-breaking 19 wins out of 20 races during her career, was the first filly to beat an all-male field in the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic.

Zenyatta's Foal, 13Z

Baby “Z”

Zenyatta’s foal, who was born on April 1 at Lane’s End Farm in Versailles, Ky., is a leggy chestnut colt by Tapit who currently goes by the name of 13Z — a combination of his mother’s name and the year he was born. According to The Jockey Club, Thoroughbred foals aren’t usually given their formal racing names right away but are instead named when they are registered. He joins his older half brother, a bay yearling colt by Bernadini who has just been named Cozmic One. Updates on both colts, as well as Zenyatta herself, are regularly provided to her fans on her website.  

Rachel’s Sweet “Heart”

On Valentine’s Day, Rachel Alexandra, known for her signature “upside down” exclamation point facial marking, delivered a strapping 140-pound filly with an unusual mark of her own: a heart-shaped star on her forehead. There were complications at the birth, and the champion mare faced yet another extreme test — this time a fight for her life. She was transported to Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital for surgery. Happily, Rachel Alexandra is back home at Stonestreet Farm in Lexington, Ky., where her farm connections report she is recuperating nicely. Updates about Rachel Alexandra and her first foal, a bay colt by Curlin who has been named Jess’s Dream, and this year’s filly can be found at the Stonestreet Farm website.

The bay filly by Bernadini is being raised by a Quarter Horse nurse mare while Rachel Alexandra continues her recovery. And in another interesting twist, Rachel Alexandra's filly has the same sire as Zenyatta’s first colt, Cozmic One — which makes them half siblings.

In yet another twist, there is a third foal whom racing enthusiasts will be keeping an eye on for the next few years: Zenyatta’s dam, Vertiginaux, was bred back to her famous daughter’s sire, Street Cry, and delivered the bay colt in April at Ashford Stud in Versailles. This makes the colt Zenyatta’s full brother — and a horse worth watching.

A Future Derby Class?

The chances of any one of this year’s foal crop being good enough to race in a classic like the Derby is incredibly small, according to The Jockey Club. Only 0.2 percent of all Thoroughbred foals born worldwide are ever good enough to run in a Grade I (elite) race, and pedigree doesn’t always spell success. The Kentucky Derby “club,” for example, is a unique honor for a racehorse. Approximately 70 percent of each year’s foal crop will race, but of that number, only about 20 are good enough to be entered in the 1¼-mile Derby. Just a handful of that small group will be favored to win or even place in the race.

Regardless, as we watch the Derby this Saturday and fall in love with racing all over again, it’s impossible not to think of some of the foals back on the farm and wonder about the possibility of a future Triple Crown winner someday soon.

More from Vetstreet:

Helping Retired Racehorses Find New Lives

“My Animals and Other Family”: A Coming-of-Age Book for Animal Lovers

What 5 Kentucky Derby Winners Are Doing Now