Urbana author Deb Aronson freely acknowledges that she didn’t know anything about thoroughbred racing before 2009.
But Aronson that year began to notice news reports of a racehorse who was turning the sports world — and horse racing in particular — on its ear.
“It really resonated with me when I was reading about her success in the newspaper,” Aronson said. “I got sucked into it as part of the general public.”
Now, one year after the release of her children’s book, “Alexandra the Great,” Aronson is one of the country’s foremost experts on the life of a filly who some have tabbed as one of the best female racehorses in racing history.
“I had it in my head,” Aronson said, “that I always wanted to write about women succeeding in predominately male worlds.”
What makes the horse’s story compelling is that Rachel Alexandra — named for the original owner’s granddaughter — was born to a mother who rejected her, leaving the foal to be nursed by another mare. An unsightly youngster with less-than-ideal structure, Rachel Alexandra was expected to be sold before a medical condition was discovered that prevented her sale.
An underdog story was born. Rachel Alexandra won the Kentucky Oaks — the female companion race to the Kentucky Derby, which will be run for the 144th time on May 5 — and was sold to a new owner, who had the idea of racing her against males.
In her first start against the boys, Rachel Alexandra won the Preakness Stakes, the second jewel in racing’s Triple Crown. Later that year she won the prestigious Woodward Stakes against seasoned older males, an extraordinarily rare feat in racing. It would roughly be the equivalent of a high school freshman beating an NBA All-Star in a game of one-on-one.
For her remarkable achievements, Rachel Alexandra was named Horse of the Year, the sport’s highest honor.
“For me, it’s always been a girl-power story,” Aronson said. “Here’s this filly — fillies never race against males — and she’s not only racing against them but she’s kicking their asses.”
The book is geared toward 8- to 12-year-olds. Aronson said she has been struck by the response.
“The thing I love the best is people who come up to me and say they didn’t know anything about horses or they weren’t interested in horses but they couldn’t put the book down,” she said. “I had a friend, he and his wife were going on a road trip, and they were going to take turns reading the book out loud as they drove, and he wouldn’t give up the steering wheel because he wanted to keep listening to the story.”
“Alexandra the Great” is available on online book sellers, including Amazon.com.