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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 17, 2009

Horse racing: With Preakness over, Rachel Alexandra can win grander prize

By Gary West
McClatchy Newspapers

BALTIMORE — Everybody knew she was a stunning, wasabi-up-your-nose, once-in-a-lifetime filly, and now she’s a jewel thief, too.

Rachel Alexandra won Saturday’s Preakness Stakes at Pimlico, the second of horse racing’s Triple Crown jewels. She beat the “boys” and befuddled the doubters, she dispelled the skepticism as if it were an annoying fly, and she gave horse racing a resplendent moment. She has her jewel, and so now she can pursue a larger prize: the golden Eclipse Award symbolic of being Horse of the Year.
“That’s definitely the goal,” said her trainer, Steve Asmussen of Arlington.
Among fillies, Rachel Alexandra exhausted her competition two weeks ago, when she won the Kentucky Oaks by more than 20 lengths. With her Preakness performance, she proved herself to be, quite simply, one of the best, regardless of gender. And the victory gave her an honored place in the sport’s history.
In defeating Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird by a length, Rachel Alexandra became only the fifth filly ever to win the Preakness and the first since Nellie Morse in 1924. Rachel Alexandra also became only the 11th filly ever to win a race in the Triple Crown series.
“She’s the best filly I’ve ever seen,” Asmussen said, “And that was true even before she won the Preakness.”
The Preakness was her sixth consecutive stakes victory. She had dominated fillies, winning under restraint, with ease and aplomb, often by margins that might have seemed more appropriate to a NASCAR event. But Saturday she was challenged and pushed and ultimately forced to define herself as one of the greatest fillies of our time.
Rachel Alexandra went to the lead almost immediately, but from the start she felt pressure. Big Drama ran with her early, drifting out to force her a little wide in the first turn. They eyeballed each other through a quick opening half-mile (46.71 seconds).
She eased away from Big Drama in the second turn, and at the top of the Pimlico stretch, her jockey, Calvin Borel, asked for her best. She quickly opened up four lengths by mid-stretch, but in the final furlong Musket Man advanced, and Mine That Bird, after being blocked, finished powerfully.
They got close, but only close. For the first time, Borel had to rely on his whip to encourage the filly, and the jockey later said she struggled with the track, which was deeper than any surface she had raced over. Still, she persevered in a way that never allowed any doubt about the inevitability of her winning. Musket Man finished third, a half-length behind Mine That Bird. Rachel Alexandra completed the 13/16 miles in 1:55.08, a solid clocking on a day when the track was officially “fast” but rather dull.
And so now it’s on to the Belmont on June 6. Or is it? Asmussen said he’ll monitor the filly closely before there’s any decision about the final race in the Triple Crown.
She was moved to his stable only 11 days ago, shortly after she won the Oaks and was purchased by Jess Jackson and Harold McCormick. Having watched her then, Asmussen said he’ll be able to gauge her behavior in the next week to determine how stressful the Preakness might have been.
But she already has her jewel. All she needs now is that golden trophy. Only five fillies ever have been selected Horse of the Year, the last being Azeri in 2002, when she was a 4-year-old. In an odd year when none of the older horses are 3-year-olds looked superlative, Azeri won the Golden Eclipse without beating males.
But all the others — Twilight Tear (1944), Busher (1945), All Along (1983) and Lady’s Secret (1986) — defeated males on their way to Horse-of-the-Year honors. Having done that, Rachel Alexandra can aim at taking on older fillies in the fall and at a confrontation with Zenyatta, the unbeaten champion from a year ago.
And if she continues to dazzle, if she continues to drop jaws, if she continues to win, Rachel Alexandra will add the golden trophy to her expanding collection of baubles. That would be impressive even by Hollywood starlet standards. No filly has owned a golden trophy and a treasured jewel.