Horse racing: No decision yet on Rachel; Alexandra and the Belmont
By John Jeansonne
BALTIMORE — As if set to the typically frenzied track-announcer auctioneer’s call down the stretch, new leaders for the claim to season’s best 3-year-old thoroughbred keep popping up.
Annnnnnnd ... it’s Rachel Alexandra. For now, anyway. The filly’s convincing victory in Saturday’s Preakness, basically wire to wire in her debut against colts, dramatically upgraded her status, with the real possibility she could further validate her credentials if her handlers choose to run her in the Belmont on June 6. (A decision won’t be made for at least several days, co-owner Jess Jackson said.)
As the shadows lengthen on the Triple Crown season, Rachel Alexandra — whose previous owners kept her out of the Kentucky Derby — has horsemen gushing over her run at Pimlico. She showed a high cruising speed that brought her from the far outside post right to the front and, despite jockey Calvin Borel’s sense that she wasn’t altogether comfortable with the track, she gritted down the stretch to hold off Derby champion Mine That Bird by a length.
Borel called her the “greatest race horse I’ve been on in my life.” He’s 42 and has been on a lot of race horses. Mike Smith, who got the Preakness ride on Mine That Bird because Borel made the unprecedented decision to give up his Derby mount for Rachel Alexandra, conceded that the filly had fully proved herself by “beating the greatest colts in the country.”
Virtually all of his colleagues agreed. “Super filly,” said trainer David Fawkes, whose Big Drama was fifth. “There was no catching her,” said Al Stall, trainer of seventh-place Terrain. “She took it right to them all, led every step of the way,” marveled trainer Todd Pletcher, whose Take the Points was 13th.
Still, Rachel Alexandra’s unflinching challenge to the males, as impressive as it was, was just the latest revelation during the ongoing search for the best in her age group this season. Only two weeks earlier, it was Mine That Bird who appeared out of nowhere like some UFO.
Maybe Bird’s unearthly Derby shocker, coming from 50-1 odds and 21 lengths behind, had something to do with the fact that his owners — Mark Allen and Leonard Blach — are based in Roswell, N.M., where aliens supposedly crash-landed in 1947. Except that Mine that Bird proved that scintillating Derby charge to be very real with Saturday’s reprise; this time he came from 17 lengths back and, despite being forced wide, demanded all Rachel Alexandra had to give.
Mine That Bird’s team already is salivating over the trip to Belmont, whether Rachel Alexandra races or not, and a match race certainly would be appealing. But don’t put down the binoculars yet. In just the past two months, five prominent candidates for the Triple Crown have disappeared from the scene.
In March, the 2008 Breeders’ Cup juvenile champion, Midshipman, injured a leg, scotching his Derby possibilities. Then The Pamplemousse, because of a bad leg, was scratched hours before an anticipated duel in the Santa Anita Derby against Pioneerof the Nile. And Old Fashioned, during a loss to Papa Clem at the Arkansas Derby, came up with a bum knee and was retired.
Quality Road then emerged as most likely to succeed at Churchill Downs but was withdrawn because of a bad foot. And I Want Revenge, who assumed Quality Road’s role as pre-Derby choice, suffered a similar fate — scratched from the Derby on race morning because of an ankle injury.
Though still healthy, Pioneerof the Nile twice failed to move when it mattered, as a well-beaten second in the Derby and 11th in the Preakness. Friesan Fire, who went off as the favorite in Louisville, likewise has disappointed twice — 18th at the Derby and 10th at Pimlico.
After Rachel Alexandra and Mine That Bird, the most consistent of the Triple Crown participants has been Musket Man, the colt co-owned by Jericho’s Eric Fein, with a pair of third-place finishes. But trainer Derek Ryan confirmed Sunday there will be “no Belmont, definitely.”
Might some other name be called at Belmont? Cue the track announcer and pay attention: Heeeeere they come.