Horse racing: No Crown, but Rachel reigns
By TOM PEDULLA
BALTIMORE - Thoroughbred racing fans probably will have to wait several days to learn whether history-making filly Rachel Alexandra and validated Kentucky Derby champion Mine That Bird will dance another dance in the June 6 Belmont Stakes.
For now, the memory of watching Rachel Alexandra blaze on the front end in Saturday’s Preakness and withstand Mine That Bird’s late surge by 1 length will have to do.
The sport is still buzzing about the daughter of Medaglia d’Oro and her emergence as the fifth filly to win the 13/16-mile middle leg of the Triple Crown, the first since Nellie Morse in 1924.
“My horse ran well, but we got beat by a great one,” said Derek Ryan, trainer of third-place Musket Man. ”She’s a filly for the ages.”
Rachel Alexandra was only the 11th filly to take on the boys in the Preakness since Nellie Morse. The group included Derby champions Genuine Risk, who placed second in 1980, and Winning Colors, third in 1988.
Rachel Alexandra left little doubt about her superiority after breaking from the extreme outside in the field of 13 and getting caught wide around the first turn, forcing jockey Calvin Borel to commit to the lead much earlier than he intended.
“Like I told everybody up front, she’s the best horse in the country right now bar none,” Borel said. ”I can’t go back on my word. I won’t go back on my word.”
The jockey who struggles to read and write sure knows his horses. Borel and racing’s new heroine have rattled off six consecutive victories at four racetracks by a combined 44 lengths since Nov. 29.
While the Preakness was not the Kentucky Oaks, where Rachel Alexandra showed she had nothing left to prove against fillies in routing them by a record 20 lengths May 1, it was every bit as impressive in another respect. Although Borel noted she struggled with her footing at Pimlico Race Course, he also said, “Turning for home, I knew I was home free.”
The outcome provided a huge relief for Jess Jackson. He purchased a majority interest in the filly after the Oaks and displayed his sporting nature by supplementing her to the Preakness for $100,000 because she was not nominated to the Triple Crown races.
”I’m an entrepreneur. I take risks,” said Jackson, the owner of Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates. “But the rewards are worth it.”
He faces another decision as he weighs risk vs. reward in determining whether to run in the 1-mile Belmont Stakes. He knows firsthand that a filly can succeed.
He owned Curlin when Rags to Riches wore down the eventual two-time horse of the year in 2007 to become the third filly to win the ”Test of the Champion” and the first since Tanya in 1905. He also knows Rags to Riches was not the same after that, racing once more without winning before she was retired.
The lure of doing it again in the Belmont might be hard to resist with Mine That Bird already committed to the marathon distance.
“Would we love to run? Yes. Could she win? We think so. We’ve already shown she can run with colts,” Jackson said.
”It’s a question now of her best interests. It’s always the horse first.”
While not specifying the Belmont or any other race, Jackson expressed his intention to have his prized 3-year-old battle the boys again.
“Gender doesn’t matter,” he said. ”A Thoroughbred wants to run, and if a filly is as good as the colts, they ought to compete. That was my position, and that’s why we came.”
Although Jackson said he agreed with the previous connections in avoiding the Kentucky Derby with its typical 20-horse field, fans will always wonder what might have been if Rachel Alexandra had been allowed to run for the roses.
The sport has been without a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed became the 11th champion to complete the Derby, Preakness and Belmont sweep in 1978.
“That might have been our Triple Crown winner if they had run her in the Derby,” said Larry Jones, trainer of beaten Derby favorite Friesan Fire.