By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 14, 2009
BALTIMORE, May 13 -- When the 13th position in Saturday's Preakness Stakes was revealed Wednesday evening, the Pimlico crowd buzzed as the announcer said "filly." He did not even have to mention the horse's name -- Rachel Alexandra -- because the attention has already developed for the race favorite.
Rachel Alexandra will start from the farthest outside spot in the 13-horse field. It is the position the filly's team wanted, according to Scott Blasi, an assistant to trainer Steve Asmussen.
"Ideally, we wanted to be on the outside," Blasi said. "I just feel like with her being a filly and all the pressure that is going to be put on her, they got a long run into the first turn. She's got good tactical speed, and we want to give her a chance to get position."
Rachel Alexandra opened as an 8-to-5 favorite. Bob Baffert's Pioneerof the Nile, which has the second-best odds at 5 to 1, will run from the ninth position. Kentucky Derby champion Mine That Bird begins with 6-to-1 odds and will race from the second position. Mine That Bird was a 50-to-1 long shot to win the Derby but stunned the crowd with a late push along the rail. Trainer Chip Woolley said the inside position will not mean Mine That Bird leads the pack on the first turn, and pledged that the horse will start from behind.
"I guess a hair more pressure," Woolley said of the new perception of his horse. "But the fact is, you got to go out and run the race and hope your horse fires it up that day."
In the past 50 years, 30 horses have won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Yet Mine That Bird still remained out of the favorite spot despite winning the Derby by 6 3/4 lengths, and the 6-to-1 odds are consistent with what Woolley expected when asked Wednesday morning.
Although the odds are on Rachel Alexandra's side, history is against the Kentucky Oaks champion. Only four fillies have won the Preakness, and it has not happened since Nellie Morse in 1924. The last filly to go off as a favorite and win was Whimsical, who won in 1906 with 8-to-5 odds.
Hall of Fame trainers D. Wayne Lukas and Baffert have nine Preakness victories between them and will send out Preakness starters in the same year for the sixth time. Lukas trains two horses -- Flying Private, who is 50 to 1 from the 10th position, and Luv Guv, who is 50 to 1 from the fourth position.
"Once they put them into the gate, it will be a competitive race," Lukas said. "The one thing I didn't want was the 1 hole. I was getting a little nervous."
The first spot belongs to Big Drama, whose odds are 10 to 1 and is trained by David Fawkes. Fawkes said he was hoping Big Drama would start outside Rachel Alexandra.
The field was bolstered by the inclusion of Rachel Alexandra, which came this week after Jess Jackson's Stonestreet Stable and Harold McCormick purchased the horse and paid a $100,000 supplemental fee to include Rachel Alexandra in the race. The fee raised the total purse to $1.1 million.
Lukas predicted that Saturday's television ratings will be the best in Preakness history. The Kentucky Derby drew a 9.8 rating and a 23 share -- the Derby's best television ratings in 17 years.
"There's probably a whole new excitement to the race," said Papa Clem trainer Gary Stute, who noticed a buzz developing as Rachel Alexandra's presence became a reality. "Win, lose, or draw, I think she's good for the race."
Rachel Alexandra's appeal has overshadowed the fact that the top four finishers in the Kentucky Derby return to the Preakness. Yet because of the sloppy track at the Derby and Mine That Bird's upset, intrigue remains about how much stock can be put into the Triple Crown's first leg, and whether the upstart filly arrives as impressive as advertised.
"There's still a big question mark, and that's what the Preakness is all about," Baffert said. "We're going to find out Saturday. We're going to get all the answers you wanted, and then you'll have the bragging rights, who's the best horse."