By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 15, 2009
BALTIMORE, May 14 -- Conversation around the barn on Wednesday was centered on the "filly," as if the horse did not have a name and a circus was arriving at Pimlico. The questions lingered at the Alibi Breakfast on Thursday morning. Almost everyone associated with a horse in the Preakness Stakes was asked about Rachel Alexandra, the female who will race against males Saturday in the second leg of racing's Triple Crown.
"Half the population is already under her umbrella -- that's the women," Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.
The composition of the Preakness was shaken, and the expected odds were upended. She was announced as an 8-to-5 favorite even after receiving the outermost post position in the 13-horse field. But the post position and odds were merely the latest wrinkles in the story of Rachel Alexandra and her unusual trek to Pimlico. She did not race in the May 2 Kentucky Derby, competing instead in the Kentucky Oaks the previous day. A dominant victory in that race and an upset win by a long shot in a lackluster Derby field were the perfect circumstances that demanded her entry in the Preakness. Early in the week, there were reports that she might be blocked because she was not a Triple Crown nominee. But, with a new owner, an opening in the Preakness and a $100,000 supplemental fee, she was entered in the field and became the instant favorite.
"She's been special from Day One," assistant trainer Scott Blasi said. "When you see her in person and you see her train, she just floats over the ground. She's very light, very forward. She's out to impress you."
When Rachel Alexandra arrived Wednesday afternoon, the wood chips leading to the stable might as well have been a red carpet lined with photographers and reporters. A helicopter hovered, another sign of the whirlwind triggered by her 20 1/4 -length victory in the Oaks and perpetuated by her subsequent purchase for an undisclosed price by billionaire Jess Jackson. It was Jackson, who intends to breed Rachel Alexandra with Curlin, who wanted his filly in the Preakness.
"She has the appetite and the skill to compete," Jackson said in a conference call with reporters. "It wasn't the [Kentucky Oaks] win itself. It was the way she did it, and how she ran on through."
Jackson said a horse such as Rachel Alexandra would have been sold for $4 million to $6 million in retirement. Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who said he tried to purchase Rachel Alexandra last year but was "too cheap," raced a filly in the Kentucky Oaks and said he got goose bumps as he watched Rachel Alexandra. Choosing to enter the horse in the Preakness came from Jackson's belief that horse racing deserves to crown the best horse regardless of gender -- and the consensus at Pimlico was that Rachel Alexandra is the best 3-year old. She won five consecutive races by 43 1/2 lengths, and the next step would be becoming the first filly to win the Preakness since Nellie Morse in 1924.
"I fear her immensely," said Gary Stute, the trainer of Papa Clem, who drew the No. 7 position. "I hope it's like a girl going from the WNBA to the NBA. I'm hoping it's a little rougher race than she's used to."
The distance and the pace set by colts makes the 1 3/16 -mile track at Pimlico a challenge for fillies. The last to attempt the middle jewel of the three-race Triple Crown series was Excellent Meeting, who pulled up and did not finish the 1999 race.
Lukas, who won the Kentucky Derby with the filly Winning Colors in 1988, said it's important for a filly before a race such as the Preakness to avoid a difficult campaign in the preceding races. A key for her, according to Lukas, is the ease with which she has won. "They've been morning works," Lukas said. "She's got a big advantage. Plus, she's very, very talented."
Lukas, who has entered Luv Gov and Flying Private in a bid to win his sixth Preakness, compared the spring schedule to the NCAA tournament in college basketball. He said the lack of competition is akin to a No. 1 seed breezing to the Final Four, conserving its energy to face opponents who've had a more difficult path.
"I would like to think we could beat her," Lukas said. "Reality says no. The numbers are the best. Her style is the best. I just think she's the best horse."
Aboard Rachel Alexandra will be the jockey Calvin Borel, who excelled in five previous races (including the Oaks) with her. Borel rode Mine That Bird to a Kentucky Derby victory and is the first jockey to leave a Derby winner to ride a different horse in the Preakness. Riding Mine that Bird will be Mike Smith.
Borel "knows more about her than anybody," said Blasi, who believes the outside position she drew is an advantage because she will not be trapped inside.
"Calvin thankfully gave us plenty of notice on what they were planning on doing," said Mine That Bird trainer Chip Woolley.
That Borel would leave a Derby-winning horse -- albeit a 50-to-1 long shot -- illustrates the optimism about the filly. Blasi and trainer Steve Asmussen started with Rachel Alexandra after Jackson purchased her and were immediately convinced that the ability displayed in her wins were reality. Although Blasi downplayed the attention, he understood why it is coming in the filly's direction.
"She's just very special," Blasi said. "You don't really understand these things until you experience them."