By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 17, 2009
BALTIMORE, May 16 -- Her previous owner refused to enter her in the Preakness Stakes, believing it was unseemly to race a filly against a field of muscular colts.
Then, last week, after her new owners ponied up the $100,000 fee required to get Rachel Alexandra an 11th-hour berth in the second leg of the Triple Crown, a cabal of rival owners tried to block her entry -- loathe to find out what horse racing's super filly might achieve if admitted to their thoroughbred boys' club.
On Saturday, Rachel Alexandra showed them.
After a slight stumble at the start, the 3-year-old with the striking white blaze quickly composed herself, extended her legs, dug her hooves into the crumbly dirt of Pimlico Race Course and thundered on to become just the fifth filly to win the Preakness and the first in 85 years.
Only Mine That Bird, the come-from-behind, 50-to-1 upstart victor of the Kentucky Derby, proved remotely her equal. For the second time in as many races, the diminutive gelding mounted a breathtaking charge down the stretch to close within one length of the filly who wouldn't back down.
The outcome was never in doubt to Calvin Borel, the jockey who made history by passing on the opportunity to follow his Kentucky Derby victory atop Mine That Bird in the Preakness. Borel insisted instead on riding Rachel Alexandra.
Together they had romped to five consecutive victories against the country's top females -- including a 20 1/4 -length rout in the Kentucky Oaks on the eve of the Derby. So if Rachel Alexandra was going to compete against boys at Pimlico, Borel was determined to be on board.
As raindrops started to fall Saturday, they delivered a triumph, covering the 1 3/16 -mile distance in 1 minute 55.08 seconds to claim the $660,000 victor's share of the $1.1 million purse and hoist the coveted Woodlawn Vase. A 9-to-5 favorite, the filly paid $5.60.
"She's the best horse in the country, bar none," Borel said after thanking the horse's owners and trainers, Preakness officials, his parents and nearly everyone he had ever met for the glorious opportunity.
Mine That Bird, steered by Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, finished second, followed by Musket Man, a half-length back, who matched his third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby.
The outcome scotched hopes of a Triple Crown winner this season, but the feel-good story provided a sorely needed boost for the horse-racing industry, coming one year after the filly Eight Belles broke both front ankles and had to be euthanized on the track after finishing second in the Kentucky Derby.
That tragedy -- and the breakdown of 2006 Derby winner Barbaro, who shattered a back leg in that year's Preakness -- raised troubling questions about track safety standards and the industry's treatment of its young thoroughbreds.
But Jess Jackson, Rachel Alexandra's owner, insisted that his team of veterinarians had carefully monitored Rachel Alexandra's health to make sure she was fit for the whatever jostling was in store.
Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, an early admirer of the filly, never doubted it, going as far as saying Rachel Alexandra would have "beat the crap" out of this year's Derby field.
"She's not some little violet prancing around," Lukas declared earlier in the week.
While the filly had won her previous five races against the best of her gender by a combined 43 1/2 lengths, her 12 Preakness rivals put up a tougher fight. Her first challenge came from Big Drama, a high-strung colt who threw his jockey in the starting gate, then pulled his right shoulder alongside the filly entering the first turn.
Borel felt the filly struggling underneath him down the backstretch, and for the first time in their joyful association he had to smack her with his whip. She balked. He let up. And then she fought harder, straining and stretching to keep the boys behind her.
While some surely viewed her triumph as a victory for every girl who ever wanted to play a sport but was told she couldn't, Jackson, her jubilant owner, dismissed gender as a factor in determining greatness in a horse.
"Gender doesn't matter," Jackson said. "A thoroughbred wants to run! If a filly is as good as the colts, she ought to compete. That was my position, and that's why we came."
Asked whether he planned to enter the filly in the June 6 Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown, Jackson said he would ask her. "The horse always tells you whether they're ready," Jackson said. "We'll wait for three or four days and see how she comes out of the race. Would we love to race? Yes. Could she win? We think so. We've already shown she can run with colts."
The 134th Preakness was held against a backdrop of uncertainty, with the Canadian-based owner of the event, Magna Entertainment Corp., in bankruptcy court.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) sought to allay fears that the state's biggest sporting event would be carted away, vowing to do everything in his power to ensure that the Preakness continues to thrive -- and thrive in Maryland.
But if Pimlico officials expected to shore up lagging attendance by prohibiting ticket-holders from bringing their own beer in the infield, they miscalculated. Instead of creating a more upscale, welcoming environment for families, the policy backfired. Fans stayed away in droves, and the result was a sparse, lifeless atmosphere that sapped the buzz from a riveting competitive clash.
Just 77,850 showed up -- the smallest Preakness crowd since 1983 -- down more than 30 percent from last year's crowd of 112,222.
But those who came witnessed something extraordinary, and awestruck trainers and jockeys took turns showering the filly with hosannas. Gushed Derek Ryan, trainer of Musket Man, "A filly for the ages."