By Andrew Beyer
Sunday, May 17, 2009
When Calvin Borel rode Mine That Bird to a Kentucky Derby victory, even casual fans could appreciate that he had delivered a brilliant, daredevil ride, squeezing through the tiniest of spaces along the rail at Churchill Downs.
Borel's performance at Pimlico on Saturday, when won the Preakness aboard Rachel Alexandra, may have looked relatively undramatic, but his tactical perfection more than accounted for the one-length margin by which the filly beat Mine That Bird.
It was the perfect dramatic ending to the 134th Preakness Stakes: a filly winning the race for the first time in 85 years, beating a Derby winner who had been dismissed as a fluke but ennobled himself in defeat. And it made up for an otherwise disappointing day, when the attendance at Pimlico plunged, stunningly, to the lowest level since 1983. The tens of thousands who stayed home missed a classic.
Every day, at every racetrack in America, races are decided by the mundane fact that horses save or lose ground on the turns. In distance races, getting tactical position on the first turn is especially important. Nobody understands the facts of racetrack geometry better than the eighth-grade dropout who has become legendary for his propensity to get his mounts on the rail. Saturday, breaking from the disadvantageous 13th post position, Borel could not secure a position on the rail. But he did the next-best thing.
Unlike so many of his rivals who don't like to commit themselves and ride tentatively from the gate, Borel is habitually aggressive whenever he is aboard a mount who possesses early speed. When Rachel Alexandra broke a bit awkwardly, Borel was even more determined to use that speed.
"I had to let her go," he said. "If I didn't do that, I'm going to get hung eight or nine [horses] wide."
So he let the filly roll, and only one of his rivals, the sprinter Big Drama, beat him to the first turn. Even though the leader carried him a bit wide, Borel got into perfect striking position behind a horse who was almost certain to tire. From there, he dictated the tactics of the race.
Jockey Mike Smith, who had inherited the mount on Mine That Bird when Borel opted to ride the filly, had no such luxury. He couldn't dictate anything. He was committed to employing the come-from-far-behind style that Borel had used in the Derby, but when he was ready to run, he had a wall of horses in front of him. Smith has never been known as a rail rider, but this time he had no option but to go wide. "No one would leave the rail," he said, "and so we had to come around a few" horses.
Borel had seized the lead from Big Drama on the backstretch and as she rounded the turn, the jockey said, "I knew I was home free." Smith had to pick his way through traffic, three-wide on the turn, five wide in the stretch. When he was in the clear, Mine That Bird closed with a furious rush, but it was too late.
Though Mine That Bird had earned little respect after his Derby victory, it would be fair to say after the Preakness that he and Rachel Alexandra have comparable talent -- with the filly having a tactical advantage because of her natural speed.
Borel, with his characteristic modesty, disclaimed special credit. He had said repeatedly before the race that the filly was the best racehorse in the country, and after the Preakness, he sounded as if the outcome was foreordained. "The filly," he declared flatly, "is a better horse than Mine That Bird."
Jess Jackson, who had bought Rachel Alexandra less than two weeks ago and made the decision to run her in the Preakness, had a more accurate evaluation. "Calvin" he said, "added a length or so." Without his contributions, he said, "It would have been nose and nose."
There had been no doubt about Rachel Alexandra's talent coming into the Preakness. She had won five races in a row, the last of them a 20 1/4 -length romp in the Kentucky Oaks that prompted Jackson to make the purchase. Even though this was her first start against males, and many people in the industry questioned Jackson's decision to run her Saturday, bettors recognized that she was the best horse in the field and made her a solid 9-to-5 favorite.
By contrast, almost everybody doubted Mine That Bird. The gelding had benefited from Borel's ride on a rail-favoring Churchill Downs track and was presumably helped -- or so everybody thought -- by the sloppy conditions. Only with hindsight can handicappers understand what happened. Three-year-olds often improve sharply and unexpectedly in the spring. In recent years, horses such as Charismatic and War Emblem were dismissed as flukes when they came to life in a prep race before the Derby, but won the Derby and went on to win the Preakness, too.
Mine That Bird delivered a variation on that pattern. He came to life in the Derby itself and is now clearly a different horse. He is emphatically not a fluke. Mine That Bird can be expected to be one of the country's top 3-year-olds for the rest of the season, and racing fans can hope that Saturday's drama was only the first of his confrontations with Rachel Alexandra and her flawless jockey.