By Sally Jenkins
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
It was superstition that possessed me to buy a stuffed painted pony for $49 in the Dallas airport on the morning of the Preakness Stakes. She was a member of the flopsy collection, and her white-blaze face had a passing resemblance to Rachel Alexandra, so I paid for her, even though she was stupidly expensive and clearly made for someone with clutching baby hands that would leave jelly in her mane. Tough break, kid. I needed her more, and she was as lucky as she looked. Laugh if you want, but that filly showed the boys her heels, didn't she?
I root wholeheartedly for the filly every time. Oddly, horse racing is practically the only game in which I do. Most arguments about gender politics in women's sports are dicey; you end up sounding full of apologetic favoritism and go-girl pink sentiment. The fight for equal prize money in women's tennis? They still don't play five sets, and you never know whether Venus and Serena have been practicing or hanging out in South Beach. Women's college basketball is a superior game, but the ball is smaller, the three-point line shallower, and the officiating execrable. Spare me the LPGA, with its dim personalities and shorter tees. If you want to see a female compete straight up against guys without asking for any favors, watch auto racing, or the Triple Crown. Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness -- now there was a woman working in a man's world.
The thing most noticeable about her as she came down the stretch, other than her tortoise shell coloring and vividly unattractive face, was her keenness. She didn't much like the Pimlico track, and she didn't like jockey Calvin Borel whacking her either. But what she really didn't like was the presence of another horse on her flank. Soon as Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird drew near, Rachel Alexandra gave the final acceleration Borel had been asking her for. Later on, Mine That Bird jockey Mike Smith said he might have won if the race had been a little longer. But I wonder. Study the pictures of her approaching the finish. Look at Rachel Alexandra's ears and her eyes. That horse meant to win.
There will be a lot of argument this week about whether Rachel Alexandra should run in the Belmont Stakes on June 6. Why should she go a mile and a half against colts, some of them fresher, when she's already proved her point? It's shaping up as an agonizing, highly pressurized decision for Rachel Alexandra's new owners, who paid $10 million for her just two weeks ago. As it stands, she has robust health and an untarnished reputation as a superstar. In the Belmont epic she could prove something more, that she is a horse for the ages -- or she could prove a disappointment, or, the ultimate nightmare, be injured.
Let's be clear about one thing: If Rachel Alexandra isn't at her absolute peak, she shouldn't run in the Belmont. If she struggles at all to recover from the Preakness, if she shows any lingering fatigue, if she is in the smallest way unfit, she should race another day. But if the argument against it amounts to "she's a filly, and the Belmont is too hard," well, that's nonsense. The reason her owners bought her and entered her in the Preakness in the first place was to prove that she is "a champion horse, not a champion filly," as Jess Jackson put it.
The Triple Crown campaign is arduous for all horses, and whether it's too much to ask of modern 3-year-olds is a good question, but it has nothing to do with colt or filly. If Rachel Alexandra enters the Belmont, she will be running in her third race in five weeks, and so will Mine That Bird and Flying Private. The evidence suggests she's capable.
She's 16-hands of muscularity, who swallows up the ground with her easy stride. "She's not some little violet prancing around," as D. Wayne Lukas said. She has shown herself capable of huge efforts on short rest, winning the Preakness just two weeks after smoking the Kentucky Oaks field by a record 20 1/4 lengths. Lukas believes that had she run the Derby instead of the Oaks, she'd have "beat the crap" out of the field.
Rachel's original owner-breeder Dolph Morrison refused to enter her in the Kentucky Derby for a variety of reasons that amounted to a vague, kindly, protective chauvinism. He thinks the Derby should be colts-only, and he was influenced by the excruciating memory of Eight Belles lying on the Derby track with two shattered ankles a year ago. Also, the Derby field is a cavalry charge of 20 horses, and he was concerned about them "clang-banging her." But her new owners were more willing to explore her athleticism, and more confident in her brawn.
"The old horseman's tale about fillies being weaker is somewhat true, but that doesn't mean they are slower or don't have more endurance," Jackson said.
Whether they have the stomach to try her against colts again will largely depend on how well she performs in her first post-Preakness timed workout, scheduled for Memorial Day.
"We're not going to tell her how she's feeling; she'll tell us how she's feeling," trainer Steve Asmussen said.
I'll confess it: If she's healthy, I hope she runs. My curiosity to see what more she has inside her is intense, and so is my impatience to dispense the faint, lingering suggestion underneath all the talk that the effort might be too much to ask of a filly.
Everything about her victory in the Preakness suggested she's a horse of immense strength and durability as well as speed. How many colts could have done what she did? Forget that she was the first filly to win the Preakness in 85 years, her greater achievement was that she was the first horse ever to win it from the outside post. She got off to a bad start, stumbling and dodging right, and had to make a wide arc to move into the lead, going faster than her trainer wanted her to. She led at the quarter, at the half-mile, and at the three-quarters poles. She led by four lengths in the stretch, and then dug in to hold off Mine That Bird, despite her fatigue from going out too fast, and the fact that she apparently didn't like the Pimlico track. Borel claims we actually saw a disappointing performance from her.
The next time she runs, wherever that is, he claims, "you'll see a better filly, which is kind of scary, but she is." Borel hasn't been wrong about her yet.
Asked if the Belmont worried him he replied: "I'm not worried about nothing. It's going to take a racehorse to beat her."