Weak Field Gives Filly a Leg Up
Millions of casual fans will be watching the Preakness Stakes on television to see if Rachel Alexandra can become the first member of her sex to win the race since 1924. Many of them will surely misunderstand the nature of filly vs. colt confrontations in horse racing. While there are valid reasons to question whether Rachel Alexandra can win at Pimlico, none of these questions involves her gender.
In the case of humans, an unbridgeable gap separates elite male and female runners. The best male miler is 30 seconds faster than the best female. In the thoroughbred species, males are generally faster than females, too, but the difference is not nearly so great. Speed figures suggest that the average Kentucky Derby winner is roughly one second, or five lengths, faster than the average filly who wins the Kentucky Oaks. However, these averages are not necessarily relevant to individual horses. Exceptional fillies can and do beat males. They do so regularly in Europe; last fall the filly Zarkawa won the continent's most important race.
Fillies in the United States don't run as often against colts because there are so many lucrative races for their own sex, but they have fared well with limited opportunities in U.S. 3-year-old classics. Since 1980, there have been 17 filly starters in the Triple Crown events. Of them, three have won, and seven have finished in the money -- a commendable batting average.
Any doubts about Rachel Alexandra ought to focus not on her gender but on the way she has been prepared -- or not prepared -- for the Preakness. As she was sweeping to victories in her first four starts of 2009, her trainer did not give one minute's thought to the Triple Crown. Owner Dolphus Morrison had not even nominated her to the series as a matter of principle. But after Rachel Alexandra's phenomenal 20 1/4 -length victory in the Kentucky Oaks prompted owner Jess Jackson to buy her, everything changed overnight. Jackson wanted to run in the Preakness. He turned the filly over to his regular trainer, Steve Asmussen, who could do little more than give her a routine half-mile workout and declare, "She looks beautiful."
In Triple Crown races, planning matters. Trainers are obsessive about constructing schedules that give their horses an optimal amount of time between races. They plan months in advance to bring a horse into peak form for a particular objective. Thrusting a horse into the biggest race of his or her life with no real forethought violates the canons of the business.
But Jackson is making this move -- correctly, I believe -- because the weakness of the field justifies the gamble. It is reasonable to assume that Rachel Alexandra is going to deliver a solid performance. The unknown quantity in the Preakness is not the filly but the gelding Mine That Bird, whose victory in the Derby was one of the greatest racing upsets of all time. Mine That Bird came into the Derby with credentials so weak that he was almost every handicapper's first throw-out. He proceeded to make an electrifying last-to-first move to win the Derby by 6 3/4 lengths. Was this a fluke, or did the gelding prove he is a legitimate Preakness contender?
Mine That Bird presumably relished the sloppy track, and he definitely benefited from jockey Calvin Borel's rail-skimming ride over a rail-favoring track. These factors accounted for some of his improvement, but they were not sufficient to transform him instantly from a bum into a champion. He obviously possessed more talent than anyone suspected. My best guess is that Mine That Bird won't be disgraced Saturday, but that without the slop and a perfect trip he won't run to the level of his Derby effort and won't be able to win. The conditions that helped Mine that Bird at Churchill Downs hindered many of his rivals. Pioneerof the Nile chased the pace three-wide all the way around the track. "We were beaten by the track and the weather," owner Ahmed Zayat said.
Musket Man and Papa Clem raced near the rail early, but both swung wider than Pioneerof the Nile in the stretch, and the three of them finished in a photo finish behind the winner. Friesan Fire, the Derby favorite, suffered bad cuts on his leg during the race, so he has an excuse, too. But none of these colts brought overpowering credentials into the Derby, and it is questionable if any of them has the talent to beat Rachel Alexandra.
The filly's most intriguing challenger is the speedster Big Drama, who has finished first in his last six starts (he was disqualified in one) and ran seven furlongs this winter in an eye-popping 1 minute 20.88 seconds. Unfortunately, that was his only start in 2009, and he will be coming into the Preakness after a seven-week layoff, and it is difficult to believe that he will be sufficiently fit to beat the filly.
Although I almost always look at big races from the betting standpoint, and without sentiment, I will be rooting for Rachel Alexandra. While many people have criticized Jackson for running her, I want him to be rewarded for being venturesome instead of taking the path of least resistance. The sport needs more such owners. The sport also needs stars, and this is Rachel Alexandra's chance to prove, on a national stage, that she is one.