Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Updated: May 14, 11:55 AM ET
Life of Reilly
By Rick Reilly
ESPN The Magazine
If you love to see a strong female take on the boys, if you think fillies should be given every chance to compete with studs, if you despise sleazy efforts by rich men to keep girls off the field, we have a heroine for you.
Her name is Rachel Alexandra and she's beautiful, fast and young. Oh, and she's a racehorse.
In fact, she's one of the fastest racehorses in the world. You can see her run in Saturday's Preakness, but only thanks to a last-second triumph of brains over bullies.
Pull up a chair:
Undefeated in four tries this year, Rachel Alexandra is ridden by Calvin Borel, who has yet to even ask her to run. "Most of the time, I just end up pettin' her," he says. She's ranked the No. 1 three-year-old by the NTRA, all sexes. She wins most races by the length of a Wal-Mart. "She could be the next Secretariat," Borel says.
So how come Alexandra the Great didn't win the Kentucky Derby? Because she wasn't entered. Undefeated in four tries this year, Rachel Alexandra is ridden by Calvin Borel, who has yet to even ask her to run. "She could be the next Secretariat," Borel says.
Not run Rachel Alexandra? That'd be like leaving your Lamborghini Diablo in the garage! Making Emeril order Domino's! Sticking Halle Berry in a nunnery!
"Colts should run against colts and fillies should run against fillies," explained Rachel's then-owner, Dolphus Morrison, a man whose thinking is so caveman he could star in a Geico ad. He believes the Derby is a "showcase" for future stallions. He means, of course stallion owners, who can show their horse's speed in the Derby and then get much more in stud fees when they retire them way too early at the end of the season. Money over history, in other words. So the Derby was won by Mine That Bird, a gelding. So how'd that work out for the breeders, Mr. Morrison?
That left Rachel Alexandra to race in the biggest fillies race in America—the Kentucky Oaks—the day before the Derby. She crushed the field by 20 1/4-lengths with Borel in the saddle. Then, the next day, Borel rode Mine That Bird to a 6 3/4-length win in the Derby. I pulled him aside afterward and asked a hypothetical, "Let's say Rachel could enter the Preakness, which horse would you ride?"
He looked at me like I was speaking Swahili. "Oh," he said, "I'd ride Rachel, no question. She's the best horse I ever sat on." And, remember, this wasn't an hour after he sat on a Derby winner, and not even two years since he sat on the 2007 Derby winner, Street Sense.
Borel's choice reminded me of the one made by Hall of Fame jockey Jacinto Vasquez, who rode both the filly Ruffian and the 1975 Derby winner, Foolish Pleasure. A match race was set up at Belmont between the two and Vasquez chose Ruffian. After all, she was 10-0. But Ruffian snapped her leg and had to be euthanized.
Maybe Morrison was secretly thinking about Ruffian or maybe Eight Belles, the filly who finished second in the 2008 Derby and then broke both front legs past the finish line and was put down on the spot, the only death in the 135-year history of the race.
Nobody will forget Ruffian and nobody will forget Eight Belles, but life comes with tragedy. Fifteen men have died at Indy and yet drivers still enter it. Many women have died running marathons, but runners keep doing them. Thoroughbreds are born to race.
But pessimism ruled in Pimlico and we were looking at a Masters without Tiger Woods—until last week. That's when Jess Jackson, owner of Curlin, bought Rachel—a horse trainer Bob Baffert called "the freak of all freaks"—and immediately entered her in the Preakness. It was now the "Freakness." The buzz was humming. Horseracing had drama again. Life was good.
Until things got ugly, which they usually do in this game. Because Rachel wasn't originally a Triple Crown nominee, she could only run in the 14-horse Preakness if 13 or fewer nominated horses entered, which looked like it would be the case. But then Mark Allen, the owner of Mine That Bird, announced he was thinking of entering his other horse —Indy Express—just to bump Rachel, thereby getting his star jockey back. (Hey, Mark, I don't like your chances for Sportsman of the Year.)
It got worse. Adding his name to the list of co-conspirators was Ahmed Zayat, owner of Pioneerof the Nile, who said he'd also like to block Rachel with an extra horse. Sure! If you can't beat her on the track, beat her in the registering office.
The whole thing made you want to roll around in stable manure just for the comparative cleanliness of it.
In the end, the female was saved by … a female. Marylou Whitney, a great lady of horse racing, said she'd pull Luv Gov in the Preakness if Rachel wasn't allowed to race. "We think Rachel Alexandra is wonderful," Whitney's husband, John Hendrickson, told the New York Times. "It is ladies first for us."
That caused the two conniving owners to drop their scheme in shame and give Rachel her spot in Baltimore.
To repeat: In the face of fear and chauvinism and collusion, the very best athlete will get her chance. And isn't that when sport is at its best?
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