<
>

Great horse, even greater decision

5/13/2009

Jess Jackson has this novel notion. He thinks great racehorses should compete in great horse races.

You'd be surprised what a maverick that makes the man.

In a business that tends to encase its stars in bubble wrap and find the shortest path out of racing and into the more lucrative breeding shed, Jackson takes joy in seeing his animals run. The Californian is a campaigner. A competitor. And certainly not risk-averse -- which is how you become a self-made billionaire.

Those traits are reasons the wine magnate (he's the founder of Kendall-Jackson) paid an undisclosed but undoubtedly massive sum last week to stunningly alter the complexion of this Triple Crown season. His decision to buy the filly Rachel Alexandra and point her toward the Preakness ranks as one of the boldest moves in recent thoroughbred racing history, and it injected a dose of adrenaline into a sport badly in need of it.

(The other reason Jackson bought Rachel is he must be salivating at the prospect of breeding her to his retired superstar, Curlin. That anticipated intermingling of superior genes is as likely to produce a runner as Tom Brady and Gisele Bundchen are to produce cute kids. But for now, racing pre-empts romance.)

Optimizing the career of Rachel Alexandra required immediate, unconventional action. That's where Jackson and his checkbook came into play.

Despite the filly's incandescent brilliance in winning four straight races in dominant fashion, her previous ownership steered her clear of the colts in the Triple Crown. Then she won the Kentucky Oaks, the nation's pre-eminent fillies race, by an astounding 20ΒΌ lengths the day before the Kentucky Derby.

It was clearly the finest 3-year-old performance of the weekend at Churchill Downs -- and still, owner Dolphus Morrison was unmoved. He did not want Rachel racing against the boys and likely would have skipped the rest of the Triple Crown.

Sensing a lost opportunity for the sport, Jackson changed the game by changing Rachel's ownership. He bought the filly, moved her into trainer Steve Asmussen's barn and all but announced, "Bring it on."

After several days of intrigue, it's on now. Post positions were drawn Wednesday and Rachel is a go against the guys as the 8-5 favorite from the 13th post position.

This is consistent behavior from Jackson. Last year he bucked the trend in modern racing by campaigning Curlin as a 4-year-old.

Almost every other owner in the sport would have hustled Curlin into his stallion career after his being named horse of the year at age 3. Not Jackson. He not only wanted his big horse to race, he wanted him to become a global superstar.

Curlin got part of the way there by winning the $6 million Dubai World Cup, the richest race on the planet, but additional plans to compete in the prestigious Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in Paris fell through when Curlin proved to be an unspectacular grass horse.

Still, Jackson actually agitated for a showdown between his horse and 3-year-old star Big Brown during the late summer and fall. It never materialized becuase Big Brown was retired before the Breeders' Cup Classic, while Curlin went on to win horse of the year honors a second time.

But the gambit with Curlin pales in comparison to what Jackson is attempting with Rachel Alexandra.

You cannot entirely blame Morrison for adhering to the racing bromide that says genders don't mix well on the track. Plenty of old-school horsemen believe that strongly, and it's an especially safe stance a year after the filly Eight Belles died on the dirt at Churchill Downs after finishing second in the Derby.

That event shook racing to its core, but it has not deterred Jackson from another battle of the sexes. His belief that Rachel Alexandra can beat the boys supersedes the daunting risk of potential injury and massive public backlash.

If you thought animal-rights activists unloaded on Eight Belles' human connections, think how bad it will be if something awful happens to a filly in a Triple Crown race for the second time in 54 weeks. Especially after the filly's new ownership pushed to race against colts after the previous ownership expressly avoided it.

Even if Rachel is not injured, there is the possibility of embarrassing defeat. Already made the favorite, she's undoubtedly been the most accomplished 3-year-old of 2009. But this won't be easy.

This first foray against colts will be her fifth race in three months, a taxing schedule by modern standards. And the pace figures to be hot -- especially with the presence of front-running Big Drama, who could pull the naturally speedy Rachel into an enervating duel that leaves both spent well before the wire in this 1 3/16-mile race.

There is the possibility of what horse players call a "bounce," when a horse cannot duplicate or even approximate a career-best effort its next time out. Throughout the years, plenty of talented young horses have bounced after huge spring races.

And believe it or not, people could go after her as they've never done before -- perhaps just because she's a filly. Many are convinced that fillies Genuine Risk in 1980 and Winning Colors in 1988 both were victims of menacing race tactics in the Preakness after winning the Derby.

But there are plenty of reasons the potential reward outweighs the risk.

Most importantly, Rachel Alexandra is simply the best horse in this race -- and as Washington Post racing columnist Andrew Beyer wrote, "the best ambulatory 3-year-old" in the country. With the generation thinned by pre-Derby injuries to Quality Road and I Want Revenge, the primary Preakness competition for Rachel is fluky Derby winner Mine That Bird and his slow pack of pursuers.

By the Daily Racing Form agate, it's not terribly close. Rachel's 108 Beyer speed figure in the Oaks was better than that of every horse in the Derby, the first time that has happened in the 19-year history of those figures. In fact, no other Preakness horse has more than one lifetime triple-digit Beyer rating, while Rachel has strung together four straight.

And although her racing style makes her potentially susceptible to a hot early pace, it also should distance her from the early jostling some believe is especially stressful for fillies. She should be clear of the pack going down the stretch the first time and into the first turn, which is where the roughest stuff normally occurs.

Finally, jockey Calvin Borel has never asked her to, in track parlance, "lay her belly down" -- to really exert herself in a race. I watched video replays of five of her races Tuesday, and I don't think Borel has touched her with his whip since November.

He gave her maybe two slaps then, while she was pulling away to win the Golden Rod Stakes at age 2. Everything at age 3 has been a hand ride marked by effortlessly distancing herself from her competitors in the stretch. The mind reels at the thought of how she might run when truly urged.

Rachel Alexandra is, by any measure, a beautiful animal in motion. And now, thanks to the boldness of Jess Jackson, racing fans get to see the full measure of a great racehorse competing in a great horse race.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com.