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The next-best thing

5/21/2009

BALTIMORE -- The last of 14 horses running down the Pimlico backstretch launched his bid to stay alive for the Triple Crown just as he had two weeks before at Churchill Downs. Last is where Mine That Bird wants to be early, and he had only 12 horses to pass this time. The Derby winner was running on strongly entering the last three furlongs, and a palpable sense spread over the crowd of 77,850 that there was a developing battle that would decide the Preakness.

In fact, Mine That Bird and the others of his gender were running for second.

One by one, Mine That Bird picked off horses, rider Mike Smith moved the Derby winner five-wide above the quarter pole and split horses entering the stretch. Smith, pleading for everything the gelding had, drew his whip in his left hand, then switched the stick to his right. Mine That Bird, who was 50-1 in the Derby and widely regarded as one of the most implausible winners in its history, was in a determined drive. He established beyond argument that he was the best 3-year-old male in the Preakness, proved that the once-unknown gelding that emerged from New Mexico to upset America's race is not the one-hit wonder many thought him to be.

But something else was becoming clear. The best 3-year-old at Churchill Downs when the Derby was run was resting in her stall after having won the Kentucky Oaks by more than 20 lengths the previous afternoon. Had Rachel Alexandra not been sold to California vintner Jess Jackson within days of the Derby, her former owners would not have chosen to run the most exciting filly to race at age 3 in this country -- perhaps since Ruffian -- in the Preakness, and Mine That Bird would be alive today for Triple Crown.

"Gender doesn't matter," Jackson said. "A thoroughbred wants to run, and if a filly is as good as the colts, they should compete."

While Mine That Bird's long, sustained drive was under way and building momentum, Rachel Alexandra was in control. She was tested early by Big Drama, but quickly shrugged off the new shooter from Florida who came to Baltimore on a six-race winning streak. When she cleared that one, jockey Calvin Borel -- who had ridden Mine That Bird in Kentucky and is the first rider of a Derby winner to chose another horse to partner in the Preakness -- had an armful of filly raging with run. She would not be tested again, as Mine That Bird's rally left him a length short. The first filly since 1924 to win the Preakness, though Borel said she struggled with the ground at Pimlico, had a four-length lead leaving the furlong pole, the race in hand. Now she's the queen of American racing, a superstar.

"She's a filly for the ages," said Derek Ryan, who trains the third finisher, Musket Man.

"We were simply beaten by a super filly," said David Fawkes, who trains Big Drama.

"God knows how good she is," said Borel, who is now the only jockey ever to have won the Derby and Preakness in the same year on different horses and, sharing this intimate knowledge only with God, never wavered after making the choice to ride the filly when the change of ownership made it necessary. "I've never been on a horse in my life that made me so comfortable and confident. She's the greatest horse I've ever been on."

No female was within a length of Rachel Alexandra at the wire in any of the five straight races she had won coming into the Preakness. But this was her first race in the East, and the unfamiliar surface at Pimlico provided a test of her determination, her ability to overcome adversity, though this difficulty was apparent only to the man on her back.

"She was struggling [with the surface] a lot," said Borel, who wagged his right index finger at television cameras as Rachel Alexandra galloped beyond the wire and into the clubhouse turn. "She's so used to that track at Churchill; she just skips along. Usually, I ride her on a loose rein. I've never put the bit in her mouth until today. She was struggling at the end and I had to get into her a little bit. She's never been hit before. The more I asked her, the more she struggled. She did not handle the track 110 percent."

If the Preakness erased the possibility of a potential Triple Crown, now unclaimed since 1978, it presents the possibility of the next-best Belmont Stakes scenario.

Jackson -- who reiterated his belief that the purpose of racing is to run the best against the best on the biggest available stage -- said unless the Preakness takes a toll on Rachel Alexandra, who is now trained by Steve Asmussen, that would prevent her from competing in three weeks, she will make her next start in the Belmont Stakes. "The Belmont is always a consideration for a champion," said the man who has owned Rachel Alexandra for 10 days. "It will depend on her."

She will find the Derby winner waiting in hopes of winning the rubber match in New York, where the odds will be much shorter than the 9-5 her pari-mutuel supporters collected after the Preakness.

"I thought we had a chance at the eighth pole," said Bennie "Chip" Woolley, who trains Mine That Bird. "You have to give that filly credit. She's a great one, but the Belmont is next for us."

Perfect.

Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He has also been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul maintains paulmoranattheraces.blogspot.com and can be contacted at paulmoran47@hotmail.com.