It's about time

Updated: May 21, 2009, 2:10 PM ET
By Claire Novak | Special to ESPN.com

She was saddled in the indoor paddock along with several other runners, then walked to the grass course where the jockeys conferred with the trainers and the connections sized up the competitors, keeping a sharp eye on their own. The reporters took notes and marveled at the calmness of the filly who could turn it on in the blink of an eye, and the assistant trainer kept a fast hold on the leather shank, circling endlessly, caught up in the moment. The whole place was enveloped by a quiet waiting, anticipation, and a girl lifted her hand and said "It's starting to rain," and the drops began to fall as Calvin Borel took a leg up into the saddle of the 9-5 favorite and rode out onto the soft dirt oval at Pimlico Race Course.

They filed past in the post parade, twelve colts and a filly, the field for the 134th running of the Preakness. There was the Derby winner, Mine That Bird, composed and classy under Mike Smith, and there was Garrett Gomez, stone-faced, in the zone, on Derby runner-up Pioneerof The Nile, and many other horses in various states of composure and agitation. The big test was about to come. For the only time that evening, Rachel Alexandra brought up the rear.

It was still quiet at Pimlico, but the energy was rising, and the racegoers' voices built to a low murmur as final contemplations were made; would she win? Could she win? The drops of water left wet blotches on the notepads of the turf writers, on the impeccably clad shoulders of Steve Asmussen, the trainer, and his assistant, Scott Blasi.

"Be sure you remember this guy," one guard told another. "He's with the filly. Let him across when the race is over."

The runners neared the gate. The moment of truth had finally arrived. Everyone leaned forward, breathless. Then came the break.

The race will be recounted and reanalyzed from hundreds of perspectives, will be talked about for decades, will go down in history as a performance for the ages. Because Rachel beat the boys. And she did it with class and style, ears pricked, leading wire-to-wire, holding off a late run from Mine That Bird and galloping out strong with her jockey holding out his right fist, Superman-style, to the roaring crowd.

By the finish, she had completed the 1 3/16 miles by a length in 1:55.08 over a fast track. She had also won the heart of a racing industry in desperate need of revitalizing. And, most importantly, she validated the beliefs of her connections, the new owners who had come under fire for sending her to the race in the first place. A calculated gamble paid off.

It was not an overly popular decision, one that had Jess Jackson and Harold McCormick taking flak from the media and fans alike in the days leading up to the Preakness. Whirling around in two weeks after an astounding 20¼-length Kentucky Oaks score, running against colts for the first time, attempting to become the first filly since 1924 to win the second leg of the Triple Crown, only the fifth in history to do so. It seemed to be tempting fate, a positive result too much to ask for. No one knew how it was going to end, but when it did, we found ourselves thinking we couldn't have written a more perfect script if we had tried.

In the postrace interview, Jackson was relieved. The pressure was off his shoulders, the social heat unfounded. His belief -- that a filly as good as the colts should run against the colts -- was validated. And he granted even further inspiration to the watching world by promising that somewhere, somehow, his filly would take on the boys again, that Calvin Borel would be in the saddle, and Rachel Alexandra would, once again, be giving us her all.

The other side of the coin …

Of course, there are negatives. There must always be. The attendance of 77,850 was the lowest since 1983, quelled by a strict infield alcohol policy that saw many revelers choosing to remain at home. But the handle was up -- $86,684,470 compared to around $73.5 million last year -- and NBC got a perfect telecast, incident-free. The thoroughbreds delivered. Our hopes were realized. We got our happy ending.

We watch horse racing because of this. Because it's something we can't control. Because each happy ending is a gift. Kissing, snapping, shouting, coaxing, we will our runners to the wire, powerless to influence their actual accomplishments. And this knowledge, that the results are out of our hands, is at once breathtaking and terrible.

When we see this game in all its glory, as we did when Rachel Alexandra won the Preakness on this cloudy evening of May 17, we know why we follow our flagging sport and will continue to follow it until its dying day. And we feel thankful. For after we have raised and trained and prepped and analyzed these runners, what happens is fated to happen. What will be, will be. Not knowing, we release, and hope, and dream. And runners like this keep us coming back for more.

In the hours to come, in the columns that buzz forth over the wires from this Pimlico press box, we'll employ the same common clichés and repeated themes, striving to express what we've just seen, how we feel. We will say racing got a shot in the arm, that this result was what we needed. We'll proclaim the lady is a champ, that Rachel rules. We'll remark on how Mine That Bird proved he's for real with a runner-up finish, and look forward to his trip to the Belmont Stakes.

But most of all, we'll reflect on the fact that it's about time something like this happened.

Something good.

Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse Magazine, The Albany Times Union, and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.