If you thought the Kentucky Derby turned into a whirlwind with a 50-1 longshot becoming the second-largest upset in Derby history, to quote Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, "You ain't heard nothin' yet."
First off, the longshot winner, Mine That Bird, has become a sort of sensation. He can presently be found on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the first horse to grace the cover since Smarty Jones in 2004. The overnight ratings for the racing segment in NBC's coverage were the highest in seventeen years. (Take that, you red carpet twits!) Suddenly, horse racing has become slightly cool again.
Non-fans of the sport were wooed by Bennie "Chip" Woolley Jr., the horse's trainer, who walked his longshot gelding to the saddling paddock on crutches, and went on to hold the gold-plated trophy in the winner's circle only a few minutes later. They were awed in the blue-collar way the horse arrived at the Derby; while most of the field was being shuttled to Kentucky in state-of-the-art airplanes, Mine That Bird was hauled in a trailer from New Mexico, and had a lay-over in Dallas, Texas, when the van broke down. He was a $9,500 gelding when first purchased, and he was running against colts who had been bought by kings for millions.
But it wasn't just the horse's humble origins that made him an overnight superstar. Most of the credit, even the trainer says, belongs to his jockey, one Calvin Borel, or Bo-Rail, as they call him. In an overhead replay of the Kentucky Derby, Borel's journey on Mine That Bird to the finish line is a thing of true brilliance. Starting out, the horse lagged behind the rest of the field some ten lengths, but when the jock began to ask the horse to go, go he did, and the two swam along the rail and between horses like a slippery eel too slick to catch. Those who were watching the race live, like myself, had Baffert's Pioneerof the Nile in their sights to win, but it would be an opening on the rail that spelled doom to them all as the Bird shot through the opening and soared down the stretch to win by 6 ¾ lengths, beating even the great Barbaro's margin of victory.
And almost as surreal as the longshot's victory was the tide of emotions that turned once spectators got a glimpse of Borel's madcap elation. While millions of dollars had been bet and lost on this race, suddenly, handicappers dropped their worthless tickets and began to applaud and cheer. Such is the magic of the Kentucky Derby. Only seconds ago, most of the people hooting and hollering for this old Cajun boy and his small horse were cursing and jeering at the sore luck.
And while the Kentucky Derby became the stage for one of the greatest underdog stories of all-time this year, Churchill Downs served as a completely different platform only the day before; but the story is no less intriguing. The crown princess of racing, Rachel Alexandra, went off as the heavy favorite to trump a field of only seven others in the Kentucky Oaks, the premiere race for 3-year-old fillies. With the scratch of her main rival, Justwhistledixie, earlier that morning, the race looked to be a coronation. And was it ever.
And would you believe that same Cool Cal was in the irons, only he didn't have to perform any of his patented rail-skimming in this race. Settling in second early on, it was only a matter of waiting until Rachel Alexandra was allowed to take over the lead on the final turn, and she not only took over, she turned the rest of those fillies into laughing-stocks. Rachel began to open up without so much as a hair moving on old Borel; six, eight, twelve, until the space between the leader and the rest of the field was half a football field's length. It wasn't a mere victory, it was an annihilation. Rachel Alexandra's official margin between her and the rest of the fillies was 20 ¼ lengths, believed to be the widest margin ever won by in the history of the Oaks's 135 years (records are shabby in the 1800's era).
So not only did the Downs harbor the amazing story of the Bird that got loose, it also featured the greatest performance of Alexandra the Great. And this is only the beginning of the story.
Wednesday, word spread like wildfire across the Interweb that Curlin's old connections, Jess Jackson's Stonestreet Stables and Steve Asmussen, had acquired the super filly. It's bad news for Hal Wiggins, Rachel's old trainer who was adamant the girl would never meet the boys on the track. Rachel Alexandra is not eligible to participate in any of the Triple Crown races because she is not nominated, but she can be supplemented for a fee of $100,000. Pimlico officials announced they have, indeed, heard from Stonestreet Stables about the supplementary process. If a full field isn't drawn for the Preakness, that means Rachel may be pitted against someone her own size for the very first time. This news is enough to get your head spinning and your appetite wetted for a showdown in Maryland.
One quandary that has arisen is what will exactly happen to the rider of both the Derby and Oaks winner. Will Cool Cal be called to ride upon Rachel, whom he would almost certainly choose over the Bird? "She's incredible, she's the best horse I've ever ridden," he said just after his smashing Oaks victory. If you'll notice, he didn't dare say the same for Mine That Bird after the Derby.
Let's hope that Jess Jackson stays with his sportsmanlike ways and not only races Rachel Alexandra against the boys in the next two jewels of the Triple Crown, but also keeps Borel in her saddle. It's only fitting what many handicappers have been calling the best three-year-old in the world has all of her advantages, and if this past week at Churchill is any indication, having Borel in your camp is as good of luck as you're bound to find.
Update: On May 8, 2009 1:27 pm ET, Bloodhorse.com issued the news that Calvin Borel has, indeed, been chosen to ride Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness Stakes. "It came down to the facts that [Borel] knows and loves this horse, that he knows how to get the most from her and he knows how to win,'' said Jess Jackson of Stonestreet Stables and proprietor of Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates. "They were an amazing team at the Kentucky Oaks-winning by over 20 lengths. We think this is a perfect match of rider and horse.''
I say this is just cause for celebration!