When the field for the 2009 Kentucky Derby was forming, many horsemen touted the race to be one of the most talented fields in twenty years. But as quick as you can say "knock on wood," two of the biggest contenders were sidelined, with I Want Revenge being scratched as the favorite on the morning of America's biggest race. Still, the race held plenty of talent, and all were shell-shocked when 50-1 longshot Mine That Bird came from last to first to snag the Derby by 6 ¾ lengths. Yet, the Derby wasn't the biggest story of the weekend. The true breathtaking race had taken place the Friday before, in the lesser-known run for the lilies, the Kentucky Oaks, a championship test for three-year-old fillies. While Mine That Bird was shocking a live crowd of 155,000 and a worldwide audience of millions, Rachel Alexandra was the talk of the backstretch, the name being passed between trainers and hot-walkers at Wagner's Pharmacy, the name everyone agreed should've been in that Derby field. Anyone who had seen Friday's title race thought the filly would've wiped the track with the boys.
At the time she was dominating the Oaks in an effortless victory of 20 ¼ lengths, Rachel Alexandra was owned and trained by connections who believed fillies shouldn't race against colts. And so instead of being entered in a level of competition where she would be challenged, she made laughing-stocks out of her own gender, leaving them to trail half a football field away from her tireless heels. She hadn't bothered to be nominated to the Triple Crown races, which meant if she ever wanted to enter, her owners would have to supplement her for $100,000 and hope the gates weren't full of already eligible contenders. But only two days after her already legendary romp in the Oaks, there came a light at the end of the tunnel.
Jess Jackson, best known for keeping the two-time Horse of the Year Curlin racing as a four-year-old, swooped into Louisville and purchased Rachel Alexandra with a partner, and immediately, the chatter at Churchill centered around the filly's new calendar. Having earned a reputation of being a true sportsman, looking out for the good of horse racing, everyone began to ask Jackson if he intended on running Rachel in the 1 3/16-miles Preakness. The filly's purchase had come so quickly after her Oaks victory, it was hardly a guess as to what the millionaire had in mind for her.
But as soon as Jackson began looking into supplementing his new champion into Pimlico's feature race, the owners of the already-nominated horses began to quiver in their boots. Only fourteen horses are allowed in the Preakness starting gates, and the Triple Crown nominated horses would get first dibs. The sad thing is, many horses who aren't worth the cost of the filly's left horseshoes are already nominated and have precedence. After the top five finishers of the Kentucky Derby, plus some new faces, declared their intention to run in the second leg of the Triple Crown, drama began to mount as to whether or not Rachel would be able to make it into the Preakness field.
And out of this fear of the imposing filly coming to challenge the boys in Maryland emerged scandal. Mark Allen, co-owner of Mine That Bird, became angry that his horse would lose the jockey that doubtlessly won him the Derby. Calvin Borel had already agreed to opt off the gelding to ride the filly should she enter the Preakness, something that has never occurred in the history of the Triple Crown. And so, Allen cooked up a scheme to keep the filly out of the race.
On live TV, Mark Allen admitted his plan to enter another horse in the Preakness (a horse who'd yet to break his maiden in nine starts), and had called up Ahmed Zayat, the owner of Pioneerof the Nile, asking him to do the same. Zayat, too, planned to enter a second horse, and rambled off a long hypocritical statement about how it was "unfair" to race the filly against the Derby contenders when she'd avoided the Triple Crown trail. Finally, long-time owner and breeder Marylou Whitney was dragged into the situation when she found out her horse, Luv Gov, would be the entrant #14 if Allen and Zayat carried out their plan to enter two horses each. In a gesture of unflagging sportsmanship, Mrs. Whitney declared to withdraw her horse if it meant keeping Rachel Alexandra out of the Preakness.
Needless to say, Mark Allen and Ahmed Zayat were met with a flurry of criticism from all ends of the racing spectrum; by the end of the same day they'd announced their plans on TV, both of them nixed their plans to spoil the filly's chance to run in the Preakness. And the proverbial peasants rejoiced.
Wednesday, the post position draw was held for the Preakness Stakes, with a field of thirteen entrants; ironically, Rachel Alexandra drew post position #13. Apparently, no one in the Alexandra camp have Triskaidekaphobia, not even with the fact no horse in the 134-years of the race has won from that post position; according to assistant trainer to Steve Asmussen, Scott Blasi, they're 'happy' with the outside draw. From the outside post, Rachel stands a better chance of a clean break and may not be bumped around by the boys so much. After having witnessed this big filly in person, I'm not so sure that would matter so much, anyway.
Unbeaten this year, the Preakness will be the stiffest test of Rachel Alexandra's career. She will be facing not only the Derby-winning Mine That Bird, who is coming into the race to prove his upset victory was no fluke, but also the intimidating Pioneerof the Nile, Musket Man, Friesan Fire, Papa Clem, and General Quarters. Big Drama is the newest face who stands a chance at upsetting the Triple Crown possibility. Even with all this competition breathing down her throatlatch, Rachel Alexandra is going off at the morning-line favorite at 8-5. Mine That Bird has tied the third-highest odds with Friesan Fire at 6-1.
Rachel Alexandra has already made history. She’s won the Kentucky Oaks with the longest margin of victory on record, and is the first Oaks winner ever to enter the Preakness Stakes. Only four fillies have ever won the Preakness, and the last was eighty-five years ago. Even though she has the shortest odds in the betting, history is surely stacked against her.
But if you ask any horseman, anyone who’s been watching the three-year-olds gallop in their morning workouts and run in the highest stakes, you’ll find one common opinion: Rachel Alexandra may very well be the best three-year-old in the world. If she wins the Preakness, not only will she defy history, she will cement herself as one of the all-time Greats, being worthy of placing herself aside such champions as Winning Colors and Ruffian. What’s more, she holds the breath that could bring the sport of horse racing back to life in a day and age where the average person can’t even name all three races in the Triple Crown.
Alexandra the Great, indeed. We should all feel honored just to watch her run.
134th Preakness Stakes Entries and Morning-Line Odds
1. Big Drama (10-1) - Has had the advantage of a nice breather since his last race, but isn't of the quality of the top five or so contenders.
2. Mine That Bird (6-1)* - Lost Borel and picked up Mike Smith in the irons; if he's the same horse as the one in the Derby, stands a fighting chance.
3. Musket Man (8-1)* - Game effort against Pioneer in the Derby shows this colt is for real. Preakness may be a little short for his taste, though.
4. Luv Gov (50-1) - First stakes test for maiden winner; will have to have a major step up in quality to be a threat.
5. Friesan Fire (6-1)* - Throw out Derby performance; Preakness suits Larry Jones trainee perfectly.
6. Terrain (30-1) - This colt hasn't won since last August. Don't like his chances against this level of competition.
7. Papa Clem (12-1) - I have a feeling this horse is sitting on a big race. Don't underestimate him at 12-1.
8. General Quarters (20-1) - Had one nostril caked full of mud after the Derby. Hard-knocking colt didn't have chance to run in last outing.
9. Pioneerof the Nile (5-1)* - Proves to be biggest threat to the favorite. Preakness distance suits him well, but he doesn't have the flash of Rachel.
10. Flying Private (50-1) - Lukas is throwing in this dud into the Preakness without rhyme or reason.
11. Take the Points (30-1) - Pletcher trainee hasn't performed to the level touted or expected and will likely be outrun here.
12. Tone it Down (50-1) - Nobody seems to know who this horse is, and it likely doesn't matter, anyway.
13. Rachel Alexandra (8-5)* - She was a hair off the track record without ever being asked in the Oaks. Her natural talent looks unbeatable; only a bad trip should foil her.
*My top 5 picks: 13, 9, 3, 5, 2
NBC will broadcast coverage for the 134th running of the Preakness Stakes beginning at 4:30pm ET. For more information, visit Preakness.com. TVG and HRTV will air coverage all day-long on Saturday, as well as the undercard races.