Though attendance for the Preakness Stakes was down by around 40,000 spectators, thanks to the banning of bringing outside alcohol into Pimlico's infield, I can't remember a louder roar coming from the grandstands as Rachel Alexandra held on to win the second leg of the Triple Crown. And I still find myself at a loss as how to explain the magnificence of not only this amazing filly's performance, but that, too, of the runner-up, the Kentucky Derby winner, Mine That Bird.
Before last Saturday, I thought I'd seen some pretty amazing races before. I was standing only feet away from Rachel Alexandra when she powered to a 20 ¼-length victory in the Kentucky Oaks, but at the time, I couldn't get my head around what I'd witnessed. Watching her win the Preakness validated not only the splendor of that performance, it showed me what it means to have seen something extraordinary. I have looked in the eye of true greatness.
It's very possible Rachel Alexandra may be the greatest horse of my lifetime.
She became the first horse in the Preakness's 134-year history to win from post position number 13, and she did so by sailing to take the lead before the field went into the first turn. Any regular horse wouldn't have been able to last setting those blistering early fractions, on a track her jockey said "she wasn't handling." After being sent to the early lead, she was dogged the whole way by an obnoxious Big Drama, who kept her at least three-wide on both turns. What's more, when she rounded the final turn for home, she began to pull away from the rest of the horses. And when her feet began to spin in the soft dirt, her heart took her the rest of the way to the wire. She became the first filly in eighty-five years to win the Preakness, and the first Kentucky Oaks winner ever to win the Preakness. Calvin Borel became the first jockey ever to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in the same year on different horses.
There are no "buts" or "if" factors in this year's renewal of the Preakness. Not at any point in time was any horse going to catch Rachel Alexandra, and if the race was done over, the outcome would be just the same. She put to shame a field of twelve capable, talented colts, worthy contenders who have taken down other great colts in races prior. She's proven what they set her out to prove: girls can not only race with the boys, girls can whoop some serious boy-tail. Rachel's validation was not just for herself, but for her gender, and there could be no better tribute for the late Eight Belles.
And speaking of validations, how about the performance of the 50-1 longshot Derby winner, Mine That Bird? It seems the Bird has finally found his niche running style. With a new jockey in tow, Mike Smith steered the Bird from a last-to-second place finish, weaving between horses and through holes like a camel through the eye of a needle.
After the Preakness, Smith shook his head and said of the Bird, "[He's] the bravest little horse I think I've ever been on." Mine That Bird came charging down the stretch in the final furlongs of the race like a bat out of hell, just like he'd done in the Derby. Only this time, he was running up to the skirt of Wonder Woman, and once she saw him coming, all it took was a final little spurt to deny him a chance at the Triple Crown. But don't let that close finish fool you: even in the gallop out, Rachel wouldn't let the Bird catch her, and in fact, had to be caught by an outrider to keep her from taking off again.
And so it is that the filly and the gelding have taken the first two jewels in the Triple Crown, purportedly the races meant to give future stallions better credence in the breeding shed. And what about those future stallions? As it turns out, Santa Anita Derby winner Pioneerof the Nile actually doesn't like dirt as much as his Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert, thought; after finishing a distant second in the Derby slop, the colt was eased to a career-worst eleventh place on the fast Pimlico track after regular rider Garrett Gomez realized the colt wasn't firing. The Derby favorite Friesan Fire, too, ran out of gas going into the final stretch and finished out of the money. Big Drama, the big talk of Pimlico building up to the Preakness, was intimidated by the filly the whole way around the track, and finally faded to fifth. Flying Private, D. Wayne Lucas's last-place finisher in the Derby, improved to fourth place. Only Musket Man kept his form and finished third for his second race in a row.
The Belmont Stakes awaits in two weeks. Though it's not confirmed, Mine That Bird and Rachel Alexandra both are open to a rematch in the final leg of the Triple Crown. Along for the ride will be Dunkirk and Chocolate Candy, who will be seeking redemption after troubled trips in the Derby. There may not be a Triple Crown on the line this year, but the growing storylines are intriguing enough to keep even the uninitiated fans on the edge of their seat. Here we have the second-biggest longshot winner in Kentucky Derby history proving his legitimacy, and this freak of a filly has come along and ripped away what could've been the most unforeseen run at a Triple Crown in history. It would be enough to make the masses cry out in protest, except she may be the most remarkable thing to grace a track since Ruffian.
Rachel Alexandra doesn't need to run in the Belmont to prove anything else, and neither does Mine That Bird. But Triple Crown fever has a way of infecting even the most sound-minded person. If both horses are fit and hopping, would it be so bad to let them dance one more time on racing's biggest platform? Or could Calvin Borel try to be the first jockey in the 134-year history of the trilogy to win his own Triple Crown on different horses?
One thing's for certain: this year, it's good to be a horse racing fan.
If you liked this article, you may like to check out Steve Haskin's take on the 134th Preakness Stakes.
Other races of note: Don't miss Zenyatta's five-year-old debut at Hollywood Park this Saturday in the Grade II Milady Handicap. Will she make it a perfect ten in a row? Post time is slated for 4:30 PT. The race will be broadcast live on TVG.