On Friday May 1st 2009 Rachel Alexandra, ridden by jockey Calvin Borel, soundly defeated 6 female rivals in the $500,000 Kentucky Oaks by 20 1⁄4 lengths in near track record time. A performance so dominant that many considered her talent to be equal or better than the top three year old colts due to run the following day in the Kentucky Derby.
Turn the page a day to Saturday May 2nd , Mine that Bird (right) also piloted by jockey Calvin Borel, revealed to the world his heart pounding closing ability as he maneuvered his way through traffic, (equaling Secretariat’s record 23 3/5 seconds for the fastest last quarter of a mile in Ky Derby history) and soundly defeated 18 rivals from around the globe to win this years running of the Kentucky Derby.
Normally, Mine That Bird’s performance would have placed him on the fast track toward earning three year old championship and maybe Horse of the Year honors voted on at the end of the racing season. But turf writers and fans alike expressed opinions that Mine That Bird’s effort in the Derby was questionable because of his long odds of 501 and the excuses made by other riders and trainers that the muddy racetrack was to blame for their defeat and his 6 3/4 length winning margin.
Shortly after this years Kentucky Derby weekend concluded, Jess Jackson of Stonestreet Stables LLC and Harold McCormick put together an offer to good to refuse and purchased the three year old superstar filly Rachel Alexandra. Within days of the purchase rumors started flying that Rachel Alexandra might attempt to change history by becoming the first filly ever to win the Kentucky Oaks and take on the Kentucky Derby winner in the Preakness Stakes after just two weeks rest.
Jockey Calvin Borel, (winning jockey of both horses) made it clear from the beginning that if given the choice, he would honor Rachel Alexandra (left) with his mount if she was entered in the Preakness Stakes. This decision would also write a new page in racing history, making it the first time ever a jockey chose to give up the winning Kentucky Derby mount to ride another horse in the Preakness. Rumors turned to reality and the race was on.
For the first time in years, a great rivalry was born.
America turned on the televisions and dialed in the Preakness coverage creating the highest overnight television ratings since 2004 and the second highest in nearly two decades, you weren’t disappointed. The 134th running of the Preakness Stakes lived up to the hype pitting the worlds best three year old filly, Rachel Alexandra, against the underdog Kentucky Derby winner, Mine That Bird, several of his beaten male rivals from the Derby, and a handful of other fresh 3yr old male challengers. Rachel Alexandra broke from the #13 outside post position and sat just off the early lead set by speedball Big Drama, as the field raced toward the backside of the racetrack. Midway up the back straight away Rachel Alexandra cruised past the leader Big Drama and opened a two length lead on the field, as she entered the turn for home, but the tenacious Mine That Bird was launching his recently created trademark move from last and was closing fast. As they straightened away for the drive through the stretch Rachel opened up a four length advantage and Mine That Bird encountered a wall of horses and searched for a way through. They came to the wire with the champion filly reaching deep to win by a length, holding off the menacing run of Mine That Bird.
In doing so Rachel Alexandra became the first horse ever to win the Preakness Stakes breaking from post position 13. Minutes after the race, Chip Woolley, trainer of Mine That Bird commented, “I’m thrilled to death with the race my little horse ran. Everything was going according to Hoyle, until the turn when he was fanned a little wide. I thought we had a chance at the eighthpole. But you have to give that filly credit. She’s a great one. The Belmont is next for us.” But Rachel Alexandra’s trainer, Steve Asmussen, said he’ll wait a few days before making a decision. Since then Rachel has had a half mile workout at Churchill Downs and will have another work Sunday or Monday before the decision is made whether she will participate in this years Belmont Stakes or not.
As we approach the 141st running of this years Belmont Stakes the plot thickens and the battle for three year old supremacy continues. In years past if the Kentucky Derby winner was defeated in the Preakness, the third leg of racings “Triple Crown” series the Belmont Stakes lost some of its luster and fans would move on. But this years edition has renewed the interest of sports fans around the country traditional and non traditional alike. Since the championship performance witnessed in the Preakness by much of America, Mine That Bird and Rachel Alexandra have become the talk around the water cooler and in coffee shops around the country. Who’s the better horse? Can Rachel hold of Mine That Bird at the 1 1⁄2 distance?
If Rachel Alexandra runs in the Belmont and wins the “Test of the Champion” can any horse beat her? Will Mine That Bird prove once and for all who the best 3 year old in the world is in Belmont Park’s “Test of the Champion.” Could he break the record Secretariat set for the largest winning margin of 31 lengths? Furthermore, will Rachel bypass the race to conserve her best for a showdown with the undefeated Zenyatta in the months to come? If so, will Calvin Borel make history again by becoming the first jockey ever to win the triple crown aboard multiple horses? If Rachel Alexandra does pass the Belmont and Mine That Bird wins in smashing fashion, will she have any chance at Horse of the Year honors?
No doubt about it, for the first time in a long time racing has an exciting fresh set of questions yearning to be answered.
As the days wind down to this years Belmont Stakes, whether another showdown between the sexes develops or not. There’s no better place to be than the hamlet of Elmont, New York, in the town of Hempstead in Nassau County, Long Island.
“Beautiful Belmont Park” is often called one of the bestlandscaped venues in American sports. There’s a huge wandering backyard park behind the grandstand, that includes the paddock in which the horses are saddled before each race. The back of the grandstand is embraced by large green ivy leaves that climb three stories high. June blooming roses lining fences to the paddock and fill the air with flower shop fragrance as the Triple Crown’s final leg grows near. Giant oak and pine trees tower over buildings and drift throughout the park like well dressed valets at a Hollywood affair. From the time you drive up to the clubhouse entrance, till the first horse enters the gate, the ambiance of Sinatra’s classic, New York, New York take over the mind. Business types in their sport coats or suits and women in the latest prints blend with everyday fans in their blue jeans and ties.
A quiet sense of elegance fills the air as thoughts like, “It doesn‘t get better than this” lighten your step. One visit to Belmont Park and you’ll know why the Legends of Racing have all raced here. From Man O War and Secretariat, to Spectacular Bid and Big Brown, win, loose, or draw, New York’s Belmont Park is the battle ground of greatness in the scrolls of thoroughbred racing.
This years Belmont Stakes is scheduled for Saturday June 6th with post time for the start scheduled to take place at 6:30PM (EST).
For those of you who cannot attend ABC will air its coverage starting at approximately 5:30 PM.