Thursday May 14th, 2009

BALTIMORE -- At shortly before 6 p.m. Wednesday, wine magnate Jess Jackson conducted a media teleconference in advance of Saturday's Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course. Jackson, 79, had purchased gifted 3-year-old filly Rachel Alexandra a week earlier and will run her in the Preakness against 12 colts, including unlikely Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird.

To begin his teleconference, Jackson said, "I'm delighted that we're entered. I think the fans deserve to see the best horses compete, regardless of sex. This isn't about male or female. It's really about the best athletes, whether male or female, that have durability and speed, can go two turns and not break down.''

Those last four words were haunting: "And not break down.'' The last time a filly ran against colts in a Triple Crown race was the 2008 Kentucky Derby, when filly Eight Belles finished second behind Big Brown, and then broke both front ankles while galloping out and was euthanized on the track. An outcry ensued, questioning the safety of horse racing and racetracks and asking whether modern racehorses had been bred -- and medicated -- to the point where they could no longer survive the rigors of the game for which they were born. (To be fair, the outcry was fueled by special interest groups, but it gained traction).

The fact that the horse in question was a filly somehow lent poignancy to the circumstances, as if poor Eight Belles had been recklessly sacrificed (even though there was no evidence that she had, and even though her trainer, Larry Jones, was -- and remains -- one of the most respected in the sport).

Now a year later another filly will challenge colts and Jackson voices what many people are thinking but find awkward to speak. ".... and not break down.''

Less than two hours after Jackson spoke those words, his publicist issued a statement from Jackson that ostensibly summarized his 40-minute teleconference. It was a four-sentence press release. The third of those four sentences was: "The Preakness is about the best athletes, male and female, with durability and speed, racing around two turns.'' Apparently either Jackson or his handlers saw fit to remove the phrase "... and not break down'' from Jackson's formal statement.

Sorry, too late. Jackson had already pointed out the elephant in the room. And in fairness to Jackson, the elephant was in the room before he spoke. And also in fairness to Jackson, a vocal advocate of breeding more sturdy racehorses, he might not have been talking about a catastrophic breakdown, but rather a gradual one, from the demands of racing over time.

Saturday's Preakness is one of the most compelling horse races in many years. In the last decade alone, there have been five horses that attempted to win the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes, each creating a microburst of hype fixed on a single horse on a familiar quest. (All of them failed). There have been beguiling story lines: Funny Cide's small town owners, Smarty Jones's survival story, Afleet Alex's connection to a little girl who died of cancer.

But seldom in recent history has there been a race that brings together multiple angles like Saturday's Preakness. There is Mine That Bird, who won the Kentucky Derby at 50-1 odds ("He should have been 99-1,'' said rival trainer Gary Stute, who trains Papa Clem, fourth in the Derby and entered in the Preakness). There is 42-year-old jockey Calvin Borel, whose fearless ride took Mine That Bird to the roses in Louisville, but who is also the regular rider on Rachel Alexandra and will ride the filly in the Preakness.

And that puts him at the vortex of the most powerful subplot of all: The filly vs. the colts. Girl vs. boys. Two years ago filly Rags to Riches beat Curlin in a thrilling Belmont Stakes (three weeks after Curlin had beaten Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense in the Preakness), a victory that broadened the appeal of the sport. "I'm extremely excited for [the Preakness],'' said trainer Todd Pletcher, who saddled Rags to Riches. "It's good for the industry. After Rags to Riches won the Belmont, when I was walking through hotel lobbies or airports, ladies would come up to me and say, 'That was the most exciting thing I've ever seen. I was jumping up and down my on couch watching it.' She brought the sport to people that wouldn't normally be watching it, and that's a great thing.''

Mine That Bird's victory in the Kentucky Derby brought NBC the best Derby rating in 17 years. The Preakness could be better, with its battle of the sexes.

But as Jackson pointed out with his apparent slip of the tongue, the subplot has a subplot. As thrilling as it would be to see Rachel Alexandra win the Preakness (and she is the 8-5 morning line favorite), people with an affection for racing will be just as thrilled to see her come back healthy and sound. The safety and survival issue is in play.

Adolphus Morrison, the retired 75-year-old steel executive who sold Rachel Alexandra to Jackson five days after she won the Kentucky Oaks by 20 ¼ lengths, did not intend to run against colts in the Triple Crown, or, possibly, ever. Asked how he feels about Rachel Alexandra -- who is named after Morrison's 13-year-old granddaughter, a name straight out of Jane Austen -- running in the Preakness, Morrison said, "It's doesn't excite me. I'm afraid that this horse would kill herself trying to get there.''

Male and female equine athletes are more alike than humans. But there are differences that guide trainers who consider running a talented filly against colts (and/or geldings, like Mine That Bird), although the practice is more common outside the United States.

Morrison's suggestion that Rachel Alexandra would run herself to death in trying to win is hyperbolic. But both Pletcher and Jones said that maximum effort is more common in fillies than colts.

"I think a lot of time fillies are more consistent and genuine,'' said Pletcher. "They will give it to you more often than colts. I can't say that happens all the time, but they are a little more consistent in that way. Rags to Riches would give it to you every time out, and at a very high level.''

Jones said, "These great fillies, they've beaten the other fillies so many times, they think they've invincible. They have that mindset that they've going to give you 110 percent. They've not used to getting beat. They don't plan on getting beat. Most of mine would run their heart out more than my colts.''

Jones also added, "Rags to Riches won the Belmont and she wasn't anything after that. Eight Belles ran with them in the Derby and you saw what happened there.''

Rags to Riches ran just one race after the Belmont and was retired the following spring with a fracture in her pastern. It is unclear whether the stress of running against Curlin in a furious stretch drive beat up Rags to Riches and finished her or if she simply compromised her pastern with an awkward step at the start. Pletcher believes it was the latter. "It was just an unfortunate start,'' says Pletcher.

(And even Jones, one day after suggesting that Eight Belles might have been endangered in some way by running against colts, brusquely told a group of reporters, "What happened to Eight Belles wasn't because there were boys in the race.''

It is not a clear issue. Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas won the 1988 Kentucky Derby with filly Winning Colors and before that the 1986 Whitney with filly Lady's Secret. He says certain fillies are more suited to the task of beating colts than others. "Winning Colors weighed 1,260 pounds,'' says Lukas. "There was no intimidation with her. But generally, I think what you need is a filly with a high cruising speed, the ability to sit one-two-three-four in the race.''

Rachel Alexandra is a huge filly with a high cruising speed. Also, she drew the outside post position, No. 13. That might not be ideal in a vacuum, but it will allow her to avoid getting bumped and jostled by colts from the outside and, if Borel chooses, to take the lead from the outside. Rachel Alexandra has shown brilliant speed, but hasn't had a tough, physical trip around a racetrack since her first start in May 2008, when she finished sixth.

"I was hoping she'd be trapped down in the inside,'' says Stute. "There, we could throw a little dirt in her face and box her in.'' It's a not a gentle game, and Rachel Alexandra will not be treated gently.

It is also possible that tactics will be insignificant. Rachel Alexandra could be too fast and too fit to be challenged on the front end and just run away. It is also possible that she is good, but not far better than these colts. "It's fair to say that it was not the deepest Oaks field that she beat,'' says Pletcher. "This is a dramatic step up in class.''

She could find herself hooked and racing with a quarter-mile to run. That is the scenario that brings to drama to living rooms and an ancient old sport to life. Best that it brings, nothing more.

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