By Mark Beech
May 16, 2009

BALTIMORE -- With super-filly Rachel Alexandra's courageous -- and narrow -- victory over Kentucky-Derby winner Mine That Bird at Pimlico on Saturday, the 134th running of the Preakness Stakes provided vindication for two horses, and more than a little redemption for the sport of racing itself. After more than a week of controversy and unsportsmanlike behavior had taken some of the shine off the Bird's shocking win in Kentucky, both horses refocused everyone's attention on Saturday with performances that exceeded all expectations. Rarely has the loss of a Triple Crown gone down so easily.

It was a pretty happy result considering all the bad blood stirred up when wine mogul Jess Jackson purchased Rachel Alexandra for a reported $10 million last week. Victorious in seven of her 10 career starts, she hadn't lost since last October, and had won her previous three races by a combined 30-¼ lengths. But her jockey, who kept referring to her as the best horse he'd ever ridden, was Derby-winning rider Calvin Borel. It is almost unheard of for a jockey to give up his mount after a victory in Louisville -- the last time it happened was in 1945, when Eddie Arcaro climbed off of Hoop Jr. after winning the Derby because of a previous commitment. (Arcaro did not, however, ride a rival in the Preakness.)

But with Jackson pointing the filly for Baltimore, Borel declared almost immediately that he intended to ride her instead of Mine That Bird at Pimlico. And that's when things got ugly -- a scheme was quickly hatched to prevent her entry into the race. Last Sunday, Ahmed Zayat, the owner of Derby runner-up Pioneerof the Nile, said he had been contacted by Mark Allen, the co-owner of Mine That Bird, and that the two had agreed to enter extra horses in the Preakness in order to prevent the filly from running (she had never been nominated to the Triple-Crown and would be unable to run if 14 nominated horses entered the race).

In the face of widespread public outcry, the plot to run overmatched horses merely to prevent a challenger from racing quickly disintegrated. Zayat, citing pressure from within the industry, backed down later the same day. So did Allen. But damage had been done.

Still, the entry of Rachel Alexandra didn't sit well with many racing insiders who consider it a folly of pride to run girls against boys. Pointing to the example of the doomed filly Eight Belles, whose horrific death on the track at last year's Derby was a public-relations disaster for racing, they charged that Jackson was endangering Rachel and placing the whole sport at risk. For his part, Jackson claimed that he was trying to "revive horse racing in the United States."

While it's doubtful he accomplished that much on Saturday, there's no doubt that, thanks to him, the game now has a real, honest-to-goodness rivalry between two of the more likable horses in recent memory -- a longshot gelding and one of the more talented fillies in a generation.

Rachel Alexandra broke poorly on the outside and was hurried up to the lead around the first turn, where she set such an enervating half-mile fraction (46.71 seconds) that many observers assumed that there would be no way she could last. But Borel eased off of her down the backstretch, saving something for a final run down the stretch. "She didn't handle the track a hundred percent and she still won," crowed Borel afterwards. "She's the best horse in the world."

"Anyone else," said Mike Smith, who was riding Mine That Bird, "would have caved."

Smith's trip on the Bird looked much like the run the gelding made in the Derby, save for Borel's rail-skimming ride. Unable to find room inside, Smith was forced to take his horse wide and got caught in serious traffic on the turn for home -- he actually had to check up around the 3/8-pole. Nevertheless, the Bird dug in and charged to the front gamely, showing that his huge move two weeks ago at Churchill Downs was no fluke. "I'm thrilled to the death with the race my little horse ran," said trainer Chip Woolley.

So a week that began with acrimony has ended with exultation -- for both the winners and the losers. Racing, and all of us, too, will be extremely lucky if the two horses meet again at Belmont in three weeks.

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