Commentary

Rachel Alexandra proves critics wrong

Updated: May 21, 2009, 1:31 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

BALTIMORE -- Calvin Borel and Jess Jackson made their decisions.

Then a breathtaking filly made their decisions look brilliant.

Jackson stuck out his 10-figure neck in buying Rachel Alexandra less than two weeks ago and immediately inserting her into the Preakness, racing against colts for the first time. It was reckless, the critics howled. It was an exercise in egomania, they grumbled. If anything happens to that filly ... they warned.

[+] EnlargeRachel Alexandra
AP Photo/Garry JonesRachel Alexandra became the first filly since 1924 to win the Preakness.

Borel then did the unprecedented. He jumped off the back of the Kentucky Derby winner, Mine That Bird, to ride his favorite filly against his newfound colt friend in the Preakness. That's never happened before, in the 133-year history of this race. He was abandoning a Triple Crown chance, the critics fumed. He wasn't showing loyalty to the colt that probably put him in the Hall of Fame, they complained. If anything happens to that filly ... they warned.

Here's what happened to that filly early Saturday evening:

They put a blanket of black-eyed Susans on her neck. Borel sponged off her head. And they led her into the Preakness winner's circle after beating the boys all the way around Pimlico Race Course.

In a fitting climax for a hugely anticipated race, the only horse that had a chance of catching front-running Rachel before the wire was late-running Mine That Bird. But he came charging in the middle of the track under replacement jock Mike Smith this time, not saving ground on the rail under Borel as he did in an unforgettable Derby trip.

That change in path proved to be the history-making difference. Mine That Bird was too late, losing by a length.

If Borel were on Mine That Bird, we might be talking about a Triple Crown bid. Instead, we're talking about a Calvin Crown bid.

If Borel could have ridden both horses, we likely would have had a photo finish. Jackson said as much: "Calvin can add a length or so. I think she would have had to struggle more and maybe win by a nose."

But Borel was on the only horse he wanted to ride, and the result was never in serious doubt -- the filly led almost the entire way and was ahead by up to four lengths before holding off Bird's charge.

So now Rachel rules. And the two disparate men who made it happen -- the Cajun and the Californian, the jock with a limited education and the wine magnate -- could both celebrate total vindication.

"Like I told everybody up front, she's the best horse in the country right now, bar none," Borel said. "I can't go back on my word. I won't go back on my word.

"I just knew it was the right decision to do. I mean, I'm paid to win and I knew she was going to win."

Said Jackson: "There was a lot of social criticism and doubt about whether she was capable of it. I think I would have taken a little heat if she hadn't performed well. So that's a great relief. You have that off your shoulders. … It takes a little courage to step up."

Jackson had the courage to deliver one of the better Triple Crown moments in recent memory, bucking history and making Rachel the first filly to win the Preakness since 1924. This result only increased the second-guessing of previous owner Dolphus Morrison and trainer Hal Wiggins' decision to bypass the Derby.

Interestingly, though, Jackson agreed with that handling of Rachel, opting instead for the Kentucky Oaks, the nation's premier filly race. He said the annual huge field makes the Derby too rough and traumatic for horses in the early stage of their 3-year-old season.

"I would have kept her out of the Derby," Jackson said. "That's a cavalry charge -- 20 horses, you know what happens. ... Anything goes. It's too hard on any horse, and certainly 20 horses in a race bothers me a great deal.

"It's like putting a teenager in the NFL."

The Preakness is kinder and gentler -- but it would not prove to be without peril to Rachel Alexandra. She'd won her previous five races in almost effortless fashion. That would not be the case Saturday.

For starters, Rachel had to break from the far outside No. 13 post. And then, after a delayed start when Big Drama tossed jockey John Velazquez in the starting gate, she broke awkwardly to the right -- even farther to the outside.

That put Borel to work immediately, trying to restore order. He had to get Rachel up to speed quickly and angle in, clearing the field with the exception of Big Drama going into the first turn.

"If I don't do that, I'm going to get hung eight, nine wide," Borel said.

Instead, Rachel ran about four wide into the turn. With Big Drama at her neck, she was going at a problematic pace through the first half-mile -- 46.71 seconds, the fastest half-mile she's run since a six-furlong race in October 2008. This was much longer than that, and the pace appeared potentially suicidal.

"One of my worries in this race was that she might be hooked [in a speed duel] and have to compete early and get tired," Jackson said. "She did, and she won anyway. She might be coming out more tired than I know."

Still, the speed duel was not enough to beat Rachel, especially when Borel played a judicious traffic cop and slowed the pace just enough over the second half-mile. But even with a clear lead turning for home, this race was not yet in the bag.

"She was struggling [to handle the track] at the end," Borel said.

True, this was the rare instance in which Rachel did not use her fabulously fluid stride to bury her pursuers. But that's also because Mine That Bird was such a game competitor.

A horse that many (myself included) wrongly labeled a fluke Derby winner validated himself in this race. The diminutive, shifty Mine That Bird ran with the same last-to-first verve he showed in Louisville, dodging traffic and closing valiantly.

"I'm thrilled to death with the race my little horse ran," trainer Chip Woolley said.

The big difference was the ground lost in running so wide. Smith said he tried to get to the rail on the backstretch and was blocked, but he encountered more trouble coming into the stretch when he was fanned seven wide and had to check Mine That Bird briefly in the process of finding daylight.

Smith has spent a lot of time over the years racing in the middle of the track, and it has hardly hurt his career: He has won a Derby (2005) and a Preakness (1993), and he's in the Hall of Fame. But on this day, the wide trip stood in stark contrast to Bo-rail's daring Derby move.

After two compelling legs of this Triple Crown, the hope is that the Derby and Preakness winners both come out healthy and move on to a juicy matchup in the Belmont. Borel, already the first jockey to win the Derby and Preakness on different horses, would be pursuing the Calvin Crown against a colt whose sire, Birdstone, spoiled Smarty Jones' Triple Crown bid in the Belmont.

It would be great theater. Racing would have Calvin Borel and Jess Jackson, two risk-takers who won big Saturday, to thank for it.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com.