But with the addition of brilliant filly Rachel Alexandra and all of the controversy that has surrounded her presence, the stage has been set for one of the most anticipated Preakness Stakes in recent memory.
A field of 13 is slated to line the gates at Pimlico Race Course May 16 for the 1 3/16-mile classic. Post time is set for 6:15 p.m. EDT.
Even the best prognosticator could not have foreseen the events that have led to Rachel Alexandra’s quest to become the first Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) winner to ever start in the Preakness, and the first filly to win the race since Nellie Morse in 1924.
It began May 6 when Stonestreet Stables’ Jess Jackson and Harold T. McCormick privately purchased the filly from Dolphus Morrison and Mike Lauffer, just days after she romped by a record-setting 20 1/4 lengths in the Oaks. The new owners immediately named Steve Asmussen as trainer and hinted they would enter the superstar in the Preakness. Eyes were raised further when Calvin Borel, who rode both Rachel Alexandra in the Oaks and Mine That Bird in the Derby, made the bold decision of opting off the Derby winner in favor of the filly for the Preakness.
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Adding more fuel to the fire, Pioneerof the Nile breeder/owner Ahmed Zayat and Mine That Bird co-owner Mark Allen were quoted in May 10 television interviews as saying they were each planning on entering another horse in the Preakness so as to exclude Rachel Alexandra from the field. Since she was a supplemental nominee at a cost of $100,000, Rachel Alexandra would have been excluded if more than 14 horses entered the race.
After setting off the media firestorm, Zayat and Allen later reconsidered their positions and said they would not try to block the filly from the race.
After all of the hoopla, what we are left with is Rachel Alexandra, installed as the solid 8-5 morning-line favorite, trying to make history by knocking off the boys in Baltimore. The intrigue couldn’t get any higher even if it were a soap opera.
When they finally do hit the racetrack and it becomes about the actual race, Rachel Alexandra will take a 7-2-0 record from 10 starts and $958,354 of earnings to the starting gate. The daughter of Medaglia d'Oro is undefeated in four starts this year, winning by a combined 38 3/4 lengths – all of them under Borel while being trained by Hal Wiggins. The bay will, however, be asked to face males for the first time and will surely get her stiffest class check to date.
From a tactical standpoint, Rachel Alexandra is likely to be part of the early pace scenario that could also include Harold Queen’s well-rested Big Drama. Though exceptionally fast, the bay filly, who will get a five pound weight advantage, has proved in the past that she is capable of rating. She drew post 13. No horse has ever won the second jewel of the Triple Crown from that post.
“I think the fans deserve to see the best horses compete, regardless of sex,” Jackson said May 13. “This is not about male and female. This about the best athletes able to go two turns … We hope this will help the fans enjoy a great sport. She is a perfect athlete. I hope this helps revive horse racing in United States.”
Double Eagle Ranch and Buena Suerta Equine’s Mine That Bird will be attempting to prove his 50-1 upset May 2 in the Kentucky Derby was no fluke. Before pulling the shocker by 6 3/4 lengths, the gelded son of Birdstone was the Canadian juvenile champion thanks to four consecutive victories at Woodbine. With Borel opting off Mine That Bird, trainer Bennie "Chip" Woolley Jr. has given the mount to Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, who won the Preakness in 1993 aboard Prairie Bayou.
“Calvin did a great job, but he also gave Mike, if he rides him, something to go by because that’s the trip we’ve been looking for all along,” said Woolley. “Now, they see that he’s fired his very best races when he’s run that way, so it gives him something to gauge by going into this race.
“Horses fire big races, and I’m not saying he didn’t run over his form (in the Derby), but they do fire big races, and hopefully he’ll fire back like that this week. If he does, that’s wonderful, if he doesn’t, we’ll regroup and aim him for the Belmont and see what happens.”
Mine That Bird, who drew post 2, will attempt to take the second step in becoming Thoroughbred racing’s first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
Pioneerof the Nile will try to become the first Derby runner-up to win the Preakness since Prairie Bayou in 1993. The son of Empire Maker entered the Derby on a four-race win streak, capped by his score in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I). Overall, Pioneerof the Nile has garnered a 5-1-1 record from nine starts with earnings of more than $1.6 million.
Two-time reigning Eclipse Award-winning jockey Garrett Gomez will have the riding assignment on Pioneerof the Nile, who is trained by Bob Baffert. Baffert has won the Preakness four times—Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), Point Given (2001), and War Emblem (2002).
Third in the Derby, Eric Fein and Vic Carlson’s Musket Man will try to get back to the winning ways that had become so familiar to him. The son of Yonaguska won five of six lifetime starts entering the Kentucky Derby, including the Tampa Bay (gr. III) and Illinois (gr. II) Derbys. Regular rider Eibar Coa retains the mount for trainer Derek Ryan.
Bo Hirsch’s Papa Clem has proven he belongs with the best 3-year-olds this season, having won the Arkansas Derby (gr. II) and finishing runner-up in both the Robert B. Lewis (gr. II) and Louisiana Derby (gr. II) for trainer Gary Stute. Stute will attempt to win the Preakness more than two decades after his father, Mel, won with Snow Chief in 1986.
“To win this race 23 years after my father won it would be pretty special,” Stute said. “I don’t know how many years I’ve got left with him and I’d like to do something (special) while he’s alive rather than later. Hopefully we can win this race and he’ll be here to see it. Pimlico is definitely a special place for the Stute family.”
Rafael Bejarao will again have the call on Papa Clem.
Vinery Stables and Fox Hill Farm’s Friesan Fire will attempt to become the first beaten Derby favorite to come back to win the Preakness since Point Given in 2001. The son of A.P. Indy had a troubled trip when finishing next to last in the Derby, getting bumped out of the gate and again down the backstretch. It was later learned that Friesan Fire grabbed a quarter in his left front foot.
Trainer Larry Jones deemed Friesan Fire fit to run in the Preakness earlier this week, and his five-furlong breeze in :58 2/5 May 12 seemed to indicate he could be set up for a bounce-back effort. Gabriel Seaz will have the return mount on the chestnut colt, who swept the Louisiana series for 3-year-olds at Fair Grounds earlier this year.
Also coming out of the Derby are General Quarters and Flying Private, 10th and 19th, respectively. Flying Private is one of two starters trained by D. Wayne Lukas, who has five Preakness winners to his credit, the most recent one coming in 1999 with Charismatic.
Rested and primed for a big run is Florida-based Big Drama. The David Fawkes trainee enters off a record-setting effort in the March 28 Swale (gr. II) at Gulfstream Park, where he ran seven furlongs in a course-record 1:20.88 in his sophomore debut, but was disqualified and placed second due to interference in the stretch. As a 2-year-old Big Drama won five of six starts, including the Delta Jackpot (gr. III). John Velazquez will ride the Montbrook colt for the first time and they will break from the rail.
Also entering with rest are Adele Dilschneider’s Terrain and Starlight Partners’ Take the Points, the fourth-place finishers of the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. II) and Santa Anita Derby, respectively.
Rounding out the field are locally-based M and D Stable’s Tone It Down, third in the May 2 Federico Tesio, and Lukas’ other trainee, Luv Gov, who broke his maiden at Churchill Downs on the Kentucky Derby undercard.