BALTIMORE | Minutes after romping to a record victory in the Kentucky Oaks aboard Rachel Alexandra, jockey Calvin Borel had no doubt the filly would’ve been able not only to run with the colts in the Kentucky Derby - but also beat them.
“She’s the greatest horse I’ve ever been on in my life,” Borel said.
Coming from a man who rode Street Sense to a victory in the 2007 Derby, that was high praise. But Borel’s real praise for Rachel Alexandra came the week after he won the Kentucky Derby with 50-1 shot Mine That Bird - because in Saturday’s Preakness he’ll ride Rachel Alexandra. And while jockeys who won the Derby have been replaced, this marks the first time a winning jockey has chosen to ride a different horse in the Preakness.
But with his words and deed, Borel made it clear his decision wasn’t a hard one.
“She’s a once-in-a-lifetime horse,” Borel said.
Perhaps even once-in-a-century. No filly has won the Preakness since 1924, and only three have even been in the field in the past 70 years. And Borel isn’t alone in his acclaim for Rachel Alexandra. She is expected to be made the morning-line favorite after Wednesday’s draw despite a field that includes five Derby runners - including Mine That Bird.
There’s no precedent to Borel’s decision to hop from Mine That Bird to Rachel Alexandra, but there is certainly plenty of evidence why Borel chose her, why she could become just the fifth filly to win the Preakness and why she is striking fear into other trainers at Pimlico.
“Only the Lord knows, probably, how good Rachel Alexandra is,” Friesan Fire trainer Larry Jones said. “Anytime that a horse is as fast as her, you wish you didn’t have to run against them.”
Borel’s trip in the Kentucky Derby in which he guided Mine That Bird from first to last along the rail was as close to perfect as a horse could get in such a crowded race. But the 42-year-old’s run a day earlier with Rachel Alexandra looked almost effortless. He never even had to ask the filly to pick up speed as she zipped past her rivals en route to a 20 1/4-length victory.
She’ll take an unusual path to try to prove just how good she can be. Rachel Alexandra is the first Kentucky Oaks winner to be entered in the Preakness, meaning she also would be the first horse to pull off the Oaks-Preakness double. Nellie Morse, the 1924 Preakness winner, was the last horse even to compete in both races.
But Jess Jackson, owner of 2007 and 2008 horse of the year Curlin, bought Rachel Alexandra soon after her Oaks romp and pointed her toward the second jewel of the Triple Crown.
And while owners and trainers stopped short of blocking the super filly from entering the race (by throwing other horses into the field), her entry didn’t bring a lot of joy to those already on the Triple Crown trail.
“When I first heard she was running, I was a little disappointed ‘cause after the Derby I thought I had a real good chance of winning this race,” Papa Clem trainer Gary Stute said. “But I believe in God, and whatever happens happens. All I can worry about is my horse.”
It seems like everyone on the Pimlico backstretch is worried about two horses - theirs and Rachel Alexandra, who is scheduled to arrive at the stakes barn early Wednesday afternoon.
And while there is trepidation about facing a horse that has shown as much skill as Rachel Alexandra, this will be her first race against colts.
“That filly’s a really nice filly. I like the way she won last time,” said jockey Gabriel Saez, who will ride Friesan Fire in the Preakness. “But she never ran against the boys. Let’s see. It’s gonna be a little more pressure on her this time.”
Pressure and expectations are nothing new for Rachel Alexandra and Borel. The two are unbeaten in five races together, and their Oaks triumph put Rachel Alexandra in the discussion of great fillies in horse racing history along with 2007 Belmont winner Rags to Riches and the undefeated Zenyatta.
“This filly here is something that we haven’t seen in horse racing for a while,” Jones said. “This filly might go down in the record book as being one of the nicest to ever [to be saddled for a Triple Crown race].”
And while trainers have expressed a desire not to have their horses compete against Rachel Alexandra, they recognized a filly making history in the Preakness would benefit the sport.
“It’s great for horse racing as a whole,” Stute said. “We need a little shot in the arm, and hopefully she’ll do it.”