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Rivalry may give Belmont a boost

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BALTIMORE -- Rarely does the end of a Triple Crown bid bring as much excitement as its continuation.

But that's exactly what happened Saturday in the Preakness. Rachel Alexandra's victory over Mine That Bird was such a spectacle that it gave horse racing a big boost in tough times.

Two aspects of horse racing bring in crowds and media attention: brilliance (see: Secretariat) and rivalries (see: Affirmed vs. Alydar, Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral). There was a mix of both when the runaway winners of the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks faced off at Pimlico.

"It was great for racing to have them compete, and I think that I would have been just as proud had [Rachel Alexandra] come in second because the spectacle of having the two run against each other is good for racing," Rachel Alexandra co-owner Jess Jackson said. "Of course I'd prefer to win... but we believe in champions running against champions and setting up a race like this where there's something to write about, something to be proud about - and may the best horse always win."

All indications are the best horse, 9-5 favorite Rachel Alexandra, did just that. And in beating gelding Mine That Bird by just over a length, she gave horse racing a heck of a show - and a preview of how strong her career could be.

Rachel Alexandra returned to her stall at Churchill Downs on Sunday morning, and Mine That Bird was en route as well. If both go to the Belmont Stakes on June 6, it could create plenty of attention for a race that usually lacks buzz when there's no chance for a Triple Crown.

On Sunday, Steve Asmussen, Rachel Alexandra's trainer, wouldn't commit to the Belmont.

"I don't feel the urgency to prove it that I did earlier," he said. "We're in a lot stronger position coming off the win."

Mine That Bird appears slated for Belmont. Trainer Chip Woolley and co-owner Mark Allen said they were looking forward to seeing their horse take on top competition again. But even if it doesn't happen, Rachel Alexandra wouldn't be out of challengers. Jackson said she definitely would face colts again.

The challenges for Rachel Alexandra won't end with Mine That Bird. There remains the possibility of a showdown with Zenyatta, the 5-year-old who won the Eclipse Award as best older female horse.

"I hope they meet. It's good for racing," Jackson said. "That's the heart of the theory. You raise the bar, take chances. I'm an entrepreneur. I take risks, but the rewards are worth it."

The risk of running Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness proved worth it, both in result and getting attention for horse racing. The overnight TV ratings were the second highest since 1990, up 27 percent from last year. Despite a drop in attendance, the on-track betting handle was up $13.2 million from last year.

And while Rachel Alexandra is no guarantee to go 1 1/2 miles in the Belmont, a chance for more accolades could entice her connections to go for it.

"I like the sound of front-runner for horse of the year," Asmussen said.

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