- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 16, 2009

BALTIMORE | Picking a winner at the Preakness Stakes is tough under the best of circumstances. Trying to forecast the 134th running of the race Saturday at Pimlico leaves jockeys, trainers and gamblers stumped.

Mine That Bird, the Kentucky Derby winner, doesn’t generate much respect because he won at 50-1 on a sloppy track against an untested field. The morning-line favorite, Rachel Alexandra, has never raced against males. And a chance of afternoon rain could throw off any horse who has no experience running in the mud.

“Unknown - that’s the best choice of words,” said trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who will send out two long shots.”People are having trouble getting a handle on it this year more than any other year. If the filly wasn’t in there, it would be totally upside down because we’re still trying to validate the Derby winner.”

A field of 13 will go to post at about 6:15 p.m. for the 13/16-mile race at Pimlico Race Course.

Mine That Bird will try to take the Triple Crown’s second leg and set up a run for history next month in New York. Rachel Alexandra, the 8-5 favorite, is trying to become the first filly to win the Preakness since 1924. Other contenders include Kentucky Derby finishers second through fourth (Pioneerof the Nile, Musket Man and Papa Clem) and new shooter Big Drama.

Many of the top 3-year-old prospects have long since gone to the sidelines because of injury or ineffectiveness, leaving this year’s Triple Crown wide open to runners from all over the country.

Rachel Alexandra is 7-for-10 lifetime and won her four races this year by a combined 38 3/4 lengths. The Preakness, however, didn’t enter her plans until last week, when she was sold to new owners, transferred to trainer Steve Asmussen’s barn and pointed for Baltimore. The filly has been so impressive that jockey Calvin Borel gave up his seat on Mine That Bird to direct Rachel Alexandra for the sixth consecutive race. Mike Smith will ride the Derby winner.

Borel’s reasoning is simple: He thinks the filly is better.

“I don’t think [Mine That Bird] can run with my filly, but he’ll run a good race,” he said. “I think all of them are going to have to run the race of their lives or have me fall off or something stupid happen.”

Most of the trainers agree that Rachel Alexandra is the class of the field. She is only the 53rd filly to run in the Preakness and just the fourth since 1980. She has shown versatility, winning from the lead and from a stalking position.

Rachel Alexandra will start from the outside No. 13 post, so it’s up to Borel to get her in good position early on.

“He’ll have her in great position, which will be out of trouble, and she won’t get any dirt kicked in her face,” said Bob Baffert, trainer of Pioneerof the Nile. “And if she turns on the afterburners like she did in those other races, she’s going to be really tough to run down.”

Said Lukas: “Whether she wins is something else, but I think she’s the best horse.”

A day after Rachel Alexandra won the Kentucky Oaks by 20 3/4 lengths, Mine That Bird stunned the sport with a last-to-first move along the rail for a commanding win (6 3/4 lengths) that paid $103.50 for a $2 bet.

Vanned from New Mexico to Kentucky before the Derby by trainer Chip Woolley, the colt has rebounded so well that he was worked in Louisville before coming to Baltimore.

“I’m really happy with where he’s at,” Woolley said. “The horse looks good, and he seems to be on his game. I even gave him work between races that I hadn’t really scheduled; he got on his game so good, we thought we’d better make him stretch his legs.”

With Smith aboard, the strategy will be the same: Break well from the No. 2 post, let the speed around him (Big Drama and Musket Man) go for the lead and wait to make one, huge run.

“It looks like he’s really rider-friendly,” Smith said. “He seems to love the rail. He seems to love the middle of the track. I saw him swing six- and seven-wide one time in Canada and win. It doesn’t seem to matter where he’s at. Getting him to relax is the key.”

Mine That Bird and Friesan Fire are the co-third favorites (6-1) behind Pioneerof the Nile (5-1), the Baffert horse who made a seamless transition to natural dirt in the Derby. How Rachel Alexandra fares against the guys is the top story Saturday.

“A lot of questions are going to be answered,” Baffert said. “That’s what the Preakness is about.”

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