- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 16, 2009

In 1973, Don King went to Jamaica as a guest of Joe Frazier, who was about to defend his heavyweight title against George Foreman.

Foreman pummeled his opponent in two rounds, prompting King to step over Frazier and leave with Foreman.

Calvin Borel is no Don King, though he arguably can be called a front-runner for stepping over his Kentucky Derby-winning mount, Mine That Bird, to ride Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness on Saturday.

That’s the whole idea in racing, though - you want to be the front-runner. Mine That Bird won in Louisville, Ky., two weeks ago, but Rachel Alexandra, a filly, is the prohibitive favorite in the Triple Crown race at Pimlico.

“She’s a once-in-a-lifetime horse,” Borel said.

There was grumbling about the filly’s presence in the field - and some political jockeying early on in an effort to keep her out of the race.

And, from the outside looking in, casual observers might think Borel’s front-running shows a lack of loyalty - no jockey ever has abandoned a Derby-winning horse for another for the Preakness.

But, as Don King would say, you go where the wild goose goes. And the wild goose is Rachel Alexandra.

Borel is the jockey for both horses, but Rachel Alexandra did not run in the Kentucky Derby. Instead, she ran in the Kentucky Oaks the day before the Derby and won convincingly.

If Rachel Alexandra had run in the Derby, Borel certainly would have ridden her - and no one even would remember Mine that Bird.

“She’s the greatest horse I’ve ever been on in my life,” Borel said.

That means, of course, that horse racing now might wind up with a Triple Crown jockey instead of the Triple Crown horse its been waiting for since Affirmed won all three races in 1978.

It doesn’t quite have the same juice.

You could argue that it was Borel who won the Derby with his ride up the rail on Mine That Bird, a 50-1 long shot who passed the field in the homestretch as if it were standing still.

That clearly was not the case the day before in the Oaks - that was all Rachel Alexandra, who won by more than 20 lengths.

“Calvin just gave him a super, super trip,” said Chip Woolley, Mine That Bird’s trainer. “He never second-guessed himself and got through there at just the right time. That was probably the most amazing thing. I could watch it right now, and it’s like it’s Derby Day.”

Woolley said he holds no ill will toward Borel because of his switch.

“This is a business, and Calvin has to watch out for himself,” Woolley said. “It was his choice, and I respect his choice. It was a hard choice for him to make, and I appreciate the fact that he and his agent were really upfront with us from Day One, as soon as they knew the prospect was out there [to ride Rachel Alexandra]. They came and told us and gave us the opportunity to get the best rider we could.”

That rider is Mike Smith, who won the Preakness in 1993 with Prairie Bayou and the Derby in 2005 aboard Giacomo.

It has been a long time since the jockeys were the focus of a Triple Crown race. In recent years, particularly with Bob Baffert, trainers have become the stars of these events. On Saturday, all eyes will be on Calvin Borel and Rachel Alexandra.

“Maybe this is what racing needs,” said Baffert, who thought he had the Derby winner in Pioneerof the Nile, also in the Preakness field. “We need something like this to really boost that we have a great sport, and I’m glad she’s in there.”

It may help - a filly hasn’t won the Preakness in 85 years, so a victory by Rachel Alexandra would bring much-needed attention to horse racing.

But even if Rachel Alexandra wins, the attention will move on and Pimlico again will be a ghost town.

Racing needs a time machine to take it back 40 or 50 years, when there was no casino gambling or state-sponsored lotteries with which to compete. Other forms of gambling have left racing in the dust, and the industry has turned to its competition - slot machines - to save itself.

In Maryland, though, it might be too late and too misdirected.

None of the current bids for a slots casino in Maryland are for Pimlico or Laurel, whose owner, Magna Entertainment Corp., filed for bankruptcy in March. And Maryland’s Legislature recently passed a bill that authorizes the state to take over Laurel, Pimlico and the rights to the Preakness, for fear of the Triple Crown race being moved out of the state - sort of like Calvin Borel riding a better horse.

Rachel Alexandra is going to rescue this? She may be a once-in-a-lifetime horse, but she’s not Wonder Woman.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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