As she raced against colts for the first time, Rachel Alexandra struggled. She was a little off at the start, and jockey Calvin Borel had to steady her several times.
It wasn’t her best race, but she won anyway.
Crossing the finish line the first time around, she staked a lead and stayed at the front of the pack the whole time. She never surrendered her hold on the race or her place in history Saturday at Pimlico Race Course, finishing in 1:55.08 to become the first filly in 85 years to win the Preakness Stakes.
“She had something to prove a lot of questions. I think she proved it emphatically,” trainer Steve Asmussen said. “The race didn’t unfold exactly as we had expected it to, and she was still good enough to win a classic. I think she’s a true champion.”
Rachel Alexandra, who went off as the 9-5 favorite in the 134th running of the race, took command going around the second turn and pulled away for her fifth win in as many races this year. In the homestretch, Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird made one last charge as light rain fell but couldn’t catch the filly, who paid $5.60, $4.60 and $3.60. Musket Man placed third, and Flying Private finished fourth on the 1 3/16-mile track.
While Borel said Rachel Alexandra struggled before holding on to win by just over a length, Mine That Bird jockey Mike Smith just wished he had another sixteenth of a mile to run.
Borel didn’t think that would have mattered.
“She’s the best horse in the country right now bar none,” Borel said. “I think we could’ve went another round, and [Mine That Bird] would’ve never went by her. She has so much determination.”
And a place in history for both Rachel Alexandra and Borel. She became the first filly to capture the Preakness since Nellie Morse in 1924, the first favored filly to win the race since Whimsical in 1906 and the first horse to win at Pimlico from the No. 13 post on the far outside. Before Borel did it, no jockey had won the Derby and Preakness aboard different horses, and he could become the first rider to win all three jewels of the Triple Crown in the same year with two different horses.
In a way, this victory vindicated both Borel’s decision to choose Rachel Alexandra over Mine That Bird and co-owner Jess Jackson’s move to buy the filly and enter her in the Preakness to face the boys for the first time. Borel said he couldn’t have won this race aboard Mine That Bird. Jackson would’ve kept Rachel Alexandra out of the Preakness, he said, but felt relief after his gamble paid off.
“There was a lot of social criticism and doubt about whether she was capable of [winning], and I think I would’ve taken a little heat if she didn’t perform well,” Jackson said.
Although Mine That Bird’s Triple Crown bid ended, trainer Chip Woolley said it was almost as good as a victory because his for his horse to prove he wasn’t a fluke.
“I’m glad that my horse stepped up to the plate today and put it on the line and everybody sees he’s really a great colt,” he said. “I think now we’ve erased anybody’s questions on his ability.”
Now the questions remain about whether the two will have a rematch in the Belmont Stakes on June 6. Woolley and Mine That Bird co-owner Mark Allen said they will point toward the Belmont as long as the horse comes out of this race healthy, a sentiment echoed by Rachel Alexandra’s camp.
“We’ll look at that. I’d love to race in New York,” Jackson said. “It’ll depend on her; the horse always tells you whether they’re ready.”
She may not have been perfect Saturday, but Rachel Alexandra was definitely ready. With the spotlight on her and her connections this week, she did everything possible to live up to the hype.
“If a filly is as good as the colts, they ought to compete,” Jackson said. “She showed the heart and skill of a champion.”