Alexandra joins the classic greats
Filly turns into marketing man's dream after winning battle of sexes in Preakness
Monday 18 May 2009
Forget brash young "Ben". Forget bumbling old "Brian". And forget all the invidious contrasts drawn between them, last week, by the marketing consultants expensively hired to show British racing the way ahead. Forget, also, the Babel of talking shops promptly set up by their credulous clients. After Saturday, all the sport needs to remember is the orthodontic principle traditionally applied, of all things, to a gift horse.
For the 134th Preakness Stakes was a reminder that nothing will capture people's imagination better than a classic horse race. True, it would have been perfectly possible for either Rachel Alexandra or Mine That Bird, or even both of them, to disappoint in the second leg of the American Triple Crown. But highs mean nothing without lows, and when horses contrive this kind of epic denouement, they ignite a magic that will endure many an anti-climax.
It was in short, a modern classic. And it reiterated that no marketing vision will ever match the interplay of history, human character and sheer athletic brilliance condensed by Rachel Alexandra against Mine That Bird. No filly had won the Preakness since 1924, and now America is agog for "the battle of the sexes" to be renewed in the Belmont Stakes next month. Certainly, there were characteristic gender traits to their respective performances in Baltimore.
For the male, restrained in last place early on, pursuit of the filly became one headlong, demented surge. Rachel Alexandra, despite setting a lethal pace, had meanwhile found a rhythm that enabled her to draw out her brilliance. In the end, Mine That Bird was beaten only a length after starting another stupefying dash from a position just as remote as when he won the Kentucky Derby, a fortnight previously. But it hardly felt like a defeat.
Both protagonists had dispelled every doubt that shadowed them to Maryland. Mine That Bird's 50-1 Derby success had been dismissed as a freak result – partly because of his exotic origins, trucked 1,500 miles from the Mexican border by a trainer with a cowboy hat, handlebar moustache and broken leg. In turn, Rachel Alexandra's 20-length success in the Kentucky Oaks, confined to her own sex, was so extraordinary that it seemed the competition of colts must prove her too good to be true.
Having ridden both horses at Churchill Downs, Calvin Borel unhesitatingly chose Rachel Alexandra, and ultimately his unprecedented desertion of a Derby winner probably made the difference. His replacement, Mike Smith, could simulate Borel's daring only to the extent of giving Mine That Bird an incredible amount to do; he proved too prone to claustrophobia to stay on the rail, as Borel did in the Derby. Instead Smith angled wide on the turn, and the ground so forfeited surely exceeded the winning margin.
On the face of it, then, Mine That Bird looked just as unlucky as Presvis, who yesterday ran a pretty similar race under Ryan Moore in Singapore, failing by just a head after more or less circling the field. But for a filly to see out a Preakness so unflinchingly, after setting a reckless gallop, confirmed Rachel Alexandra a phenomenon in her own right. The inherent drama of the race, moreover, dovetailed perfectly with its human context. Briefly but cynically, the bizarre crew of Wild West extras responsible for Mine That Bird had tried to get the Preakness oversubscribed, so that Rachel Alexandra would miss the cut. The romance surrounding the filly had in turn been adulterated by the swollen pockets and self-esteem of big-money owners who bought her after the Oaks, and removed her to a new trainer.
But she would not have been in the Preakness field otherwise, and nor would she now be likely to proceed to New York for a rematch on 6 June. The Belmont distance, over another 550 yards, should suit Mine That Bird better, so Rachel Alexandra's intrusion has potentially derailed a first Triple Crown since 1978. As it happens, the Maryland racing authorities have been concerned not so much by Ben and Brian, as Beavis and Butthead.
A ban on bringing alcohol to the Pimlico infield – where drunks had taken to running over rows of portaloos, while being bombarded with full lager cans – saw attendance plunge from 112,000 to 78,000.
Afterwards Rachel Alexandra's new owner stressed that his filly was redressing shortcomings in the marketing of horseracing. By running her against the colts, Jess Jackson and his partners had introduced many young people, and many females, to the sport. "To have controversy is good," he said. "Competition is good. And so from a marketing standpoint, it was the right thing to do. That was a slam dunk."
Nothing there about committees, mind.
Nap: Miss Glitters (4.40 Southwell)
Next best: Ziggy Lee (8.40 Windsor)
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