It looks as if the 2009 Triple Crown soap opera has settled down, at least until Saturday. Since the Kentucky Derby almost two weeks ago, a sordid conspiracy to keep a talented filly out of the Preakness Stakes developed and then fizzled when a grande dame of thoroughbred racing cried foul, but the saga of top jockey Calvin Borel continues. The storylines are connected.
During Kentucky Derby week, Borel said he would ride Rachel Alexandra in the Derby if her owner entered her in the race. “She’s the best three-year-old horse, male or female, in training,” Borel said. But Rachel’s owner, Dolphus Morrison, ran her in the Kentucky Oaks the day before the Derby. “This time of year, girls should run against girls and boys should run against boys,” Morrison reasoned.
Borel rode Rachel Alexandra to a record 20 ¼ length victory in the Oaks, the premier race for three year old fillies. The next day, he rode 50-1 long shot Mine That Bird to a 6 ¾ length triumph in the Kentucky Derby.
Four days after the Oaks, Morrison sold controlling interest in Rachel Alexandra to Jesse Jackson (of Kendall-Jackson wine fame) for a figure reported to be between $3.5 and $4 million. She was quickly transferred from the barn of 66-year-old Hal Wiggins, a veteran trainer on the Kentucky circuit, to the barn of Steve Asmussen, who has served multiple suspensions over the years for doping horses in his care. The new connections promptly announced that Rachel would run in the Preakness Stakes and that Calvin Borel would ride her.
Then the real fun began.
Rachel Alexandra was not nominated for the triple crown: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes. The only way her owners could get her into the Preakness was to ante up a $100,000 entry fee. Although money is no problem for a man like Jackson, Saturday’s field is limited to 14 starters, with first call going to horses previously nominated, regardless of their ability.
The conspiracy was apparently hatched by Ahmed Zayat, owner of Derby second Pioneer of the Nile. He announced that he was entering a second colt and was getting together with other owners to enter enough horses to fill the starting gate and keep Rachel Alexandra out of the race.
Then, last Sunday morning, trainer D. Wayne Lucas, who already had a horse in the race, entered a three-year-old colt named Luv Gov on behalf of owner Marylou Whitney. But they were not part of the conspiracy.
“We’re entering only if there is a hole in the 14th gate,” said Lucas. “We’re not trying to keep the filly from running.”
But Mine That Bird co-owner Mark Allen told HRTV, a cable horse racing channel, that he was running a colt named Indy Express in the Preakness in order to keep Rachel Alexandra out. Indy Express has raced nine times in his career and has never won. Allen’s reasoning was simple: if enough horses were entered, he would be able to keep the services of Calvin Borel for the second leg of the Triple Crown.
After a public outcry, it all fell apart Sunday night when Marylou Whitney sent out her husband, John Hendrickson to read the following statement: “We think Rachel Alexandra is wonderful. We entered our horse because we thought we had a shot. But if we are the deciding factor on whether or not Rachel Alexandra gets in, then we will withdraw and wait until the Belmont. We’re for sportsmanship and what’s best for the game. It is ladies first for us.”
During a telephone interview with The New York Times Sunday night, a chastened Allen backed down. “It’s just not the thing to do,” he said. “I do want my rider back, but not this way.”
Pioneerof the Nile’s Zayat also gave it up, but the damage had been done. For a few days there, thoroughbred horse racing and professional wrestling occupied the same ethical ground.
Jackson paid the $100,000 fee and entered Rachel Wednesday. And with only 13 horses going to the post, Whitney’s Luv Gov stayed in also.
The Triple Crown is aptly described as “grueling” because it asks young horses to run three times in five weeks over long distances at different tracks. The Kentucky Derby is run at Churchill Downs at 1 ¼ miles, always on the first Saturday in May. Two weeks later, the Preakness is run at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. Here the distance is a tricky 1 3/16 miles, 1/16 of a mile shorter than the Derby. Then more travel is required to get to New York and run 1 ½ miles in the Belmont Stakes three weeks later.
No horse has been able to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978, and only one horse can do it this year: Mine That Bird. Is he good enough, or is he a 50-1 fluke? How will Rachel Alexandra run against the boys? Will Pioneerof the Nile turn the tables? Will some of the colts who struggled in the slop in Louisville catch a dry track and turn it around?
With the horses in post position order, let’s sort it out:
• BIG DRAMA (Morning Line Odds 10-1) He won the Grade II Swale Stakes at Gulfstream Park on March 28 but was disqualified to second for bumping his rival twice coming down the stretch. He’s been away since, and it seems a little late to be getting back in the hunt. Plus, he turned in a mediocre work at Pimlico Monday.
• MINE THAT BIRD (6-1) When Rachel Alexandra got in Calvin Borel got off the Derby winner. He will be replaced by California rider Mike Smith. If Rachel scratches, Borel is back aboard. No matter who rides, the betting public will not let him go off at 50-1 odds again. Will the inside post hurt or help the late runner?
• MUSKET MAN (8-1) If the track comes up fast Saturday, this colt could be dangerous. He won the Tampa Bay and Illinois Derbies on fast tracks then caught the slop in Louisville. Although he lost his footing and was bumped, he managed to run up front the entire trip and finish third, just a nose behind place horse Pioneerof the Nile.
• LUV GOV (50-1) D. Wayne Lucas’ second entry has only a maiden victory to his credit. But the colt turned in a nice breeze at Churchill Downs Sunday, walked Monday and shipped to Pimlico Tuesday. Lucas plans to give him another workout before Saturday, but it will be a miracle if this horse gets a piece of the purse.
• FRIESAN FIRE (6-1) The Derby betting favorite was bumped and squeezed at the start and was able to beat only one other starter, the overmatched Flying Private. Although he won the Louisiana Derby in the slop, trainer Larry Jones said his colt hated the track. He’s trying again, and the track handicapper thinks he has a chance. Look at the ML odds.
• TERRAIN (30-1) Has not raced since the Bluegrass Stakes on April 11, when he finished almost four lengths behind General Quarters on Keeneland’s artificial surface. This colt has not won a race of any kind since taking a juvenile stakes last August.
• PAPA CLEM (12-1) This is another horse who could be dangerous if he catches the right track. He won the Arkansas Derby on a fast track and ran fourth in the Kentucky Derby, a head behind third place finisher Musket Man. Rafael Bejarano is back aboard. The ML odds seem generous.
• GENERAL QUARTERS (20-1) The glass slipper didn’t fit in the Derby. Star of a one-horse stable operated by a retired Louisville school principal, he was the sentimental favorite, but he was constantly crowded and had to steady twice during the race. Julien Laparoux is back aboard for another try.
• PIONEEROF THE NILE (5-1) After four straight stakes victories on synthetic tracks in California, he caught slop in the Derby and ran second, beaten 6 ¾ lengths. Afterwards, trainer Bob Baffert implied that his horse lost only because Borel put in a Hall-of-Fame ride on Mine That Bird. He’ll try to turn the tables here with the lowest ML odds after Rachel Alexandra.
• FLYING PRIVATE (50-1) Trainer D. Wayne Lucas keeps trying with this colt, although he has won only a maiden race in 11 lifetime starts. He broke from Post 19 in the Derby, and he finished 19th, that is dead last, beaten almost 44 lengths. His summary running line reads: “five wide, stopped.”
• TAKE THE POINTS (30-1) This horse ran his last two races on synthetics in California. The latest was the Santa Anita Derby on April 4, where he ran fourth behind Pioneerof the Nile, Chocolate Candy and Mr. Hot Stuff. All three of those ran in the Kentucky Derby, but only Pioneer is going Saturday. A long shot, at best. The ML odds seem about right.
• TONE IT DOWN (50-1) The house horse. The winner of two lifetime starts, a maiden race and an optional claimer across town at Laurel, he does have a race over this surface. On May 2, he ran third in a small stakes, beaten a little more than five lengths and he picks up Kent Desormeaux as the jock. The handicapper is not a believer. Beware.
• RACHEL ALEXANDRA (8-5) Fillies have not done well in the Preakness, but her new owners want to give it a try. She won the Kentucky Oaks by more than 20 lengths, a record. Jockey Calvin Borel says he’s never asked her to run. “It’s really scary. I don’t know how good she is.” The morning line favorite is a front runner, but she’s breaking from the far outside post. Can she get to the lead and hold off the boys? We’ll find out Saturday.
As you know, Like the Dew does not support pari-mutuel wagering in Georgia, one of eight states that frown on the practice. Using off-shore internet sites and calling a local bookie are also forbidden. But if someone at the office were to ask what you thought about the Preakness Stakes, you might say something like, “Well, I believe Mine That Bird was a fluke never to be heard from again. Rachel Alexandra is caught in an outside post, but Bob Baffert has Pioneerof the Nile where he wants him, in the middle of the track.”
Then you could construct some wagers, say $20 to win on #9 Pioneerof the Nile and a $2 exacta box on #9 Pioneerof the Nile and #13 Rachel Alexandra. Then you could do a $1 trifecta box on #3 Musket Man, #7 Papa Clem, #9 Pioneerof the Nile and #13 Rachel Alexandra.
Just for the hell of it, you might want to put D. Wayne Lucas’ horses (they’re both at 50-1 on the morning line) in a $2 exacta box. If they run one-two, you move to Florida.
The total cost of these hypothetical bets is $52. Good luck.