Smile Politely

Waiting for Rachel

Borel 09The field for the Belmont Stakes seems to be coming together as slow as molasses. While some contenders like Dunkirk and Chocolate Candy skipped the second leg of the Triple Crown in anticipation for the 1 1/2-mile test, one major contender is standing on the precipice of backing out at the last minute: the Preakness winner, Rachel Alexandra. Meanwhile, Kentucky Derby winner and Preakness runner-up, Mine That Bird, stands marooned without a confirmed jockey. It’s enough to make you ask, is this yet another ground-breaking piece of history for this year’s Triple Crown? When’s the last time a legitimate Kentucky Derby winner was entered in the Belmont Stakes with no jock? After all of the shenanigans and drama from this whirlwind four weeks, count it just one more absurdity that makes the Triple Crown what it is: outrageous, historic, and incomparable.

And there’s still one week to go.

This year’s Triple Crown has proven to be the antithesis to last year’s. In 2008, the odds-on favorite, Big Brown, demolished a lackluster field in the Kentucky Derby and became a racing phenomenon. He was undefeated, showcased by corporate connections, had a trainer who wouldn’t shut up, was plagued with quarter cracks, and held the mystique of being the next “wonder horse;” we wondered if that big white birthmark on his left side was some sort of sign from the racing gods of greatness to come, and watched with baited breath as Big Brown laughed at the Preakness field like they were a bunch of claimers (actually, some were not so far from it). Entering the Belmont, Big Brown looked unbeatable. No horse had ever come closer than five lengths to him at the wire. And then, when it was time for what we were all sure would be a coronation of the first Triple Crown winner in a round 30 years, it all came crashing down.

There’s no hope for a Triple Crown winner in 2009, but I’m actually glad for it. Instead of having one superstar to beat up on everybody else, we now have a chance to stage a real showcase of what makes the sport so exciting. No one was looking at Mine That Bird in the post parade of the Kentucky Derby, but every eye was glued to him and every jaw was touching the floor as he romped home six lengths ahead of some of the best 3-year-olds in the country. What started out as a real handicapper’s race was turned into some other animal. The professional handicappers were made fools, and the public was rewarded with an underdog story worth getting excited about. The bouncing, blubbering Calvin Borel, who had won the 2007 Kentucky Derby on the credible Street Sense to less publicity, was suddenly thrust into the national spotlight as some sort of newfound Superman, all because of his patented rail-skimming ride on a 50-1 gelding to victory. Barely a blurb could be heard on national news about the dominating Big Brown’s quest for the Triple Crown, but this longshot horse is suddenly the new Seabiscuit. Suddenly, the outside public is picking up on something us horseplayers have known and admired for years. Suddenly, horse racing is something worth caring about. 

The drama surrounding the Preakness added further intrigue to the story. Not only was there one underdog worth caring about, now there was a tested champion pitching herself against males for the first time. The dynamic of the race had turned again, this time into a battle of the sexes. Would a field of fine colts make tread marks of this gallant filly? But not only did regal Rachel assume the lead in this race supposedly made to create kings of boys, she turned it into a road for queens. She spit in the faces of all who tried to get near her, and the only horse who gained on her at any point in the race was none other than that same underdog gelding, Mine That Bird, proving once and for all his legitimacy to the world. The “series for the future stud” was suddenly hijacked by two contenders who will never be stallions, two horses who have shown sometimes the game must be played on the terms of the underdog, whether it be by past or by gender.

With one week until the Belmont, many questions have yet to be answered. While both gelding and filly have been working out at Churchill Downs in preparation for the final jewel in the crown, Rachel’s plans will not be finalized until perhaps 48 hours before the post position draw, and until then, Mine That Bird will remain riderless in respect of his Derby jockey. With his Preakness rider, Mike Smith, committed to a mount in California on June 6, the Derby winner has one option: wait on Rachel. Should Rachel Alexandra enter the Belmont, Calvin Borel will ride her, leaving yet another brand new jockey in charge of the Bird. Who that may be has not been disclosed by trainer Chip Wooley, though odds are he’s got more than a few capable jockeys to choose from. Perhaps Chantal Sutherland will finally get a chance to ride in her first Triple Crown race; she was the Bird’s mount through his award-winning 2-year-old season at Woodbine.  

Big Brown BelmontThe Belmont Stakes cannot possibly disappoint in 2009. With no Triple Crown on the line, and several talented horses lined up to take their bid at the historic race, an outsider’s win would only further complicate the triangle and the summer campaign. Will the highly-touted Dunkirk finally have his opportunity to prove he was worth the hype? Will Mine That Bird make us bemoan the fact that Rachel spoiled our first Triple Crown prospect in 31 years? Or will Alexandra the Great romp in New York and make us all wonder “what if she’d been in the Derby?” This is why we run the races. Any way the die rolls, a new storyline is born, a new legend is created.

Not many people knew to worry about Big Brown’s quarter cracks, and whether or not he’d make it to his destined Belmont trip. We’ve been waiting for Rachel in more ways than one. Because of her, because of the gelding and Calvin Borel, the public waits along with us.

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