Thursday, May 14, 2009
Racing needs a hero
By Paul Moran Special to ESPN.com
The world awaits the next Triple Crown winner. The game needs a hero, a 3-year-old who can win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, too. Racing has seen no such horse since 1978 and it is beyond time for something to happen in this sport that feels good.
Might this be the year? Might the small, plain gelding from out west with the black-Stetsoned, truck-driving trainer, a broken-legged, slow-talking cowboy, be the next?
Can Mine That Bird take the next step toward being a Triple Crown winner?
Mine That Bird carries the hopes of the racing world, publicists and would-be biographers everywhere into the Preakness on Saturday. The bettors, however, will take a more skeptical position. The only thing certain: Mine That Bird's upset win was the first in a series of surprising developments that have come together to weave a still-unfinished storyline beyond the most active imagination only a fortnight ago.
None of the 11 horses that have won the Triple Crown was 50-1 in the Kentucky Derby. Assault, in 1946, was 8-1, the longest odds carried in the Derby by any 3-year-old who has gone on to win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Horses good enough to overtake immortality reveal themselves well before the first Saturday of May.
The questions are different on the third Saturday of May. Was Mine That Bird -- his pre-Derby form darkened, according to his trainer, by poor racing luck, mistimed moves in two races run over a surface in New Mexico that punished his late running style -- simply underestimated before the Derby? Or was the race in Kentucky a fluke?
Contributing the considerable weight borne by Mine That Bird into the134th Preakness is general public disbelief. The gelding that won the Derby was not the horse that had raced only twice this year without threatening in either run before launching his Triple Crown bid with what many see as the greatest upset in the 135 years, and all agree is the most implausible result since Canonero II's surprise of 1971. This is a horse whose Derby victory was in no way predictable from an examination of past performance.
"My horse's form didn't say he could win the Derby; I'll be the first to say that," trainer Bennie "Chip" Woolley said, but not first. "But he passed 18 head of horses from the three-eighths pole to the wire."
Quite simply, the racing world demands a repeat performance before this Derby winner is anointed, or even considered genuine.
There are a few similarities between the Derby winner of 1971 and the current champion.
Neither had the typical pre-Derby campaign. Mine That Bird, who wintered at Sunland Park, in New Mexico, and Canonero II, sent to the Derby from Venezuela, reached Churchill unknown and dismissed, and remained so until they left the racing world stunned. Juan Arias, who trained Canonero II, and Woolley, who had managed to send out only a single thoroughbred winner this year before hauling his Derby horse to Kentucky behind a pickup truck, were equally anonymous before their first trips to the Ohio River Valley.
Canonero II, had he not been part of a six-horse pari-mutuel field, would have been at least 100-1. Mine That Bird should have been at least 100-1 and would have been had the horses considered the leading Derby contenders, Quality Road and I Want Revenge, made it to the starting gate. Both bombshells were launched from far behind the pace.
Canonero II won the Preakness, in which he was co-favorite with Jim French, the Derby runner-up, lending substance to his Derby upset. Embraced enthusiastically by New York's Latin community, he would draw a huge, ultimately disappointed crowd to Belmont Park. Mine That Bird will not be the favorite at Pimlico on Saturday. He will likely be no better than third choice behind immensely talented Kentucky Oaks winner Rachel Alexandra, an 8-5 morning-line favorite whose presence is obviously of great concern to the connections of the dozen males who were entered Wednesday. When betting opens, the Derby winner and Friesan Fire will be rated equally at 6-1, co-third choice behind the filly and Pioneerof the Nile, the runner-up in Kentucky.
Every long-shot winner of the Kentucky Derby moves on to Baltimore faced with answering questions that linger in the wake of an upset. In recent years, Charismatic, War Emblem and Funny Cide substantiated upset Derby wins at Pimlico.
The Derby was the perfect storm -- man, beast, nature, pace and circumstance -- a maelstrom from which Mine That Bird and Calvin Borel emerged unexpected and unscathed in the Churchill Downs mud.
Attempts to explain the Derby have amounted to grasping at straws. Could it be that Mine That Bird, having not seen similar conditions before Derby day, revealed an uncanny affinity for mud? The suggestion has been made -- and not disproven -- that, having been trained at an altitude higher than Louisville, the gelding might have enjoyed an edge in pulmonary capacity.
"I'm sure that mud may have played some factor in the horse's win," Woolley said. "You know, the pace was awfully fast, and it was getting a little bit sticky on top, and the combination of those things will bring them back. But you watch the replays -- I've watched it a thousand times by now -- those horses on the lead, the horses that run second, third and fourth, they never quit. There were getting tired, but they did not quit. So I don't think it played a huge factor, but I'm sure it played a small factor in my horse finishing so well."
Woolley has been effusive in his praise of Borel, but the honeymoon is over, and more questions are posed by a development unique to this story and intriguing in itself: the rider's change of horses in midstream.
Will the combination of Rachel Alexandra and Calvin Borel prove too much for the boys on Preakness day?
If Mine That Bird succeeds in Baltimore it will be without a key element -- arguably the key element -- in his mind-bending rise to prominence. The fearless Borel -- whose typically daring ride, an trip almost identical to the rail-hugging course on which he guided Street Sense two years before, was probably the difference between Mine That Bird taking a place in Derby legend or remaining a footnote -- will be astride Rachel Alexandra, the first horse that moved him to tears on Derby weekend. That decision creates its own bit of Triple Crown history. Until now, no rider of a Derby winner has chosen to partner another horse in the Preakness. Mike Smith -- whose own Derby long shot, Giacomo, failed the test in Baltimore, when he finished third to Afleet Alex in the 2005 Preakness -- steps into the breach.
Borel, however, is not alone in his belief that the filly is the better horse -- perhaps the horse of a lifetime -- regardless of whose silks she will carry. Her new owner, Jess Jackson, joined this drama after the first act and changed the course of the 2009 Triple Crown. The greatly enriched former owners of Rachel Alexandra would have sent her to the Acorn at Belmont Park, an important race but not one that will still much of the nation while they run a mile and three-sixteenths at Pimlico. The ink was not yet dry on the check before the filly was in trainer Steve Asmussen's barn, Jackson was on the phone with the Pimlico racing office and his people were arranging air transport to Baltimore.
Jackson's decision to move Rachel Alexandra out of trainer Hal Wiggins' barn but to keep Borel lends a compelling subplot to the Preakness. Business is business, but Borel, who will be forever identified with Mine That Bird's Derby win, has been widely criticized, just as Jackson has been for the decision to run the filly against males. There are arguments to make on both sides of this issue but the racing world, knowing what is at stake if things play out in the worst possible way, will be holding its breath until, win or lose, she finishes standing and returns safely. Until she does, the ghost of Eight Belles, whose death after the 2008 Kentucky Derby remains fresh and painful, will haunt this Preakness.
If the rider of a Derby winner has never before chosen another horse in the Preakness and Rachel Alexandra is the first Oaks winner ever to join the Triple Crown chase in Baltimore, the swirl of unusual events took yet another bizarre turn last weekend when it appeared that the owners of the first two finishers in the Derby were conspiring to block the filly's entry.
Depending upon which version of the story you believe, either Ahmed Zayat, who owns Pioneerof the Nile, called Mark Allen, a partner in Mine That Bird -- or Allen called Zayat -- with a plan to exclude Rachel Alexandra, who as a supplemental nominee cannot be entered to the exclusion of a nominated horse. Allen had an eligible maiden. Zayat had 21 others eligible to the race, which is limited to 14 starters. The collusion unraveled in the face of a firestorm of indignant reaction, but provided nevertheless an interesting taste of high-stakes intrigue rarely played out in public.
In Maryland, Mine That Bird is in familiar company. Six of the 18 horses he passed in Kentucky will oppose his bid to keep alive a Triple Crown bid, and the most exciting filly in years will stand in the gate beneath the Derby winner's jockey. Mine That Bird might have won the Kentucky Derby, but the racing world demands a repeat performance before he is held in the esteem reserved for those who leave Pimlico still in the running for immortality.
"I came here as an underdog with no pressure," Woolley said before leaving Churchill Downs on Tuesday, Mine That Bird again in tow for the 10-hour drive. "Things have changed slightly."
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He has also been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul maintains paulmoranattheraces.blogspot.com and can be contacted at email@example.com.