Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Updated: May 21, 1:55 PM ET
Run, Rachel, Run
By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com
Rachel Alexandra is in great form, is healthy and is, male or female, the best 3-year-old in America. The Belmont Stakes is a prestigious race, has a $1 million purse and could afford Rachel Alexandra the chance to do something historic. No filly has ever won more than one leg of the Triple Crown.
Add these components together and what you have is a no-brainer. Of course Rachel Alexandra should run in the Belmont Stakes.
She probably will. Jess Jackson might just be the last true sportsman left in horse racing. He gets a thrill out of seeing his horses compete and competing in the most challenging races. He understands the need to look beyond his own self-interest and keep the well-being of a struggling game in mind. He doesn't always put what's best for his bank account first.
That's exactly what he did when he brought Curlin back for a 4-year-old season, leaving a lot of dollars from the breeding industry on the table. Nor did he ever shy away from a challenge when campaigning his two-time Horse of the Year. Jackson even ran him in the 2008 Breeders' Cup Classic when justifiably concerned Curlin wouldn't run his best over a synthetic surface at Santa Anita.
In short, Jess Jackson gets it.
There will be a lot on the line in the Belmont should Rachel Alexandra run, a lot more than the winner's share of a fat purse. Right now, she is a fabulous filly, one of the best ever. But others have won Triple Crown races. It's a big deal, but not a super0 duper big deal.
To separate herself from the pack, to belong in the most elite company, the type where you get Ruffian and -- really -- no one else, she needs to win the Belmont. No other race would give her quite the same opportunity. Beating Zenyatta somewhere down the line or even winning another race against males like the Travers would be a meaningful accomplishment, just not nearly as meaningful as winning the Belmont Stakes.
Yet, there have been some rumblings that running Rachel Alexandra in the Belmont Stakes would be asking too much of her. Colleague Paul Moran writes: "Having tempted fate without apparent cost -- as far as we know -- pressing Rachel Alexandra's luck would be at least imprudent and at worst reckless on the part of owner Jess Jackson."
It's exactly that sort of thinking that has made racing so much less compelling and popular than it used to be. Horses used to race and they used to prove their greatness on the racetrack. That was great theater, exactly what we'd have should Rachel Alexandra run in the Belmont.
Jackson, fortunately, understands that.
"You raise the bar, take chances," he said after the Preakness. "I'm an entrepreneur. I take risks, but the rewards are worth it."
Yet, Jackson, by daring to consider the Belmont, is being called potentially reckless.
Why stop with the Belmont? Why run her anywhere
ever again? That's what columnist Wally Hall thinks should be done. He writes: "So please, Mr. Jackson, stick with the wines and let this filly retire on top."
Unintentional or not, there's more than a hint of chauvinism in these columns written by men. No one wrote that Curlin should pass the Belmont after winning the Preakness. But, I guess, the poor little frail filly isn't up to the task because she's a girl and should be retired immediately so that she never gets a boo-boo.
I am so sick of this way of thinking. It is suffocating the sport and, I am convinced, it is ultimately detrimental to the well-being of the animal. Horses need to run more often than they do to have the proper foundation and the strength and toughness to get through what is asked of them when they do race. What other athlete competes five times a year, trains for less than an hour a day and spends the rest of their time holed up in what amounts to a large box? How is that possibly a good idea?
Jackson and his trainer, Steve Asmussen, were right when they asked for some time to make this decision. There's no need to hurry, and they'll have a lot better idea of where things stand after Rachel Alexandra works out Monday at Churchill Downs. They will not run her if she is anything less than 100 percent. But should she continue to thrive and have a good work Monday, there's no reason why she shouldn't be in the Belmont.
That's the right thing to do not just for Jackson, the Belmont and the sport, but also for Rachel Alexandra. This is about her legacy. Let her run.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at email@example.com.