Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Gamble pays off for Jackson
By Randy Moss
Special to ESPN.com
It is appearing less and less likely Rachel Alexandra will be rematched against Mine That Bird in the Belmont Stakes. Monday's postponement of an announcement about her status, combined with increasingly cautious quotes from co-owner Jess Jackson, makes it obvious her historic Preakness victory took some starch out of the superfilly.
"She's not in top shape right now," Jackson admitted Monday.
Jackson is not averse to rolling the dice, and recognizes the sport will get another publicity boost if he runs her in the Belmont. Yet the wine billionaire also understands he has a precious commodity that must be treated with care, and thus he seems to be buying time in hopes she bounces back with vigor this week and he can have his cake and eat it, too.
Rachel Alexandra endeared herself to millions by becoming the first filly in 85 years to win the second leg of the Triple Crown. TV ratings spiked. Warm and fuzzy moments were everywhere.
Jackson described running Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness as a "gamble." Trainer Steve Asmussen called it "bold." On the surface, the move paid off in spades, right?
And I was against the whole thing.
Not only that, but as foolish and stubborn as it might sound, I'm still not convinced running Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness was the right thing to do.
My objection had nothing to do with whether she won or lost. She is the best 3-year old in America, and a duplication of her Kentucky Oaks would have guaranteed a Preakness victory.
It also had absolutely nothing to do with Eight Belles or Ruffian, or negativity about running fillies against colts. In fact, if she were mine, she might have run in the Kentucky Derby instead of the Oaks.
My dissention was due to big-picture concern for Rachel Alexandra's career longevity. A theory growing in popularity within the thoroughbred industry holds that racehorses have a shorter shelf life, so to speak, than their predecessors because they are sometimes too big, strong and fast for their own good. An especially fast race by a young horse is too often followed by news of a career-limiting or career-ending injury or sickness, and therefore a cautious training approach is advocated after such efforts.
The theory is fascinating. When I Want Revenge was scratched the morning of the Kentucky Derby due to injury, the news didn't surprise Jerry Brown, author of the popular Thorograph handicapping sheets.
Brown not only believed the colt would show negative effects from a powerful race in the Gotham Stakes, in early March he posted on his website: "Anybody want to bet me I Want Revenge doesn't finish in the top half of the field in the Derby? If he doesn't make the race, I win."
Rachel Alexandra's romp in the Oaks the strongest race by a female I've seen since Ruffian was precisely one of those over-the-moon performances.
Since she didn't run in the Derby and no Triple Crown was at stake, a more conservative strategy in my view would have been to keep her out of the Preakness, give her an extra three weeks to recuperate from the Oaks, and win the Belmont Stakes instead.
Most will argue, especially now, that such a conservative approach would have been as foolish as folding with three aces. No one has ever accused Jackson of being overly conservative, and if Rachel Alexandra goes on to an illustrious record the rest of the year and perhaps even as a 4-year-old, his choice to strike while the iron was hot will be rightly seen as a brilliantly aggressive move.
On the other hand, if she soon develops an injury and has to be prematurely retired, maybe it won't be.
"It's good for racing to have champions run against champions," Jackson said.
"You raise the bar, take chances. I'm an entrepreneur. I take risks, but the rewards are worth it, I can tell you. We broadened the market by attracting I don't know how many thousands of young people, especially young girls, to watch their heroine run. That's good for racing. To have controversy is good. Competition is good. From a marketing standpoint, it was the right thing to do."
The short-term marketing benefits are undeniable.
Rachel Alexandra took it to the boys from the start and held on courageously, despite late fatigue that likely had more to do with stress from the post-Oaks 15-day turnaround than problems handling the track.
Calvin Borel again showed contagious enthusiasm, genuine affection for the filly, and savvy in choosing her over his Derby winner Mine That Bird.
Steve Asmussen displayed class by repeatedly crediting Hal Wiggins, trainer of Rachel Alexandra until the week before the race.
And whether you agreed with his decision or not, Jess Jackson's heart was in the right place. Jackson ran Rachel Alexandra not because of ego but a desire to help the sport, just as he remarkably kept Curlin in training as a 4-year-old, and he should not be criticized if he chooses to skip the Belmont Stakes.
The Preakness turned out to be a wonderful moment for racing, on numerous fronts. Here's hoping Rachel Alexandra gives us many more.
Randy Moss has been an analyst for ESPN/ABC Sports thoroughbred racing coverage since 1999.