The Big Showdown

by Ed Meyer

posted on May 22, 2009 in General Discussion | 1 Comment >>

As they headed into the final few furlongs of the Preakness last weekend, Hal Handel knew his business was playing with house money.

The New York Racing Association executive vice president and chief operating office rooted for Mine That Bird to end his blazing stretch with a win at the wire, setting up a Triple Crown run at the Belmont Stakes on June 6th. Of course that didn’t happen. Neither did a dead heat with Rachel Alexandra, Handel’s second wish. That almost never happens.

Rachel Alexandra winning, with Mine That Bird a closing second? That worked, too, as far as the Belmont is concerned…hopefully.

Absent an elusive Triple Crown bid, this Belmont is potentially set up as well as horse racing could hope…maybe.

Rachel Alexandra could seek to become the first filly to win two legs of the Triple Crown.

Jockey Calvin Borel, who won the Kentucky Derby aboard Mine That Bird, and the Preakness riding Rachel Alexandra, could become the first jockey to win an unnatural Triple Crown: three wins aboard two different horses.

Unnatural Triple Crown? I don’t know. What would three wins on three horses be called? An Unholy Triple Crown? We’re grasping here, people.

“You can really call it whatever you like,” Handel said. “It’s uncharted waters.”

But, c’mon, we are talking horse racing, people; New York horse racing. The chances of the industry catching a break are about as slim as a 50-1 shot winning the Derby. Hmmm…

Of course, any Belmont without a Triple Crown on the line is greatly diminished. Two years ago, the great Curlin squared off against the filly Rags to Riches, but only 46,870 showed up. Still…

Mine That Bird and his Seabiscuit everyman appeal proved himself legit in the Preakness. Rachel Alexandra can become a Ruffian (without the tragic match-race ending). Both have well-earned fans.

But there’s no guarantee the filly will run the grueling one and half miles; a decision won’t come until next week.

And if Rachel Alexandra doesn’t run, there’s a chance that Borel won’t get a chance to go for his unnatural triple (seriously, we need a term for this) at the Belmont. There’s a possibility he could go back aboard Mine That Bird — Mike Smith is honoring a prior commitment to race in California that day — but could you imagine winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and not getting a mount?

Unfortunately, yes. That would be racing’s recent luck.

Last year the Belmont set up perfectly, as nearly 95,000 headed out to see Big Brown become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

But the temperatures soared into the 90s. And the water system to the track failed. And Big Brown crossed the finish line last. And a throng of sweaty, thirsty and ticked off people shuffled out; horse racing failed them again.

We’ll know next week whether this semi-dream matchup goes down. Working in its favor is Rachel Alexandra’s co-owner Jess Jackson, a true sportsman who raced Curlin last year as a 4-year-old because it was good for the game.

If we get that showdown, if horse racing catches a break that the law of averages demands, Hal Handel and the rest of the industry won’t have to wait until the stretch run to start smiling. They would have already won.