Kentucky Derby

Can filly be a game-changer for horse racing?

John Clay
John Clay

BALTIMORE — Standing just inside the indoor paddock at Pimlico to get out of the spitting rain falling outside, Bob Baffert was watching the Preakness Stakes post parade on Saturday when Rachel Alexandra popped up on the screen.

"She looks good, doesn't she," said Baffert, with son Bode at his feet. "Too good."

A few minutes later, the fantastic filly would prove to be exactly that, becoming the first female to win the middle leg of the Triple Crown since 1924.

But is she good enough to be a game-changer?

We're not talking about a save-the-sport type game-changer. Thoroughbred racing has been pining for an equine savior for far too long. We're tired of that tired talk. The industry's problems are too deep and too complex to be solved by a single animal, especially when the sport refuses to unite under anything resembling a single governing body.

But Rachel's historic victory could end up changing the game in a couple of needed areas. It could change the way races are contested. And it could change where at least one race is contested.

Second assertion first. Despite the compelling story line of having the Kentucky Derby winner facing off against the Kentucky Oaks winner for the first time in history, a crowd of only 77,850 turned out at Pimlico. That was a drop of nearly 35,000 from the 112,222 that turned out the previous year to watch Big Brown take the Preakness.

Yet Saturday's handle was the fifth-largest in Preakness Day history, confirming the belief that Pimlico's new policy prohibiting alcoholic beverages onto the track was in fact a crowd-killer. Those arriving at the track Saturday morning encountered a noticeable absence of college-aged patrons pushing shopping carts filled with beer cases, kegs and coolers across the avenues outside Ol' Hilltop. And sure enough, once inside, the Pimlico infield, an overcrowded venue usually thick with debauchery was much, much thinner.

The gray skies and rain forecasts may have also added to the indifference. But then you could hardly blame the good people of Maryland, at least the sober ones, for not wanting to visit an outdated, crumbling facility now managed by a bankrupt owner. After Saturday, tradition may no longer be enough to save poor Pimlico. This time next May, the Preakness may be contested in a different zip code.

And in the coming months, races may be contested under a different make-up.

"Gender doesn't matter," Rachel Alexandra's bold new owner Jess Jackson pronounced proudly Saturday. "A Thoroughbred wants to run, and if a filly is as good as the colts, they ought to compete."

Truth is, they've been competing. Kentucky Oaks winner Rags to Riches won the 2007 Belmont. Last year in France, the three-year-old filly Zarkava won the Prix de L'Arc Triumphe in France. Then the filly Goldikova beat the boys to win the Breeders' Cup Mile.

And lest we forget that before fracturing her two ankles past the finish line at Churchill Downs last May, the filly Eight Belles had finished second to the thundering Big Brown in the Kentucky Derby.

Indeed, there have now been 18 female starters in Triple Crown races since Genuine Risk won the 1980 Kentucky Derby. Rachel Alexandra was the fourth winner. She was the eighth of the 18 to finish in the money.

"Everybody was talking about what they thought she was capable of," Steve Asmussen, Rachel's new trainer, said Saturday. "To step up and put her in this position, it definitely took some guts to do so."

It might also change the game.

  Comments