Don’t expect Rachel to run in the Belmont Stakes

It’s shaping up as an eight-horse Belmont Stakes right now, assuming Preakness champ Rachel Alexandra skips the final leg of the Triple Crown and is freshened for a summer campaign at Saratoga. If she does skip the Belmont, I am guessing there will be more than eight horses in the race.

I would be surprised at this point if Rachel goes in the Belmont, at 1 1/2 miles the longest of the three Triple Crown races. Trainer Steve Asmussen admitted to reporters on Sunday that he doesn’t feel the urgency to run now that the spectacular daughter of Medaglia d’Oro has beaten the boys. The Preakness, in which she set swift fractions of 23.13 and 46.71 seconds and still held on to win, may have taken too much out of Rachel for her to return in three weeks.

Owner Jess Jackson said another meeting with the boys is in Rachel’s future, but that race may be the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park in New Jersey (Aug. 2) or the Travers Stakes at Saratoga (Aug. 29). No filly has won the Travers in 94 years. Or maybe the Alabama Stakes at Saratoga against fillies and then the Lady’s Secret at Santa Anita as a tuneup for a possible showdown against Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 6.

So this morning, here are the probables for the Belmont Stakes on June 6:
Mine That Bird
Flying Private
Chocolate Candy
Dunkirk
Mr. Hot Stuff
Summer Bird
Charitable Man
Miner’s Escape

I like Charitable Man, the ultra-impressive winner of the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park on May 9. He’s fresh, he’s already proven he likes the track and the son of Lemon Drop Kid is bred to go a mile and a half. His sire won the Belmont in 1999.

NBC reports Preakness ratings highest since 2004

As this NBC press release shows, give the horse racing fans a good product or a reason to watch and they will not disappoint. Not many people knew who Rachel Alexandra was four weeks ago, but now she’s known by just the most casual of racing fans or fans who only watch the races twice a year — during the Triple Crown series and/or Breeders’ Cup day:

Overnight Ratings up 27% from ’08, Highest since ’04 and Second Highest in 19 Years

NEW YORK – May 17, 2009 – The NBC Sports broadcast of the Preakness Stakes in which Rachel Alexandra became the first filly in 85 years to win the race as she held off Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird by a length, had the highest overnight rating since 2004 and the second highest rating in nearly two decades. For the Preakness, NBC Sports continued its broad promotional effort to reach casual fans that led to the most watched Kentucky Derby in 20 years.

The race portion (6:00-6:45 p.m. ET) earned an overnight rating of 7.9/18 a gain of 27 percent over last year’s race (6.2/14) when the much-hyped Big Brown won to take the first two legs of the Triple Crown. The overnight rating for yesterday’s race portion was the highest since 2004 (9.2/20).

All of the segments of NBC Sports’ broadcast yesterday showed significant ratings gains:

- The total program (5-6:45) received an overnight rating of 6.3 and a share of 15 up 24 percent from last year (4.7/12), the highest since 2004 (7.2/16) and the second highest since 1990 (7.8/20).

- The Preakness Stakes special (4:30-5 p.m. ET), which featured an extended look at the story of Mine That Bird, posted an overnight rating of 2.7 and a 7 share up 42 percent from last year (1.9/5).

- The prerace (5-6 p.m. ET) produced a 5.1/12 up 46 percent from last year (3.5/9).

- The rating peaked from 6-6:30 p.m. ET at an 8.6/19.

With the Preakness and its “Girl vs. the Boys” storyline, NBC Sports continued the broad promotional effort designed to reach the casual fans that led to the most watched Kentucky Derby in 20 years. There were stories about the Preakness on Friday and Saturday on the TODAY show as well as jockey Calvin Borel’s appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno last Tuesday.

Promo spots for the Preakness Stakes, which included the voice of a 10-year old girl as Rachel Alexandra, aired throughout NBC Primetime, the TODAY show and Late Night with Jay Leno as well as across the many cable networks of NBC Universal.

Top Twenty Markets for the Preakness (Race Portion):

1) Baltimore 25.1/51

2) Louisville 21.3/38

3) Ft. Myers 17.3/32

4) West Palm Beach 14.8/27

5) Columbus 13.3/26

6) Buffalo 13.0/25

7) Dayton 11.7/24

8) Providence 11.5/27

T9) Tampa 11.2/23

T9) Orlando 11.2/22

11) Albuquerque 10.9/24

12) Richmond 10.8/21

13) Pittsburgh 10.7/20

T14) Indianapolis 10.5/22

T14) Hartford 10.5/21

16) Nashville 10.4/20

17) Knoxville 10.0/18

18) Memphis 9.6/18

T19) Cincinnati 9.3/18

T19) Greenville 9.3/17

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Some Preakness sidelights

Well, Rachel Alexandra sure proved she’s the real deal, becoming the first filly to win the Preakness in 85 years. And the thing is, she did it while pressured the whole way and without a breather. She stared the boys in the eyes and withstood their best shots, prevailing by a length after setting some swift fractions.

I wrote earlier that I thought she could take this field gate to wire, but that if Big Drama wanted the lead she could lay second like in the Kentucky Oaks and then make her move turning for home. This time, Calvin Borel took the lead and set splits of 23.13 seconds and 46.71 seconds — all while being pressured the whole way by Big Drama, the colt a lot of people in the know thought had a shot to win the race. But it was Big Drama who blinked, finishing fifth as Rachel Alexandra opened a four-length lead in the stretch and held off Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird for the victory — her sixth consecutive stakes win.

Some observations:
(1) Mine That Bird might just be a better horse than I and many of my contemporaries were willing to admit going into the Preakness. I didn’t think he’d hit the board, much less run the game second that he did. But somewhere between Sunland Park and Churchill Downs, this guy found his stride. He’s earned my respect now.
(2) Pioneerof the Nile ran like a tired horse. Fourth after the first quarter mile, he was fifth after four furlongs and then faded to finish 11th. He was eased by jockey Garrett Gomez in the late stages, beaten about 26 lengths. I’d be surprised if trainer Bob Baffert tries the Belmont in three weeks.
(3) In a TVG interview about three hours before the race, trainer D. Wayne Lukas told Ken Rudolph and Matt Carothers that bettors should include his horses, long shots Luv Gov and Flying Private, on the bottom half of superfectas. Well, viewers who listened might have been rewarded when Flying Private, at 25-1, closed from 10th to finish fourth and complete a $2,903.80 super. If you liked Mine That Bird to follow his Derby shocker with another big effort, that was not a difficult super to tab if you included Lukas’ colt on the back end.
(4) Arkansas Derby winner Papa Clem was a threatening fourth after six furlongs but had nothing for the stretch and finished sixth. I’d be less surprised if trainer Gary Stute runs the colt in the Belmont than I would be if Baffert runs Pioneerof the Nile, but I still don’t think he’ll run.
(5) Will Rachel go in the Belmont? Before the race, owner Jess Jackson said it all depended on how taxing the Preakness was on the daughter of Medaglia d’Oro. Jockey Calvin Borel said she didn’t even like the track and still won, that he felt he had it all the way, even with Mine That Bird closing well on the outside, but the official chart says she was all out to win. Still, Gary Stevens said on NBC immediately after the race that she didn’t look tired in the winner’s circle.
(6) If Rachel skips the Belmont, you might want to get an early bet down on Charitable Man, an impressive winner of the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park last weekend. He already showed he likes the track, he’s fresh, he’s bred to go 1 1/2 miles and he’s talented enough to win.
(7) After today, it’s my guess that Mine That Bird, Musket Man, Flying Private, Big Drama, Terrain, Luv Gov and Charitable Man are good bets to run in the Belmont, along with some other assorted newcomers. If Rachel doesn’t go, well, it looks like a wide open Belmont and there will be a few other fresh faces who will try the final leg of the Triple Crown series.

It’s hard not to root for Papa Clem, Gary Stute

Gary Stute, 52-year-old trainer of Papa Clem, who finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago, said earlier this week he’d like to win today’s Preakness Stakes for his dad, 81-year-old Mel Stute. Mel won the 1986 Preakness with Snow Chief after a disappointing 11th-place finish as the Derby favorite. Gary was there, and he remembers both races well. Of course, he has far more fond memories of the Preakness than the Derby.

“When I came out on the track (for the Derby) and they played ‘My Old Kentucky Home,’ that was pretty good,” he said. “Snow Chief, to be honest, all I kind of have is bad memories. I got a lot of good ones about the Preakness, but the Derby I’ve kind of tried to erase from my mind a little. To this day, I’ve never had an excuse. I know a lot of people tried to talk my dad into thinking that Alex Solis laid too close to a hot pace, but I just think for whatever reason he didn’t fire that day, to be honest.”

Snow Chief sure fired on Preakness day, though, when he beat Derby winner Ferdinand to the wire. Stute is hoping Papa Clem can do the same today, and he’s got a good shot to do just that. Take away Mine That Bird, one of the most unlikely of Derby winners, and Papa Clem was right there with the rest of the Derby field, narrowly missing second behind Pioneerof the Nile and Musket Man.

The Stutes are such class people, it’s tough not to root for Papa Clem today. He’s a must use in the exotics for sure, and it’s not a stretch at all to picture Gary Stute in the winner’s circle with that trademark cigar.

Rachel will make run for history today

Rachel Alexandra, the brilliant filly who crushed her Kentucky Oaks foes by a record 20 1/4 lengths on May 1, will try to become only the fifth filly and first since Nellie Morse in 1924 to win the Preakness Stakes today at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

Let’s face it, she didn’t beat much in the Oaks, but the way she did it was truly outstanding and she deserves a shot at the boys in the 134th Preakness. If she wins today, it will trump her Oaks victory, even if she wins by only a nose. It might be every-day stuff for fillies to beat males in Europe, but it doesn’t happen often in the U.S., especially in races like the second leg of the Triple Crown.

D. Wayne Lukas, who saddled the filly Winning Colors when she won the Kentucky Derby in 1988 and then watched her finish third in the Preakness, told TVG that a filly needs four factors in her favor in order to beat the boys:

(1) She has to have dominated members of her own sex, which she obviosuly did in the Oaks.
(2) She needs to have tactical, stalking-type speed. Rachel has won three of her past five starts in gate-to-wire fashion, winning the other two after stalking the leader from second.
(3) She must go into the race off soft preps. How much softer can you get than a 20 1/4-length victory during which jockey Calvin Borel never asked her in the stretch.
(4) She must have the breeding to be able to go a distance, which Rachel obviously does. She’s by Medaglia d’Oro, who finished second in the 2002 Belmont Stakes and is proving to be a very nice stallion.

Looking at the Preakness field, I see two colts — Big Drama and Tone It Down — who might try to challenge Rachel early on. I wouldn’t be surprised if Big Drama takes the lead out of the gate and Rachel sits second, much like she did in the Oaks before her big move turning for home. Of course, if they let her have the lead, Rachel can certainly set a reasonable pace and just keep right on going. She set realistic splits in the Grade II Fantasy Stakes on April 5 at Oaklawn Park, running the first quarter in 23.2 seconds and the half in 47.2 before drawing off to win by 8 3/4 lengths. She did the same the race before, the Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks on March 14, over a sloppy race track. So if it rains today — and there is only a 30 percent chance, according to the latest forecast — she should have no problems handling it.

I’m picking her to win today, not only because I think with her speed that she’s going to be tough to beat, but because I think it would be great for the sport. Mine That Bird made the cover of Sports Illustrated the week after the Derby, and you can bet Rachel Alexandra will be one of the best-looking cover girls since Christie Brinkley adorned the magazine’s covers in the ’70s if she takes the Preakness. Racing needs that type of positive exposure these days.

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Hollywood gets OK to cut back to four-day race weeks

Hollywood Park, which has had trouble filling its fields since the meet began on April 22 because of a dwindling horse population in California, e-mailed the following press release early Friday night. I think it’s a positive move. Hopefully, it will lead to larger fields the remaining four days of the week. I’ve maintained for years now that there is an oversaturation of horse racing in Southern California, and this may help alleviate the problem.

INGLEWOOD — Hollywood Park has been granted approval by the California Horse Racing Board to adopt a four-day racing week through Sunday, June 14.

As a result, the following changes have been made to the schedule:

There will be simulcast wagering only on Wednesday, May 20; Thursday, May 28; Wednesday, June 3, and Wednesday, June 10. Wednesday, May 27 was originally a dark day and remains a dark day.

Live racing will be conducted Thursdays through Sundays with the exception of a special program MemoriaI Day week on Monday, May 25.

“Hopefully this will result in a better product for our patrons,” track president Jack Liebau said. “Due to the tough economy, the number of horses available to race has been reduced as evidenced by the entry box.”

Hollywood Park will continue to offer free general admission on Thursdays with live racing as well as $1 hot dogs, sodas and beers (12 noon until 3 p.m.).

The CHRB will re-consider Hollywood Park’s request to maintain a four-day live racing day week for the remainder of the Spring/Summer Meet at its June 5 board meeting.

The changes were supported by the Thoroughbred Owners of California and the California Thoroughbred Trainers.

How do you feel about Mine That Bird?

So which camp do you belong? Was Mine That Bird’s Derby win for real? Did the 3-year-old gelding just begin to live up to his Canadian 2-year-old horse of the Year laurels, or was his Derby victory one of the biggest flukes you’ve ever seen in a big race? Weigh in on our poll and then leave some comments on why you do or don’t think Mine That Bird will run big in the Preakness: