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The Preakness: Fear and Loathing of a Fantastic Filly

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When I wrote about the Kentucky Derby earlier this month, I wasn't sure horse racing could get any weirder. And then it got weirder. Here's what happened.

Mine That Bird, a 50-1 longshot, won the Derby. Now obviously, if there's to be a 2009 Triple Crown winner, Mine That Bird needs to follow up victory in Kentucky with victory in Maryland at this Saturday's Preakness. And then go on to win the Belmont Stakes in New York.

What an inspirational story it would be! The underdog! The longshot! Just what we need in dark times such as these!

But now the inspirational story has a new wrinkle. A filly named Rachel Alexandra is in the race, and the last time Rachel Alexandra ran, she blew away the field at an all-filly race called the Kentucky Oaks. She blew away the field by more than 20 lengths. So she didn't blow away the field. She laid the field to waste.

Many think she should have been entered in the Derby, and that if she had been, she would have won, not least because pre-Derby favorite I Want Revenge was dropped from the race due to injury. Two people who think she might have won are her new owner, winemaker Jess Jackson, and Mine That Bird's Derby winning jockey, Calvin Borel. Jackson both purchased the "super filly" and came up with $100,000 to get her into the Preakness. And Borel? Well, maybe he wants to win the Triple Crown on two different horses. It would be a first.

Things have already gotten ugly--which makes sense, given that this is horse racing, not lawn bowling or curling. Once the Derby has been run, and that unholy spectacle retired for a year, the inexorable trot toward increased scumminess and the restoration of American horse racing's signature unsavoriness begins. This time around, a group that included Mine That Bird's owner tried to pack the field with colts so that the super filly couldn't run. They lost. Rachel A. is in.

Actually, it's a good thing that we have all this maneuvering and intrigue surrounding the Preakness. Of course, eyes would be on Pimlico, anyway, because the Triple Crown is always on until the Derby winner loses. But the arrival of Rachel Alexandra, the gatecrashing super filly, and Borel's switch have given the event some extra energy. The Derby is well-marketed, mawkish insanity. The Preakness? Um, well... not exactly drenched in tradition, is it? I mean, what do the fans at the track drink while they're waiting for the race to start? I don't know, either. The Derby is, famously, the "Run for the Roses," while the Preakness is the "Run for the Black-Eyed Susans." Doesn't exactly trip off the tongue, does it? That said, it's probably better than the Runyon-esque Belmont Stakes, nicknamed the "Run for the Carnations." Carnations, in some cultures, are a funeral flower. Hello, Deathrace 2009!

The lurid pageantry of big-time horse racing will go on. And to be sure, the thoroughbreds that will rocket around Pimlico tomorrow are a stunning thing to watch, a snarling peloton of rippling, animal velocity, spraying dirt, spitting froth. It's definitely cool to witness the girl horse get in on the game (victories by fillies are a rare event), and it does complicate the rooting. I mean, with Mine That Bird we had a sort of modern-day Seabiscuit, a potential champion ideally suited to the mood of Depression 2.0 America.

But it just can't be that simple, can it? And the arrival of Rachel Alexandra smack in the middle of the Triple Crown reminds us why. She is the perfect challenger for a complicated age.