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A bay filly was born in late January 2006, her dam's first offspring. She would be named Rachel Alexandra, after the granddaughter of her owner. It was much too early to know that she would someday be great. In that same year a jockey was thrown from his horse on Thanksgiving Day, shattering his wrist and imperiling his mount on a potential Kentucky Derby favorite for the upcoming spring. His name was Calvin Borel, and he was already 40 years old. It was much too late to suggest that he would someday stand at the top of his sport.
Last Saturday afternoon at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Rachel Alexandra became the first filly in 85 years to win the Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown. She won with Borel sitting on her back. He became the first jockey in history to win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in the same year on different horses, and he did it with his long-shot Derby winner, Mine That Bird, validating himself by desperately chasing the filly under the wire in second place. "The filly is incredible," said Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, "and the Derby winner is the real deal."
The racing game is defined by chance—the odds blinking on a tote board, the tiny opening between horses that invites a jockey to endanger his life by squeezing through, the allure of a well-bred yearling that tempts an owner to buy. "We all hope for the right timing," says trainer Hal Wiggins, 66, the first man to saddle Rachel Alexandra in a race. They all hope to take the right risks.
A retired Alabama steel executive risked holding onto Rachel Alexandra as an unraced 2-year-old, then sold her for crazy money 10 days before the Preakness. A 79-year-old billionaire lawyer-turned-winemaker bought the filly and risked running her against colts just 15 days after her stunning romp over fillies in the Kentucky Oaks. Borel risked jumping off the Derby winner and onto Rachel Alexandra for the Preakness, an all-or-nothing play that was at least as bold as his rail-scraping ride on Mine That Bird at Churchill Downs, but which he saw as no decision at all. "I got no choice," Borel said eight days before the Preakness. "She's the best horse I've ever ridden."
Filly and rider put on a show at Pimlico, a crumbling, toe-tagged monument to bygone days that nonetheless delivered an afternoon of singular drama. Borel executed the polar opposite of his Derby ride, winning from the front two weeks after chasing from the rear. Rachel Alexandra wired a good field of 3-year-olds under breakneck pressure on a track surface she didn't like.
In the aftermath owners promised to consider a rematch in the June 6 Belmont Stakes, where the only Triple Crown at stake will be Borel's—the Calvin Crown. Borel fell into the arms of his fiancée, Lisa Funk, on a balcony overlooking the Pimlico track, crying on her shoulder as fat, cold raindrops fell from a dark sky. "All that emotion," Funk said to Borel, patting his back. "Just let it out."
Dolphus Morrison, 75, a native of Ensley, Ala., who made his money in the steel industry, prides himself on producing racehorses from nontraditional pairings. Wiggins puts it more bluntly: "He likes cheap matings." Morrison bred and owned filly Lotta Kim, who was sired by the unappreciated stallion Roar, and when Lotta Kim's racing career was cut short by a hip injury as a 3-year-old, she was retired. Her first progeny was named for Rachel Alexandra Doisy, Morrison's now 13-year-old granddaughter.
Morrison breeds all of his horses with an eye toward selling them. "This isn't a hobby for me," he says. "I'm in the horse business." In August 2007 Morrison sent Rachel Alexandra to Diamond D Ranch in Lone Oak, Texas, where Jimmy (Scooter) Dodwell broke her in. In November of that year Morrison called Dodwell and asked if Rachel was ready to be entered in a Florida sale.
Dodwell wasn't so sure. Rachel Alexandra was one of the best young horses he had seen. "She had a ton of speed, with a long stride, and [I thought] she might be able to run forever," recalls Dodwell. "I stuck my neck out and told Mr. Morrison, 'You might want to hang onto this one.'"
In May 2008 Rachel was transferred to Wiggins at Churchill Downs. She showed promise in training, but won just two of five starts under jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. Wiggins had used Borel to work Rachel and considered a change.