08/19/2009 11:00PM

Alabama better without Rachel

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Barbara D. Livingston
Funny Moon, who managed to win the Coaching Club American Oaks despite an eventful trip, is among the contenders in Saturday's Alabama.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - A year ago, the ancient and honorable Alabama Stakes at Saratoga effectively decided the nation's 3-year-old filly championship. Proud Spell, the Kentucky Oaks winner, held off Music Note, the Mother Goose winner, in a thrilling stretch battle. By season's end, the two fillies' records were as close as the margin of a nose that separated them in the Alabama, and Proud Spell was the champ.

Things are quite different in the Year of Rachel Alexandra, who has already won the Kentucky Oaks by 20 1/4, the Mother Goose by 19 1/4, beaten the Derby winner in the Preakness and the Belmont winner in the Haskell. She has not only won the most important races in her own division, she's the only winner this year of two Grade 1 races for 3-year-old males. If she never races or wins again, she will be the champion 3-year-old filly of 2009.

So the fact that she wasn't entered for the Alabama was as big a story as the eight who were. Not that anyone was really expecting her to run Saturday. Rachel Alexandra has set such high standards for herself and her campaign that a stop in the Alabama would have been widely considered a step down or back. Instead, she will try to continue broadening her resume by again stepping outside her division, either against 3-year-old males in the Travers on Aug. 29 or Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 7, against older females in the Personal Ensign on Aug. 20, or against older males in the Woodward on Sept. 5.

It's a win-win situation for racing fans, because any of those spots is more intriguing than Rachel at 1-10 in the Alabama, and the Alabama is now a fascinating race on its own. It has got a little bit of everything, and it's no less fun to handicap because it lacks championship implications.

The morning-line favorite at 5-2 is Careless Jewel, who emerged from three Polytrack races at Woodbine to blow open the Delaware Oaks by 7 1/4 lengths with a strong winning Beyer Speed Figure of 104. That, however, was a six-horse field where the 3-5 favorite (Bon Jovi Girl) neglected to run a step. Now, Careless Jewel faces more and better company and stretches out to 10 furlongs.

I prefer Funny Moon and Milwaukee Appeal. Funny Moon emerges from a narrow victory in a Coaching Club American Oaks that earned a lowly Beyer of 86, but there were mitigating circumstances. She did her best to run straight into the grandstand at the top of the stretch, fought Alan Garcia all the way to the wire, and still prevailed. The next three who followed her under the wire - Don't Forget Gil, Wynning Ride and Casanova Move - are back for another try in the Alabama, but it's hard to imagine Funny Moon's behaving worse than she did in the CCA Oaks when she still managed to beat them.

Milwaukee Appeal has been trying to do a minor-league version of a Rachel Alexandra campaign, running against Canadian-bred males in our neighbor to the north's restricted Triple Crown races. The daughter of Milwaukee Brew ran out of Canadian-bred fillies to conquer after winning the Woodbine Oaks, then ran very respectably against males, finishing third (beaten a neck) on a synthetic track in the Queen's Plate and second (beaten a nose) on dirt in the Prince of Wales at Fort Erie. Like Funny Moon, she will have no trouble with the 10 furlongs of the Alabama, which may or may not be the case with Careless Jewel.

As for Rachel Alexandra, guessing and arguing over where she should or will run next remains the best parlor game of this racing season. While the Travers would probably win if owner Jess Jackson put it up for a public vote - it would be the first showdown among a Derby, Preakness, and Belmont winner since the 1982 edition - in some ways it makes the least sense. She has already beaten males twice in Grade 1 events, already beaten Mine That Bird and Summer Bird, and seems to have nothing to gain and a lot to lose. There's also a tough new rival in Quality Road, who has the speed to mess with her early.

If Jackson runs to his past performances, though, I would bet on either the Pennsylvania Derby or the Woodward. The Pennsylvania Derby would be a virtual walkover and probably a rich one, with slots-rich Philly Park able to jack up the purse at will to attract her. The Woodward, however, would be the more sporting choice, and a chance at real history: She would be the first 3-year-old filly to win, and a victory over older males would just about nail down a Horse of the Year title.

A decision won't be made until she works Monday morning. Some publicists and journalists are getting grouchy over the constant indecision and delays surrounding her next start, but the half-full view is that it's actually good for the game: When's the last time, outside of the Triple Crown or Breeders' Cup, that racing fans were passionately debating where a racehorse would make his or her next start?