05/19/2009 11:00PM

Coronation may be premature


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Steve Asmussen had better check his workers' comp policy, because he just went from a senior staff that includes chief assistant Scott Blasi and a small circle of trusted lieutenants to just about everyone who watched Rachel Alexandra beat Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird in the Preakness Stakes last Saturday.

Anyway, that's how it will feel for at least the next week or so while Camp Rachel wrestles with the idea of running her back in the Belmont Stakes on June 6 in New York. In the meantime, outside of those expressed by her owner, her trainer, and their veterinary counsel, none of the opinions filling the fevered atmosphere will have the slightest basis in reality.

The cry has arisen, though, from those of us who have nothing to lose. Text your choice now. Dial that toll-free 866 number. Vote Rachel Alexandra into the Belmont Stakes at all costs, because if she doesn't run, the racing game will suffer yet another blow. And, once again, the terrorists will win.

Blame such mania on the hypnotic effect of the Triple Crown, that cluster of weeks each spring when the shrinking budgets of media sports departments loosen just enough to ration a rare dribble of attention upon horse racing. Because of the success of the Kentucky Derby in shaping the debate each spring, along with the romance of the ever-more-elusive Triple Crown, the media has no choice but to treat the game as a zero-sum endeavor. Without the prospect of a Triple Crown winner, there is only NBA playoffs.

For now, it should be enough to live on the heady perfume of a 2009 Preakness that stacks up with the most satisfying of many recent years, including the three-way dogfight of 1997 and the War of the Worlds between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer in 1989.

As a competitive event it was handsomely executed - there were no Scrappy T moments to nearly drop an Afleet Alex - affording only the most mainstream of excuses to the beaten. Mine That Bird, second by a length, was not quite lucky enough. Third-place finisher Musket Man was not quite good enough. The other 10 - including the winners of the Santa Anita Derby, Louisiana Derby, Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass Stakes - came home exhausted, embarrassed or both.

Beyond the long postrace victory walk given Rachel Alexandra by Calvin Borel, the sight of of Mine That Bird returning to be unsaddled tends to linger. The little gelding from out of nowhere, a true Cinderella story, was greeted with loud cheers from the clubhouse crowd as he trotted back, muddy but unbowed.

"He is an amazing little horse," Smith proclaimed. "Maybe one of the bravest I've ever ridden."

Caught up in the heat of the moment, both owner Jess Jackson and trainer Steve Asmussen went along with the idea that Rachel Alexandra was the current leader in the race for Horse of the Year. There is no such thing, of course, as a leader in the race for Horse of the Year, unless the previous Horse of the Year is still campaigning, and always should get the benefit of the doubt.

This may be a good time to review a couple of rules:

1. To be named Horse of the Year, at least in this decade, a 3-year-old must have more than simply a great run in the Triple Crown. It did not work for Big Brown, Afleet Alex, Smarty Jones, Funny Cide, or War Emblem. It did for Point Given, who embellished his two classic wins with an overpowering Haskell and Travers, while Tiznow saved himself for the summer and fall.

2. If she runs in the Belmont, Rachel Alexandra will have experienced the equivalent of a Triple Crown campaign, with her lopsided Kentucky Oaks standing for the Derby on the following day. Lately, horses who run in all three Triple Crown events have not fared that well through the rest of the year, with the exception of those remarkable colts from 2007: Curlin, Street Sense, and Hard Spun.

3. Rachel Alexandra isn't even the best female yet.

Okay, that one's more of a guideline than a rule. There are weekly polls taken by the NTRA, with 19 members of the media representing the pulse of the sport. The poll results published on Monday showed Rachel Alexandra the unanimous leader among 3-year-olds, male or female, and the leader in first-place votes among horses of all ages. She got eight, Santa Anita Handicap and Woodford Reserve winner Einstein got five, Dubai World Cup winner Well Armed got two, and the other four went to a horse who hasn't even started yet in 2009.

Jerry Moss owns that horse and was asked if he thought he could give Rachel Alexandra a race . . . with Zenyatta.

"I think so," Moss said. "Right now I'm in a small group, though, so we'll see what happens. All we can do is put them in a race together and see who wins."

Zenyatta, a daunting 9 for 9, will make her '09 debut on Saturday in the Milady Handicap at Hollywood Park. It will be a far cry from the floodlights of the Derby and the Preakness, and the Hollywood crowd will be small (unless they ship in disgruntled college kids from Maryland). But the Milady is as good a place as any to throw a gauntlet in Rachel Alexandra's general direction.

"It's six months until the Breeders' Cup, and there's a lot of racing to do between now and then," Moss said. "Happily, we're coming back with a healthy horse. We think she's better and stronger than she was last year, and we'll prove it."