05/19/2009 11:00PM

Filly needs to go above and beyond


The rush to anoint Rachel Alexandra as one of the all-time greats is understandable. There haven't been that many candidates lately, and racing fans suffer from what can only be described as hero-worship deprivation.

There is no question that Rachel Alexandra's victory over Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird in the Preakness Stakes last weekend, hot on the heels of her tour-de-wow in the Kentucky Oaks, sets her firmly apart from such recent 3-year-old gems as Ashado, Xtra Heat, Eight Belles, and even the newly minted Hall of Famer Silverbulletday. Only Rags to Riches is being mentioned in the same breath, and then only tentatively, since she never won another race after defeating Curlin in the 2007 Belmont Stakes.

Such intellectual exercises are fine. What else are we supposed to do during these agonizing three weeks between the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes? Idle debate over the Greatest of All Time is one of those inalienable rights enjoyed by all sports fans. Even hockey fans.

Ten years ago, The Blood-Horse Publications endeavored to institutionalize the idea of the top 100 racehorses of the 20th century with a volume entitled, "Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century." Disciples of Ten Broeck, Domino, Norfolk, Hindoo, Henry of Navarre, and other 19th century stars boycotted the process in a self-righteous huff, but they had a point. For instance, the arbitrary cutoff also deprived panelists (I was among them) from considering Imp, the popular Coal Black Lady who won 11 of 44 races in 1900-01 in addition to her 51 wins from 127 starts from 1896 through 1899. I get tired just typing numbers like that.

Of the 100 names that made the final list for the 20th century, 26 were females, which is a pretty good number when one considers the oppressively patriarchal nature of the Thoroughbred business.

Of those 26, though, the highest ranked was Ruffian, at No. 35, and she also had the advantage of being a martyr, in addition to her brilliant racing credentials. The others arrayed behind Ruffian included such obvious choices as Busher, Dahlia, Susan's Girl, Gallorette, All Along, Personal Ensign, Miesque, and Lady's Secret, plus such pleasant surprises as Bayakoa, Gamely, Affectionately, and Davona Dale.

John Rotz, Hall of Famer and gentleman farmer, rode three on the list: Ta Wee, Gallant Bloom, and Cicada. He also was the regular rider of 1965 3-year-old filly champion What a Treat and 1972 sprint champ Chou Croute, who defeated colts in the 1972 Fayette Handicap and the Fall Highweight.

Rotz is 75 and still rides for pleasure, as well as the occasional blue ribbon at local county fairs. A call this week to his spread near the central Illinois town of Warrensburg interrupted his gardening, but that was okay, because the Preakness was still very much on his mind.

"I don't think there's any kind of mindset required for a mare to beat a colt," Rotz said, when asked what sets a filly like Rachel Alexandra apart. "But they do have to be genuine racehorses to do it."

Of his headline fillies, Rotz reserves a special place for Ta Wee, and not simply because she was Dr. Fager's little sister. In three seasons, 1968-70, she won 15 of 21 races, first for John Nerud and then Scotty Shulhofer. Ta Wee went 3 for 4 against the boys, winning the 1969 Vosburgh as a 3-year-old and the Fall Highweight twice.

"She was exceptional," Rotz noted. "Especially that second year she won the Fall Highweight, when she carried 140 pounds and was giving away something like 19 and 20 pounds. She never broke real well, but boy, the second time she hit the ground, you'd better have some place to run."

Rotz watched the Preakness with more than a little sympathy for Mike Smith, who rode Mine That Bird. His former rider Calvin Borel looked good by sticking with Rachel Alexandra, even after his spectacular, rail-skimming ride on Mine That Bird to win the Derby.

"I thought that if Mine That Bird had the same racing luck he had in the Derby, he'd have won it, and won it handily," Rotz said. "Mike sat in there about as long as he could before he got through on one horse and circled the rest, but I give him credit for not trying to copy Bo-rail and just set in there and get the best horse beat by not having anywhere to go. The best horse may have got beat by losing ground, but with that shorter stretch at Pimlico he had to get rolling. It doesn't take anything away from the filly, though. You've got to admire what she accomplished."

As racing nears the end of this decade, there have been a handful of fillies and mares who could jump-start a list of 21st century greats. This is assuming horse racing makes it to the end of the 21st century, but if it does, it will be comforting to know that at least the memories of Azeri, Ouija Board, and Zenyatta should survive their narrow window of time.

If she keeps running and winning, Rachel Alexandra will join them. But only if she keeps running and winning. It was not enough that Rags to Riches defeated the colt who went on to be the first two-time Horse of the Year since Cigar. She needed to do more. They always need to do more.