08/02/2009 11:00PM

Here's one colt who can run with Rachel

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Barbara D. Livingston
Munnings comes into the Haskell on Sunday off Beyer Figures of 110 and 111 in a pair of Grade 2 sprint wins.

PHOENIX - There's been all sorts of talk over the the fact that Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta are unlikely to meet this year and who, if anyone, is to blame. Before we worry about what's down the road, there's a much more immediate concern, and that's how Rachel Alexandra will fare against a good group in Sunday's Grade 1 Haskell at Monmouth.

This isn't some group of patsies. Yes, Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird isn't here, and neither are some other big names. However, Summer Bird won a little race you may have heard of called the Belmont Stakes. Munnings comes off two monster sprint wins as if the light switch has gone on, both for the trainer (Todd Pletcher) who won the Haskell in 2006 (Bluegrass Cat) and 2007 (Any Given Saturday). And Atomic Rain, whose status is a bit up in the air after reports of a sore foot, won the traditional local prep, the Long Branch, in splendid fashion and is now 3 for 4 at Monmouth.

There's never been any doubt about Rachel Alexandra's talent. She trashed overmatched rivals in several stakes this year, and her performance in the May 16 Preakness showed us that she could handle the top 3-year-old males. It isn't so much that she won the Preakness and beat males, including the reigning Derby winner. No, to me the most critical aspect was how she handled furlongs No. 7 to 9 in the 1 3/16-mile race.

Against overmatched fillies she basically blew the race wide open before that point. That wasn't going to happen against the boys. And she did it anyway. The margin wasn't anything like her Kentucky Oaks or Mother Goose tours de force, but in many respect that one-length win was still her best. She handled the heat set down by Big Drama, Papa Clem and Friesan Fire better than they did. Rachel was on the pace through six furlongs in 1:11.01, and her next quarter was 24.81, which was terrific considering how the Pimlico track played. That move won the race. It took her from a half-length lead to four clear at the eighth pole, so when Mine That Bird came calling it was like Rumbo chasing home Genuine Risk in the 1980 Kentucky Derby - he was comin', but you knew he wasn't going to get there.

She was like Jimmy Connors during his tennis prime - take your opponent's blistering serve and send it back even harder. It proved lethal in Preakness and may again in the Haskell.

Maybe.

There's a different concern this time.

Summer Bird's Belmont win was very nice. It was your classic Belmont triumph - he was relentless. But that's not really the style that wins a 1 1/8-mile event like the Haskell. He shortens up in distance and he's going to sit back and make a run, meaning Rachel and others with more speed will get a head start on him.

That's not the case with Munnings, however. Pletcher's $1.7 million baby, he looked on his way to big things at 2, running third in the Grade 1 Hopeful and second in the Grade 1 Champagne, both times beaten by the then-sensational Vineyard Haven. He ran 10th in the BC Juvenile at Santa Anita, confirming either he didn't like synthetic or was simply over the top.

The Derby was never really on his radar, although he made his 2009 debut on Kentucky Derby Day in a brutal allowance race won by Warrior's Reward. Munnings made a strong run to the lead into the lane, but then his lack of activity caught up to him and he couldn't sustain his run, finishing second. Still, he earned a 108 Beyer.

That was just a preview. He blasted home to win the Grade 2 Woody Stephens in a romp on Belmont Day, for a 110 Beyer. He then faced elders in the Grade 2 Tom Fool. Munnings sat closer to the front and still punched home with power, this time hitting 111 on the Beyer scale.

Here's a horse with the type of acceleration to toss down the gauntlet at Rachel come that critical seventh furlong - and take the heat when Rachel pitches it back in his face.

It makes for an intriguing race, and surely the connections of other big 3-year-old males like Mine That Bird and Quality Road - and of a certain unbeaten champion mare out West - will cast an interested eye to see if Munnings can stop this runaway train known as Rachel Alexandra, or whether it will be up to them.