05/18/2009 12:00AM

One of the boys could win - but don't bet on it

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Barbara D. Livingston
Rachel Alexandra faces the toughest task of her career Saturday, but she looks poised to become a star.

NEW YORK - There are plenty of smart-aleck reasons to oppose Rachel Alexandra, the 8-5 morning-line favorite in the 134th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico on Saturday. A filly hasn't won the race in 85 years; she's running back just 15 days after winning the Kentucky Oaks, a plan that the people who owned her until last week dismissed as "insane"; she has never faced the kind of early speed or depth of quality she'll be meeting in the Preakness; and she drew the outside post in a field of 13.

There is, however, a trump-card reason to pick her: She appears to be the best and fastest horse in the race. In a year when the most accomplished 3-year-old males are either on the sidelines, or were last seen floundering behind the likeable but unproven Mine That Bird in the Kentucky Derby, Rachel Alexandra simply looks like the best 3-year-old in the field.

She hasn't raced against males before but has beaten them on paper more than once.

When she won the Golden Rod Stakes at Churchill Downs last Nov. 29, she ran the 1 1/16-mile distance in 1:43.08 an hour before colts required 1:44.14 in the companion Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. She won the Fair Grounds Oaks on March 14 in 1:43.55, only half a length slower than Friesan Fire's 1:43.46 in the Louisiana Derby on the same card, but was under exaggerated restraint and could have bettered the eventual Kentucky Derby favorite's time if ridden out.

Her Oaks performance May 1, a 20 1/4-length victory in 1:48.33 for nine furlongs, was another cakewalk and better than Mine That Bird's 10 furlongs in 2:02.66 winning the Derby the next afternoon. Her Oaks earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 108 to the Derby's 105, making it the fastest Oaks in the 19-year published history of the Beyers, and the first time in that span that the Oaks came up better than the Derby.

Rachel Alexandra has run consecutive Beyers of 108, 101, 103, and 100 winning her last four starts by a combined 38 3/4 lengths. None of her 12 opponents has run more than one triple-digit figure in his career.

The only other runnings of the Oaks that have come close to hers figure-wise in the last two decades are the 107 earned a decade ago by Silverbulletday, who will be inducted into racing's Hall of Fame this summer; the 106 by Lite Light, the champion 3-year-old filly of 1991; and, most recently, the 104 earned in 2007 by Rags to Riches, who came back to beat eventual two-time Horse of the Year Curlin in the Belmont Stakes.

Rags to Riches didn't race between the Oaks and the Belmont, and it's hard to argue with those who wish Rachel Alexandra had been similarly campaigned. The original plan under previous ownership had been to wait for June 6 and run her on the Belmont undercard in the Acorn Stakes for fillies. Then Jess Jackson, reluctantly out of the limelight since Curlin's retirement, bought her five days after her victory, and the showman in him could not resist a historic Preakness clash between a Derby winner and an Oaks winner.

Whether you're playing against her or trying to fill out your exotic tickets underneath her, cashing on the race may hinge on your opinion of the seven returnees from the Kentucky Derby. I prefer the ones who ran first (Mine That Bird), 10th (General Quarters), and 18th (Friesan Fire) to the ones who ran 2-3-4 - Pioneerofthe Nile, Musket Man, and Papa Clem.

Mine That Bird had done nothing before the Derby to suggest he could win it, but he trounced the field; his winning margin of 6 3/4 lengths was the largest in 63 years. He got a dream setup flying up the rail in the mud, and the planets may not be as perfectly aligned for him again, but he also may be a late bloomer and a natural closer who had never been given the opportunity to make one late run. Just because his form was wobbly before the Derby doesn't negate what he accomplished.

It's tough to like the horses who appeared to run their usual races behind him, like the trio who finished in a photo for second. I'd rather take my chances with horses who clearly did not fire their best shots, especially Friesan Fire, whose 42 1/2-length defeat was too bad to be true. He came into the Derby off an unusual seven-week layoff, and now should be sharper this Saturday.

Of the five new shooters, only Big Drama appears to have the ability to be competitive, but he's a huge question mark with just one start, a sprint, in the last 6 1/2 months. He drew the rail and will probably gun for the lead, providing Rachel Alexandra with a target to stalk from her outside draw.

So let's call it Rachel Alexandra, Friesan Fire, Mine That Bird, and General Quarters. May the best horse win - whether that horse is a filly, a gelding, or a colt.