05/07/2009 11:00PM

Rachel has rival trainers nervous

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Barbara D. Livingston
Rachel Alexandra is possible for the Preakness after being purchased by Jess Jackson.

The possibility that the filly Rachel Alexandra could make her next start in the 134th Preakness Stakes on May 16 at Pimlico made the trainers of several rival Preakness runners quite nervous on Thursday, most notably Bennie Woolley Jr., the trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird.

"Any man would be a fool to welcome that filly," Woolley said on a national teleconference Thursday. "She's tough. As much as I don't want her to go, she'd be taking my rider."

Calvin Borel rode Rachel Alexandra to her victory in the Kentucky Oaks the day before Borel's upset victory aboard Mine That Bird. Rachel Alexandra got a Beyer Speed Figure of 108 compared to Mine That Bird's 105, the first time the Oaks winner has received a better fig than the Derby winner.

Might Borel take off a Derby winner? Many dominoes would have to fall before that possible scenario plays out.

First off, Rachel Alexandra would have to commit to the Preakness, which would mark her first start against males. On Thursday, her new trainer, Steve Asmussen, would go no farther than saying "all options are open" when asked where Rachel Alexandra would run next.

If Rachel Alexandra is pointed to the 1 3/16-mile Preakness, Asmussen and Jess Jackson, the new majority owner of Rachel Alexandra after her private purchase on Wednesday, then would have to offer the ride to Borel. While Borel has won five straight races on Rachel Alexandra, he is not a jockey whom Asmussen regularly uses.

Finally, Borel would then have to decide whether he would ride Rachel Alexandra or Mine That Bird. His agent, Jerry Hissam, on Thursday declined to comment when asked about a hypothetical conflict. Borel has repeatedly said that Rachel Alexandra is the best horse he's ever ridden, which he stated anew on Sunday morning.

No jockey has ever taken off a Derby winner to ride a different horse in the Preakness. The last time a jockey abandoned a Derby winner for his next race was in 1985, when Angel Cordero Jr. gave up a mount on Spend a Buck in the Jersey Derby in order to ride Track Barron in the Metropolitan Handicap the same day. In 1945, Eddie Arcaro won the Derby on Hoop Jr., but Al Snider rode Hoop Jr. one week later in the Preakness, when Arcaro opted to ride that day at Belmont Park.

"I visited with Calvin's agent," Woolley said. "At this time, they know nothing. It's part of the business. I can't blame them if they want to ride [Rachel Alexandra]. He's got the call with me right up until they make a decision. He's a big part of where I'm at. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him. In my mind, I have a backup plan, but I'm not going to say anything until Calvin makes up his mind."

Complicating matters for Rachel Alexandra is the potential size of the $1 million Preakness field, and how the language in the race conditions are interpreted if the race is oversubscribed.

The Preakness field is limited to 14 runners. If more than 14 enter, a convoluted, three-tiered process is used to make up the field, according to the posted race conditions. The first seven runners are determined by earnings in graded stakes, which is the only tiebreaker for the Derby. The next four Preakness runners are determined by earnings in non-restricted stakes, which includes races that are not graded. The final three spots go to the horses with the most lifetime earnings. "Should this preference produce any ties, the additional starters(s) shall be determined by lot," the race conditions state.

In the Derby, in which the maximum field is 20, the race conditions clearly state that a supplemental nominee cannot bump a horse originally nominated. The Preakness language is not as clear, and may impact Rachel Alexandra, because, since she was not an original nominee to the Triple Crown, she would have to be supplemented to the race for $100,000.

The Preakness conditions say nothing about original nominees having preference over supplements. It says the tiebreaker kicks into effect "in the event that more than fourteen (14) horses are properly nominated and pass through the entry box."

Just what is "properly nominated"? Is a horse who was supplemented any less "properly nominated" than an original nominee? Georgeanne Hale, the racing secretary at Pimlico, did not return a call on Thursday seeking clarification on that point.

The Preakness rules also state that "no horse which earns purse money in The Kentucky Derby shall be denied the opportunity to enter and start" in the Preakness. The first five horses in the Derby - Mine That Bird, Pioneerof the Nile, Musket Man, Papa Clem, and Chocolate Candy - earned purse money. Mine That Bird, Musket Man, and Papa Clem are definite for the Preakness. Pioneerof the Nile is possible. Chocolate Candy has been sent to Belmont Park and will await the Belmont Stakes on June 6.

Gary Stute, the trainer of Papa Clem, fears Rachel Alexandra.

"I think she's in a different world than the rest," Stute said. "She is something spectacular."

Her speed could compromise the likes of Big Drama, who prefers the front.

"I would rather she didn't show," said David Fawkes, who trains Big Drama. "With her running style, that may hurt our chances."

As of Thursday, the potential Preakness field numbered 14, including Rachel Alexandra. Friesan Fire, who finished 18th in the Derby as the favorite, was added to the field on Thursday, but the European longshot Sky Gate defected.

Friesan Fire, the Louisiana Derby winner, suffered a gash on the back of his left front foot - commonly called grabbing a quarter - in the Derby. But the area has toughened up, according to trainer Larry Jones, after being treated with a paste that is prescribed for diabetics who have wounds that won't heal,

"It is healing extremely fast," Jones said Thursday. "We feel like there's a really good shot we can make it."

Jones, who has not seen Friesan Fire this week because he's serving a one-week medication suspension, said that Friesan Fire returned to the track Thursday morning at Delaware Park. Jones said he intends to ship Friesan Fire to Pimlico on Monday and work him over the track on Tuesday. Gabriel Saez retains the mount, Jones said.

Rachel Alexandra returned to the track at Churchill Downs on Wednesday, her final day in the barn of trainer Hal Wiggins. She was moved to Asmussen's barn early Thursday morning, and galloped under exercise rider Dominic Terry.

"I cannot say enough about the job Hal Wiggins and his staff did with her," Asmussen said. "She is in excellent physical and mental shape."

"Obviously it's very tough losing a filly like her from your stable," said Wiggins, who has about 14 horses, with a handful of 2-year-olds on the way. "But it's a business decision, and I certainly understand. In a day or two, we'll be back to our normal routine here. Life will go on."

Asmussen paused when asked what he thought of Rachel Alexandra's performance in the Oaks, which she won by 20 1/4 lengths.

"An adjective doesn't describe it," he finally said in admiration.

Jackson was at Churchill Downs on Thursday.

"We are going to meet and talk about what plans we have for her," Asmussen said. "Depending on the weather, which we've had quite a bit of here lately, she will work Sunday or Monday morning, which is normal for me, and I'll be in communication with him the whole time."

Last year, when Curlin was aiming for his second straight Horse of the Year title for Asmussen, announcements on his upcoming races were made by Jackson.

His biggest announcement last year was committing Curlin to the Breeders' Cup Classic. All of racing now awaits word on Rachel Alexandra.

- additional reporting by David Grening and Marty McGee