05/08/2009 11:00PM

Rachel's addition makes good story even better

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NEW YORK - Two weeks ago, this looked like it could be an especially compelling Triple Crown season. That's exactly what it has turned out to be - just for entirely different reasons than anyone expected.

The excitement was supposed to come from Quality Road, the fast and decisive winner of the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, and I Want Revenge, who posted an explosive victory in the Gotham and an even more dramatic one in the Wood Memorial. A vintage showdown loomed, with a supporting cast that included consistent and accomplished, if less flashy, colts such as Friesan Fire and Pioneerof the Nile.

Quality Road and I Want Revenge didn't make it to the starting gate. Pioneerof the Nile ran a solid but ordinary second, while Friesan Fire kicked himself early and was beaten 45 lengths. Yet somehow we had a Derby that ended with the largest winning margin in 63 years after the longest shot in 95 years scored an astounding 6 3/4-length victory.

As unpopular as 50-1 Mine That Bird was at the parimutuel polls - and he was actually more than 100-1 in the exotic pools and with overseas bookmakers and betting exchanges - his victory has proved stunningly popular with the general public and the news media. Two days after the race, the cynical sportswriters who routinely trash horse racing on the ESPN shows "Around the Horn" and "Pardon the Interruption" were instead sounding like cheerleaders. Their common narrative: Here we all thought horse racing was dying, and along comes this wonderful story and victory to energize the game again.

That was before this year's Triple Crown story got even bigger and better with the news Wednesday that Jess Jackson was buying Rachel Alexandra, the spectacular 20 1/4-length winner of the Kentucky Oaks, with an eye to running her against males in the Preakness and/or Belmont. So now we will have either an unprecedented showdown between winners of the Derby and Oaks in the Preakness, or perhaps an amazing Belmont Stakes storyline: The gelding from nowhere trying to become the first Triple Crown winner in 31 years, with his biggest roadblock being a sensational filly coming off a 20-length triumph.

Can Mine That Bird win the Preakness? Of course he can, especially if the filly awaits the Belmont. Six days out I have no idea whether he will be my pick or a worthwhile bet by Saturday, but his Derby performance was a better race than any of the 18 colts he thrashed last Saturday has ever run. The little son of Birdstone is obviously a much better racehorse than his previous past performances indicated.

He's an easy horse to root for next Saturday - not only because of the Belmont Stakes scenario a victory would create, but also because instead of seeing him disappear into the bloodstock mercantile exchange before Thanksgiving, we could be enjoying this gelding on the racetrack for years to come. His crew seems like the type that would enjoy barnstorming and letting him take them all over the racing map, and any time a Kentucky Derby winner makes an appearance, it generates ink and interest that's good for the game.

Mine That Bird's victory has been widely likened to Giacomo's four years ago, but other than their nearly identical Churchill win-pool prices ($103.20 vs. $102.60), there are few similarities. Giacomo was a desperate, last-second, narrow winner of a race that fell apart and in which something clearly went awry with the superior Afleet Alex, who returned to trounce the Derby winner in the Preakness and Belmont and was favored over him both times. Giacomo was the last man standing; Mine That Bird scored a knockout.

If you're looking to beat him in the Preakness, the obvious alternative is Rachel Alexandra, but she will be a short price if she goes. If you're looking for a price, my inclination would be to look beyond the three colts who were bumping around in a three-way photo 6 3/4 lengths behind Mine That Bird. Pioneerof the Nile, Musket Man, and Papa Clem - nice horses who had won the Santa Anita, Illinois, and Arkansas Derbies in their previous starts - appeared to run about as well as they can, and with no major excuses. At least Friesan Fire ran so badly it couldn't possibly have been a true bill. And while new additions to the Triple Crown historically underperform in the Preakness, you never know when there might be a Bernardini lurking among them.

There are a lot of different ways to go in the race, but it's a lot less than 50-1 that this Preakness will end up the way seven of the last 12 have - with the Derby winner wearing the painted daisies.