05/31/2009 11:00PM

Spicing it up with Rachael (not Rachel)


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - There is a viral idea making the rounds that a Belmont Stakes without Rachel Alexandra will be watched by no one and attended by even fewer. This is not true. I have pre-programmed the Betamax and I promise to watch the network telecast as soon as I get home from New York. Or maybe later on.

Granted, the fact that the Preakness winner is passing the Test of a Champion is disappointing. Condolences to NYRA and ABC/ESPN, partners in the presentation. After all, it has been two whole years since a filly has won the Belmont, and the drought is becoming oppressive. You hear it in the streets. "Will there ever be another Rags to Riches?" And to a lesser extent, "Who cares?" from the bitter crowd who recall how Rags gave the game one lovely afternoon and that was that . . . one more race and into the shed, blamed on physical concerns that should not have been career threatening.

It is of some strange consolation that Rags to Riches and Zenyatta come from the same foal crop of 2004, but by the time Zenyatta hit the scene, late in 2007, Rags to Riches was long gone. Jammed together, they may have had the greatest female career in the history of the sport.

It's back to the boys, though, for the 141st Belmont Stakes on Saturday, led with Canonero flair by Mine That Bird. When the end of the 2009 Triple Crown season comes, late Saturday afternoon, Mine That Bird will have been the only horse to have competed in all three jewels this time around, unless you count Flying Private, who was 19th in the Derby, fourth in the Preakness, and intended by Wayne Lukas to run again in the Belmont, just in case.

Don't get me wrong. Mine That Bird is an entertaining little devil. He's a hard-working, blue-collar Thoroughbred who may be just what the American sports fan needs to play the role of hero in these edgy, trying times. Manny Ramirez, the gazillionaire ballplayer, is in the penalty box for steroid use. Nascar driver Jeremy Mayfield, who races his own car, has been suspended indefinitely for failing a drug test. And James Harrison, of the champion Pittsburgh Steelers, turned down a visit to the White House because he felt insulted by President Obama for not asking him sooner. This would be a failure of an IQ test.

But Rachel, ah Rachel, she would have made the Belmont grand, out there on the engine like a gaudy hood ornament, swatting away the boys like backstretch flies. So what can be done to juice up the day, now that the filly queen will be waving from the distant sidelines? Here are a few modest suggestions:

* Jess Jackson, sportsman to the core, could offer the Belmont winner a free run at Rachel Alexandra after they retire and, if the magic happens, the other owner gets half-interest in their first foal. This might not even be a gamble, since Mine That Bird will be firmly favored and the last time anyone checked he was still a gelding.

* Expand the demographic and invite New York's own cooking show phenom Rachael Ray to be Belmont Stakes grand marshal and hope that no one notices that she not only spells "Rachel" wrong but that neither is she a horse, although she probably could do the Belmont's 1 1/2 miles in the same time as one of her 30-minute meals. Maybe.

* There has been too much hassle over ads on jockey attire. So as a trade-off for any product placement on the pants, all the riders in the Belmont field should be required to wear Calvin Borel masks. Even Calvin.

* For that matter, have an "All Calvin Day." Calvin Klein could design something nice. Calvin Trillin could write a catchy verse. Calvin Tompkins could report the whole thing, at length, in The New Yorker, and New York's own Calvin Pace could take a break from the Jets pre-pre-season to bench press the winning horse.

* Put up a bonus to the Belmont last-place finisher if he can beat Big Brown's final time from 2008, and provide similar, fun-filled contests for fans, including a grand prize of a all-expense paid weekend for two in Hobbs, N.M., for anyone who can guess what's under Chip Woolley's black cowboy hat.