05/11/2009 11:00PM

Two-horse race? Not likely


An historically important running of the Preakness is to be conducted on Saturday, and yet there was something that occurred last weekend that threatened to give the sport a big fat black eye, not a blanket of black-eyed Susans.

Here the sport was given an extremely exciting race situation on a silver platter. Yes, a race situation, not a carnival, or a phony spectacle. Here was Mine that Bird, the 50-1 Derby winner who made the cover of Sports Illustrated, ready to be matched against the most exciting filly in the world, Rachel Alexandra. Yet, experienced horse owners who say they love the sport were willing to conspire to enter unworthy horses to ensure that she would not make the 14-horse field. Fortunately, wiser heads in their camps helped to avert an everlasting public relations disaster. But it was too late to avoid a million words of public ridicule as the events developed.

As for the Derby, we were all left with our mouths wide open and our eyes diverting to our Racing Forms and track programs to see exactly who the No. 8 horse was skimming the rail and passing every horse as if they were carrying 175 pounds.

The image of Mine That Bird rallying so strongly under Calvin Borel still seems incredible to all who spent hours handicapping that race. Frankly, I know of no one who actually picked the horse on merit, even if they took the time to watch the video replay of Mine That Bird's hard-trying fourth-place effort in the Sunland Derby that apparently gave him such a boost in physical condition.

The day before the Kentucky Derby, we did see prohibitive betting favorite Rachel Alexandra also outrun her odds, winning the Kentucky Oaks by 20 1/4 lengths to make $2.80 look like free money.

So now it looks as if we will get a most fascinating renewal of the Preakness, with a good supporting card of eight other stakes. But if anyone, including the owners of the Derby winner and the filly, think this is a two-horse race, they may be in for another surprise result.

Pioneerof the Nile ran strongly every step of the 1 1/4-mile Derby distance while away from the golden rail. Frankly, I think his tenacious, aggressive effort through the length of the stretch was a performance that exceeds the 95 Beyer Speed Figure he earned. I can't put a number on it, but like Mine That Bird's 80 Beyer Fig for his extended pace-pressing effort in the Sunland Derby, there was more effort invested by Pioneerof the Nile in the Kentucky Derby than mere numbers can express.

Third-place finisher Musket Man and fourth-place finisher Papa Clem also were still striding out with good energy when Mine That Bird rushed past the field along the rail.

Derby betting favorite Friesan Fire has to be given a chance to recover his top form if he is being entered back so quickly by trainer Larry Jones after suffering some cuts and bruises en route to his 18th-place finish on the sloppy track. Ditto for General Quarters, who was 10th and never got any traction on the rain-soaked surface.

There also is newcomer Big Drama, a game and speedy sort who may provide the filly with some early pressure while giving the horses in the second flight a sensible target.

Will Mine that Bird, without Calvin Borel, fire the kind of rally we saw at Churchill Downs? Maybe; but it is doubtful replacement jockey Mike Smith will get away with a last-to-first move along the rail. This time, no rider of a contender is likely to give up the rail so easily, and Borel, the rail-riding master, will be on one of those contenders, Rachel Alexandra.

Will the filly face more bumping and shoving than she has seen in any of her races with her own sex? You can count on it. That is what happens to most horses in Triple Crown races with full fields. When she does - when a few aggressive male horses and experienced stakes riders put her to the test - we will find out just how good she really is. While my money will be elsewhere, Rachel Alexandra just might be too good for any 3-year-old in America.

Assuming a dry and fast track, I like Pioneerof the Nile and the gritty Papa Clem as a good exacta box, and will take them both as co-win keys with Mine That Bird, Rachel Alexandra, General Quarters and Friesan Fire on the second level of my trifecta and superfecta tickets, adding Big Drama and Musket Man to the third and fourth tiers.

A trifecta ticket using the above layout would involve 2x6x8 horses at $1 units for a cost of $60, and to protect the price value, I probably will buy extra tickets that involve the Derby winner and the filly. A $1 superfecta ticket using the above layout would involve 2x6x8x8 horses at a cost of $300, which may be too expensive for many players, yet would be quite affordable if 10 cent supers are allowed.

Beyond the Preakness, there are six other graded stakes and two non-graded on the card. Here are horses that seem to be ready for sharp performances in six of those stakes, including a few that will be 10-1 or higher.

w Grade 3, $100,000 Maryland Sprint, 3-year-olds and up, six furlongs: Silver Edition is trained by D. Wayne Lukas. He was wide when fourth on the sloppy Derby Day track and was sharp second in a stakes here on Preakness Day last year.

w $50,000 Woodlawn, 3-year-olds, one mile on turf: Mr. Keeper, a 2008 sprint stakes winner in Maryland, has been training smartly for his return for solid locally based trainer Hamilton Smith. If Mr. Keeper does not go here, put him on your horses to watch list at drf.com.

w Grade 3, $100,000 Hirsch Jacobs, 3-year-olds, six furlongs: Taqarub was second to the fast Capt. Candyman Can in a seven-furlong Grade 3 stakes at Aqueduct; returns to best distance and gets class relief. Despite the Odds won both his starts last year and is training well.

w Grade 3, $100,000 Gallorette, fillies and mares, 1 1/16 miles on turf: Shytoe Lafeet, a consistent 6-year-old mare trained by Larry Jones, had a pair of encouraging seconds in four ungraded turf stakes at the Fair Grounds this winter. Well spotted to crack the exacta at generous odds.

w Grade 3, $100,000 William Donald Schaefer, 3-year-olds and up, 1 1/16 miles: Cave's Valley, locally based, prepped for this with an even try in a one-turn mile at Aqueduct last month. Won prior at Laurel; good longshot. Of the probable favorites, the well-traveled Charles Town-based Researcher can be a formidable foe at this level.

w Grade 2, $150,000 Dixie Handicap, 3-year-olds and up, 1 1/8 miles on turf: Wesley, a winner of two graded stakes in his seven turf races in 2008 and '09, has good overall credentials for this class and distance. Monba has never run on grass, but has several good efforts against the best of his generation on synthetic tracks that suggests he will like it.

Given the series of multi-race exotics that offer so much appeal on the Triple Crown race cards, I plan to link all of the horses named in these previews in my rolling pick threes and pick fours. But like most horseplayers, my day will hinge on how the Preakness plays out.