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Alexandra the Great

PUBLISHED: May 20, 2009

With the running of the 134th Preakness Stakes at Baltimore’s famed Pimlico racetrack this past weekend, the world of thoroughbred racing (and perhaps the general public) seems to have fallen in love with a new heroine. On Saturday, Rachel Alexandra became the first filly in 85 years to beat the boys and win the Preakness, one of the most famous horse races in the world and the middle leg of the elusive Triple Crown. As speculation builds about a possible rematch in the Belmont Stakes between Rachel Alexandra and Mine That Bird, the Kentucky Derby winner she outran down the stretch, sports journalists everywhere have seized on the opportunity to capitalize on public fascination with the world of million dollar horses and the people who own, train, and ride them.

I must confess that I saw the race on YouTube Saturday night, and if Rachel Alexandra does run in the Belmont I might even watch the race live. Yet as remarkable as it is to see a horse race in real time, it is the story behind those few seconds of racing glory that is more remarkable still. And perhaps no one has told that story better than Laura Hildebrand in her remarkable chronicle of a horse no one thought would ever amount to anything: Seabiscuit.

SeabiscuitHildebrand’s book of the same title was published several years ago and spent time at the top of the New York Times bestseller list before leading to an award-winning film adaptation. But even though the book is not new, the story Hildebrand tells is timeless. The drama surrounding the Triple Crown races every year reminds us of just how much is required of the rare horse with the speed, stamina, and personality to win at this most elite of levels. Part of what makes Hildebrand’s work so compelling is that she doesn’t simply tell the tale of a horse who could run, even if his stride wasn’t quite straight. Instead, in riveting prose that is part sports writing, part biography, and part history, she reminds us that Seabiscuit raced during the Great Depression, a time when the world was changing in ways no one could fully understand and when the daily news was often dominated by doom and gloom.

Some seventy-odd years after Seabiscuit’s day, the world is once again in a time of change and uncertainty, and the story of a horse that could win, even when she wasn’t supposed to, has captured the eye and perhaps the heart of the public. Rachel Alexandra is no Seabiscuit, at least not yet, but there are three weeks to go until the running of the Belmont Stakes, which is plenty of time to pick up a copy of Seabiscuit. Sometimes it’s not the just-published new releases that are the best way to start the summer.


Drew Johnson's picture
Drew Johnson · 14 years ago
Rachel Alexandra is a very expensive horse and is a horse to beat–not really an underdog in terms of expectations, money, etc. The gender angle is justifiably exciting but overlooks the fact that there was already an underdog story this year, one much closer to Seabiscuit. Mine That Bird is a tiny gelding. To win the Derby, his trainer drove the horse cross country from Arizona behind a pickup truck. His trainer is a former rodeo rider who became a quarter-horse trainer–both professions that don’t count for much in the thoroughbred world. Originally auctioned once for 9500 dollars, then sold again for about 300,000 (a pittance in racing terms), Mine That Bird’s last-to-first run at the Derby was truly exciting (make sure to watch the Youtube video all the way through to the overhead shots) and was the second longest odds horse ever to win the Derby (at 50-1). Rachel Alexandra’s win at the Preakness was confirmed when she was able to hold off Mine That Bird’s second last-to-first attempt. That he finished second confirmed that he wasn’t a fluke, either. They’re both remarkable horses. The duel between them at Belmont (provided they both take the field) will be one for the books. But you can flip the Seabiscuit/War Admiral analogy either way. If you see the filly against the fellas story as more compelling, then Rachel Alexandra is certainly Seabiscuit. On the other hand, if you see this year as being about the little guy vs the the big money, then Rachel Alexandra is War Admiral and Mine That Bird is Seabiscuit. So, you can have your pick of underdogs this year. Rachel Alexandra is a filly–but has had every other advantage of this patrician sport. Mine That Bird is the poor man’s horse–and this is a depression year.
Mandy Redig's picture
A fascinating observation….the analogy can go both ways, and I guess we’ll have to wait until the Belmont to decide. But either way, it is nice to see a racing season not marred by the tragedy of horses collapsing on the field.

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