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It's Rachel and the rest

BALTIMORE — It was designed to showcase the best of a generation, this five-week tour de force known as the Triple Crown.

For more than a century, the trio of tests has strived to gather the best 3-year-olds in the sport and have them sort out whose ability is truly superior.

However, as of two weeks ago, the horse many considered the top sophomore in the country wasn't slated to participate in any of the American classics.

Owner Jess Jackson decided that situation needed to be rectified — even if it meant going against some long-held conventional beliefs.

When Kentucky Oaks winner Rachel Alexandra was purchased privately by Jackson and Harold McCormick last week and subsequently supplemented into the Preakness Stakes field, it reignited the long-running debate of whether fillies should compete against males at the top level.

Since Eight Belles fatally broke down while galloping out after running second in last year's Kentucky Derby, the issue has become particularly hot-button — especially in the case of the Triple Crown.

But Rachel Alexandra's connections don't just see a filly who has won her last five starts by a combined 431/2 lengths. They see a horse who has been virtually untested and a competitor that deserves the opportunity to showcase what she is truly capable of.

"I think the fans deserve to see the best horses compete regardless of sex," Jackson said earlier this week. "This isn't about male or female, it's about the best athletes male or female.

"That's the reason I'm in this. She's a perfect athlete, she's beautiful, and I hope this helps revive racing in the United States."

Though the tragic death of Eight Belles has been repeatedly cited as a reason why the racing industry should be holding its breath on Saturday, the recent successes of other female runners against males has been somewhat overshadowed along the way.

Arguably the most dominant performer in racing last year was the undefeated 3-year-old filly Zarkava, who toyed with her male rivals in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe en route to being named Europe's Horse of the Year.

February saw filly sprinter Evita Argentina dust the boys in the Grade II San Vicente Stakes while Grade I Ashland Stakes winner Hooh Why finished second by a head to Patena — runner-up to Friesan Fire in the Grade II Lecomte this year — as a 2-year-old at Woodbine last December.

"You always worry about fillies but ... who won the Arc? A filly," Jackson said. "Fillies race in the rest of the world all the time against males. This thing that is an old tale about fillies being weaker is somewhat true but doesn't mean they don't have the endurance."

Indeed, the last Oaks winner to test the Triple Crown did so with historic results.

Rags to Riches — who like Rachel Alexandra had demolished her female rivals — became the first filly in 102 years to win the Belmont Stakes when she outlasted eventual two-time Horse of the Year Curlin in 2007.

"At the end of the day, you have to decide when you get fillies of that quality, and they can only accomplish so much running with their gender," said Todd Pletcher, who trained Rags to Riches.

Perhaps the ultimate tribute to Rachel Alexandra's ability is how disappointed the connections of her fellow Preakness foes were to see her become the 53rd filly ever to enter the middle jewel of the Triple Crown.

"Why? Because she's so tough," said Bob Baffert, trainer of Grade I winner Pioneerof the Nile, in explaining why he preferred the filly not be in the field. "If her style was coming from off the pace ... it would be more difficult for her. But she has tactical speed and she's got a beautiful long stride. She's a tremendous athlete."

More than her male rivals, one of the major concerns Rachel Alexandra's connections faced in deciding to send her to the Preakness was how she adjusted since being transferred from Hal Wiggins — who trained her in all 10 of her previous starts — to the barn of Steve Asmussen.

Those around Rachel Alexandra say they have not seen anything to suggest she is anything less than her usual self.

And, so far, that usual self has been the most explosive 3-year-old in training — period.

"I think she's the best horse in the country right now and I'm not going to go back on my word," said regular jockey Calvin Borel, who gave up his mount on Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird to stay with Rachel Alexandra. "(Mine That Bird) would have to run the race of his life to beat my filly. I think all the other (12 horses) are going to have to run the race of their lives or me fall off or something."

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