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There was plenty of vindication to go around

BALTIMORE — This wasn't Preakness Day.

This was Vindication Day.

Rachel Alexandra's historic win in the 134th Preakness Stakes before 77,850 at Pimlico on Saturday, making her the first filly to win the second leg of the Triple Crown since 1924, was a heaping helping of justification.

It was vindication for Calvin Borel, who had the backbone to become the first jockey to abdicate his throne on a Kentucky Derby winner — even after his spectacular ride two weeks back had so much to do with Mine That Bird becoming that Kentucky Derby winner — and stick to his promise to ride the filly, even in a race a girl had not won in nearly nine decades.

It was vindication for Mine That Bird, the 50-1 Derby Day surprise, who under a different rider on a different surface under different circumstances, flattened his fluke status by finishing a fast-closing second, just a length in rear of Rachel at the wire.

But most of all, it was vindication for Jess Jackson, the 79-year-old Kendall-Jackson wine magnate, and owner of Stonestreet Farm, who swooped in five days after Rachel Alexandra's eye-popping 20¼ length win in the Kentucky Oaks to buy the distaff darling and point her toward the Preakness.

"I'm an entrepreneur," explained Jackson on Saturday. "I take risks, but they are worth the rewards."

Never mind we nabobs of equine negativism — this nabob willfully included — who cringed at such a money-driven deal and cast doubt on the brazen Jackson's decision to throw the girl, even such a talented girl, in with those rough, tough boys so soon after Rachel's demolition job on the Oaks just 15 days prior.

Turned out, Ol' Jess knew what he was doing.

"Awesome," said trainer Bob Baffert, after watching his Pioneer of the Nile fail to catch Rachel and fade all the way to 11th. "She's just rare, you know."

So rare that on this day, Rachel clearly did not run her best race, and she still rewrote the history books. She lost some focus in the starting gate when in post position No. 1, Big Drama threw his jockey and had be to repositioned in the chute. She stumbled a bit at the start. To keep from being hung out way wide, she was forced to go to the lead earlier than expected. And even Borel admitted Rachel struggled a bit at the end.

And Girl Power still beat the boys.

"She had something to prove and proved it emphatically," said trainer Steve Asmussen, who admitted that after getting Rachel from previous trainer Hal Wiggins' barn he had only to "get out of the way."

Really, it was Jackson who had the most to prove.

"I can't say enough about Jess' stepping up," said Asmussen. "It took some guts to do so."

Yes, Jackson ran his 2007 Preakness and Breeders' Cup Classic winner Curlin well after most other owners would have shipped such a potential stallion star to the breeding shed. And yes, Jackson has been an outspoken critic of some old-school thoroughbred practices, while calling for an ailing sport to shake up its game.

But there were a few who wondered if running Rachel in Baltimore was beyond the pale. There wasn't the need, not with plenty of time to freshen up the filly for a Belmont Stakes run. Turned out, Jackson couldn't wait, because, he said, the game couldn't wait.

"The thoroughbred racing industry needs better marketing," said Jackson, in his blue Rachel Alexandra hat, and hint of a white beard. "Just the issue. It gave all you guys something to write about. It was something that was valuable to the horse industry. To have controversy is good. Competition is good. And so, from a marketing standpoint, it was the right thing to do. That was a slam dunk, too."

Who knew that maybe what racing needed wasn't a super horse, but a super filly?

"It's good for racing to have champions run against champions," said Jackson. "That's the heart of the theory. You raise the bar, you take chances."

And, on this Preakness day, you gain sweet vindication.

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