BALTIMORE --- When 11 colts, a gelding and a filly line-up for Saturday's 134th running of the Preakness Stakes, viewers will be watching what has turned into the most exciting pre-race buildup of the Triple Crown's middle jewel in at least 20 years.
Two decades ago, it was Sunday Silence against Easy Goer, a rematch on a fast track at Pimlico two weeks after a battle in the mud at Churchill Downs that left few convinced that this pair was not more evenly matched than the 21/2 length margin by which Sunday Silence prevailed.
Now, there is big drama in Baltimore, focused primarily on the spectacular filly, Rachel Alexandra, and the rags to riches gelding, Mine That Bird, one of the most surprising Kentucky Derby winners in the storied race's 135-year history.
In winning the Kentucky Oaks the day before the Derby, Rachel surprised no one. It was the way she accomplished the victory -- by more than 20 lengths under no encouragement whatsoever from jockey Calvin Borel -- that has seasoned racing fans beginning to draw analogies to Ruffian.
Using the old horseman's measure, inexact though it might be, that one length in a race equals 1/5 of a second, Mine That Bird ran the last quarter of a mile in the Derby in 23.3 seconds. Secretariat ran it in :23.1. No other Derby winner in the past 50 years has shaded :24.
At the quarter pole, Mine the Bird and Borel were still in 12th place, eight lengths behind pace-setting Join in the Dance. No Derby winner has overcome such a deficit since Carry Back made up 13 lengths in the last quarter in 1961.
No rider in history had taken off of a Kentucky Derby winner to accept the mount on a rival in the Preakness until Borel opted for the filly when she became a prospect for the Run for the Black-Eyed Susans. Borel, who also won the Derby and other important races aboard Street Sense two years ago, has made it clear that he feels Rachel Alexandra is the best horse he has ridden.
Some with expertise in matters of the turf -- television commentator Randy Moss and Daily Racing Form columnist Mike Watchmaker among them -- have voiced the opinion that it is a mistake to run Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness. They point to the fact that she will only have 15 days between races and that her only two career defeats have come in races separated by the exact same interval.
The opposite view is that what will take place Saturday is what the sport of horse racing is all about -- the best running against the best.
Rachel Alexandra is a robust filly, of considerably more physical substance than Mine That Bird. While she will have only 15 days between the Oaks and the Preakness, that's one more day than those having competed in the Derby will have.
There is a strong suspicion that Rachel Alexandra's new owners have lofty goals already in place for their filly. In addition to specific races, the title of Horse of the Year is a probable target. Such a laurel should not be secured by backing in, as it is expressed in the lingo of sport. It should be earned, in the old fashioned way.
Twenty years ago the reality matched the anticipation as Sunday Silence and Easy Goer battled head and head for three-eighths of a mile, the camera resolving what the naked eye could not -- Sunday Silence by a nose.
Irrespective of the winner or the margin of victory, may Saturday's result justify these great expectations.
WHAT: 134th running of the Triple Crown's second jewel
WHEN: Saturday, coverage begins at 4:30 p.m. on NBC-Ch. 26
WHERE: Pimlico Race Course, Baltimore