BALTIMORE — This must be one special filly.
Rachel Alexandra is adding a dose of girl power to Saturday's Preakness Stakes, taking on a field of 12 colts for the first time in her 3-year-old life.
The tall, rangy filly has inspired uncommon faith from her owners, unusual loyalty from her jockey and early backing from the race's oddsmaker, all while carrying the hopes of a fading industry desperately seeking a star.
Her mere entry in the Preakness is a surprise. Fillies don't usually take on colts at the top level of racing because the boys are bigger, faster and stronger, and Rachel Alexandra's new owners — who purchased her just last week — had to pay $100,000 above the entry fee because she wasn't nominated to any of the Triple Crown races. Her previous owners had expected her to compete strictly against her own gender.
But she's clobbered the other girls. And she's larger than the Kentucky Derby winner.
Rachel Alexandra has won five consecutive races by a combined 431/2 lengths, virtually lapping the field and drawing comparisons to legendary fillies Ruffian and Winning Colors.
Now she's trying to achieve a feat unmatched since 1924, when Nellie Morse was the last of four fillies to win the 134-year-old Preakness.
Only 10 have tried since then, the last being Excellent Meeting in 1990. She was pulled up by the jockey as a precaution and didn't finish the race.
In 1980, Kentucky Derby winner Genuine Risk finished second in the Preakness, and in 1988, Winning Colors followed up her
Derby win with a third place in the Preakness. Winning Colors was the last filly to run as the race favorite, at 2-1 odds.
As early as Friday, Pimlico oddsmaker Frank Carulli vowed to make Rachel Alexandra the morning line favorite if she ran.
D. Wayne Lukas, the Hall of Fame trainer who saddled Winning Colors, believes Rachel Alexandra is a perfect candidate to take on the boys.
That's because she has already dominated her fellow females, she has a front-running style so they'll have to catch her if they can, and her pedigree suggests she can handle the 1 3-16-mile distance.
"She is definitely the one to beat," Lukas said.
Also helping Rachel Alexandra is the easy campaign she's enjoyed leading up to the Preakness. She's run four times this year and is coming off a smashing 20 1/4-length victory in the Derby eve Kentucky Oaks.
At the same time, her male counterparts were beating themselves up trying to earn enough money to qualify for the 20-horse Kentucky Derby. Those that succeeded had a rough trip in the mud on the first Saturday in May, with only 50-1 winner Mine
That Bird flying through the muck.
"She hasn't even been asked yet to run (hard) in any of her races," Lukas said. "She's got a big advantage, plus she's very, very talented."
Lukas, who has won the Preakness five times, will saddle Flying Private and Luv Gov on Saturday.
"I would like to think we can beat her," he said. "Reality says no."
Rachel Alexandra's presence apparently struck enough fear in rival owners that they threatened to flood the field with marginal colts to keep her out — the field has a 14-horse limit.
Cooler heads and a sense of fair play eventually prevailed.
"The controversy really helped," said David Fawkes, who trains Big Drama. "You can say it was poor sportsmanship, but press is good, even if it's bad press."
Having Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness could provide a much-needed boost to a struggling sport that attracts the public's attention for five weeks every spring. The last filly to make big news was Eight Belles, who finished second in last year's Derby then broke down after the finish line and had to be euthanized on the track.
The 2009 Kentucky Derby's television ratings were the highest in 17 years, and people are still buzzing about Mine That Bird's stunning last-to-first dash.
Lukas believes Rachel Alexandra could have the same effect on the Preakness.
"It'll help us a lot," he said. "Half the population in America is already under her umbrella, that's the women. They're all pulling for her."
After her Kentucky Oaks victory on May 1, Rachel Alexandra was purchased by Harold McCormick and Jess Jackson, who owns Stonestreet Stable and founded Kendall-Jackson winery. She was transferred to the barn of trainer Steve Asmussen, who trained two-time horse of the year Curlin.
Mine That Bird's trainer says bring her on.
"Obviously, Mr. Asmussen is a great trainer and if he feels that the filly is up to it and ready to be taken to task, I'm fine with that," Bennie Woolley Jr. said.
Derek Ryan, who trains Musket Man, the Derby's third-place finisher, is undeterred by her presence.
"The more the merrier," he said. "I'm not worried about anybody else in the field."
Neither is jockey Calvin Borel, whose heart belongs to Rachel Alexandra.
He elected to stay on as the filly's regular rider for the Preakness, dumping his mount on Derby winner Mine That Bird — a virtually unheard of move.
Borel said simply: "She's a once-in-a-lifetime horse."