If the Kentucky Derby is a rodeo, then the Preakness has to be a bullfight. Saturday's middle jewel of the Triple Crown figures to be more of a jockeys' race than what we saw two weeks ago in Louisville, when 19 riders tried desperately to find a few-second seam and survive the chaos. Preakness history flourishes with aggressive race riding, especially when there's a horse with a target on his or her back. If history serves, expect Rachel Alexandra and jockey Calvin Borel to take the lion's share of the heat.
Pimlico's track is just 70 feet wide -- 10 feet more narrow than at Churchill Downs -- so even with a reduced field size from the Derby to Preakness, there's some sense of confinement with a field of 12 or more runners. But with a long run into the first turn just like the Derby, the smaller field size allows for jockeys to pick their targets, which at this time of year are more clearly defined. Going into the Derby, seldom is there a "must-beat" horse at which you can take aim, much less the space and ability to do anything about it. But by the third Saturday in May, that role becomes crystal-clear. On Saturday, it's Rachel Alexandra wearing the target.
If there's a recipe for beating the super filly, it could be to keep her bottled up. In her most recent loss -- last fall in the Pocahontas Stakes at Churchill Downs -- she did not make the lead, and then was hemmed in and had her path blocked in the upper stretch. Never allowed to find her best stride, she could not accelerate through the lane and catch a smoother-sailing Sarah Louise. A lot of improvement has passed under the bridge since then, but if you're digging for a chink in her impenetrable armor -- and the other riders will be -- this is about all you can come up with.
If you think Saturday's jockey corps will be worried about their own horses, you have not watched enough Preakness editions from Old Hilltop. But just because they try to beat the big horse does not mean they always have been able to pull it off. Here's a quick history lesson:
1977: Danny Wright absolutely rode the hair off Cormorant going into the first turn and down the backstretch, pushing Seattle Slew through a ludicrous :45 3/5 opening half-mile and 1:09 4/5 for six furlongs. It didn't work, as the undefeated Slew went on with it and eventually the Triple Crown, but he had to really fight for it at Pimlico.
1980: In one of the most controversial races in Triple Crown history, the filly Genuine Risk was carried far out onto the track at the quarter pole by Angel Cordero Jr. and his mount, Codex. Looming with what looked like a winning move, Genuine Risk had her momentum momentarily stymied as Cordero clearly steered Codex out. The filly did not match strides from there on out, as Codex easily pulled clear in the final furlong. Accusations of intimidation ran rampant for a long time after, while some still loathe the retired Cordero for that singular ride.
1988: Trainer Woody Stephens, fuming after Winning Colors stole the Derby on the front end, vowed that his colt Forty Niner would make sure the filly didn't win at Pimlico. Jockey Pat Day on Forty Niner pumped his arms at least 15 times in the first few hundred yards to hustle to the front, and then carried Winning Colors out four paths going into the clubhouse turn to further turn up the heat. Late-running Risen Star said "Thank you very much" and was draped in the black-eyed Susans. Soon after that Day, who was riding to instructions, apologized to Winning Colors' rider, Gary Stevens, in the jockeys' room.
1989: Pat Day was once again at the center of a strong-arm move as he gunned Easy Goer around Sunday Silence down the backstretch of the Preakness, zipping the second quarter in 22 and change in doing so, while sawing off the Derby winner aggressively going into the far turn. Pat Valenzuela on Sunday Silence checked off heels, regrouped and came on the outside to reengage at the top of the stretch as the two superstar horses fought in an epic Preakness to the wire. This was a classic race of a jockey riding against one horse.
2004: Mike Smith knew Lion Heart had one horse to beat after the Kentucky Derby, and that was Smarty Jones. The two clearly kicked away from all others in Louisville, and the stage was set for a rematch in which Lion Heart figured to have his best chance at redemption. From the opening bell, this was tactical riding. Smith moved the rail-drawn Lion Heart out three or four paths on the track coming under the wire the first time as Smarty Jones came up to his outside. Smith stayed wide on the track trying to bait Stewart Elliott and Smarty Jones up the fence the entire race, so Smith could close the door on him at the top of the lane. But Lion Heart had nothing left at the quarter pole, drifted a bit wide, and immediately became smaller in Smarty Jones' rearview mirror with every stride.
2005: After dispatching fellow front-runner High Limit with just over a quarter-mile to run, jockey Ramon Dominguez looked back to see where the late-running favorite Afleet Alex might be coming. Aboard long shot Scrappy T, Dominguez caught the high-flying Alex immediately in his danger zone and went to one of the biggest roundhouse left-handed whips ever seen in a big race, trying to force Scrappy T out on the track and make Afleet Alex go wider around him. But Scrappy T reacted wildly to the roundhouse, bolted in his next jump and nearly dumped both Afleet Alex and jockey Jeremy Rose. Dominguez, obviously shaken by the incident, looked back for several jumps to see if his aggressiveness had caused a catastrophe and then got back to riding. Afleet Alex managed to overcome the incident in one of the greatest on-track feats by horse and rider we've ever seen.
2008: In what would be considered a minor example of aggressiveness by historical measures -- but included to remind you that the practice remains alive and well in the Preakness -- Edgar Prado did everything in his power early in last year's Preakness to keep Big Brown out of his comfort zone. Riding long shot Riley Tucker, Prado pinned Big Brown down on the fence heading into the backstretch behind front-running Gayego. Big Brown relaxed back and then came out a few paths through the backstretch run and passed the test of patience with flying colors. But the facile win did not come without a Hall of Fame rider who knew you had to turn up the heat to beat the Derby champ.
So who might be the aggressor Saturday against Rachel Alexandra?
Given her excellent tactical speed, most likely only riders with horses capable of attending the early pace need apply. If she does not gun toward the lead for whatever reason (choice, trip), don't be surprised to see Musket Man glued to her as part of a pressing group. His jockey Eibar Coa is one of the toughest and most aggressive in the game.
But the most obvious choice to apply heat to Rachel Alexandra would be John Velazquez aboard Big Drama, the race's likely speed. Add to that the fact that Velazquez's agent and riding mentor is none other than Angel Cordero Jr., and you have a recipe for high drama.
Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000. You can E-mail Jeremy about this topic or anything racing-related at Jeremy@Horseplayerpro.com.