Thoroughbred horse racing has been praying since 1978 for another Triple Crown winner, and it may get its wish Saturday when the final jewel of the 2009 crown-the Belmont Stakes-is contested in New York. Unfortunately for the breeding industry, it won’t be a horse that achieves the near-impossible feat.
Mine That Bird won the Kentucky Derby and the filly Rachel Alexandra beat the boys in the Preakness Stakes two weeks later. That means jockey Calvin Borel is the only possible winner this year, since he rode both horses. But Borel could set a record of his own: no jockey has ever won all three races on different runners.
Borel’s last-to-first rush up the inside on 50-1 shot Mine That Bird in the Derby has been shown thousands of times on sports highlight reels, and it educated casual observers as to why horse racing fans intentionally mispronounce his name “Bo-rail.”
Any rider would have been happy to be in his boots after the Derby, but Borel had a problem: he was committed to ride Rachel Alexandra the remainder of the year. When her connections entered her in the Preakness, Borel was as good as his word. He got off Mind That Bird and got on Rachel, although no filly had won the Preakness since 1924.
It didn’t matter. During the race, Borel displayed his versatility as a rider by employing the exact opposite tactics he used in the Derby. This time sent his mount to the front and played catch-us-if-you-can. Nobody could, giving the 42-year-old Cajun rider the first two legs of the triple.
Top three-year-old thoroughbreds have a grueling spring. They usually run a couple of times early in the year to get ready for the 1 ¼ mile Derby. Then they have to shorten up for the 1 3/16 mile Preakness two weeks later. Because of that grind, there is a three-week break before the 1 ½ mile Belmont Stakes, and this is when the action shifts from runners to human beings.
Between races, horses have a routine. They walk the shed row or jog on the track each morning, sometimes galloping in the wrong direction, and they put in a timed workout every four or five days. They get a warm, soapy bath after each trip to the track, and they are allowed to graze around the barn while on a lead. Otherwise, they eat, sleep and just hang out.
People have the worst of it during the downtimes for they have to conduct business, read tea leaves, weigh the odds.
For example, West Coast jockey Mike Smith replaced Borel on Mine That Bird in the Preakness and rode a good race to get up for second money. Despite the showing, Smith told trainer Chip Woolley afterwards that he would not be available for the Belmont Stakes. He was committed to ride Madeo in the Whittingham Stakes at Hollywook Park on Belmont day.
It’s easy to see why Smith would want to go back home. Madeo is campaigned by Jerry and Anne Moss, owners of a large string of top-notch runners on the West Coast. For Smith, the Belmont would have been a one-shot deal, while Moss, the “M” of A&M Records, can put him on stakes-caliber runners for years to come. Smith knows where the long-haul money is, and he went there.
That presented Woolley with a problem. With Borel committed to Rachel Alexandra, should he engage a third jockey for the Belmont, or wait and see what may happen? After all, strange things occur in horse racing every day.
Following the Preakness, Rachel’s connections took her back to Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. Owner Jess Jackson told everyone that she had exited the race in great condition, and trainer Steve Asmussen said his only job was to keep her happy. The filly was rested for a few days, put into light training, then worked out. Her time was a bit slow, but her connections blamed a sloppy track and insisted that she was a go for the Belmont.
However, Chip Wooley was suspicious. Other horses worked over the same Churchill Downs track that day and turned in better times. A horse in top shape should be able to handle any track, he reasoned, so he put off naming a jockey to ride Mine That Bird in the Belmont.
Finally, almost two weeks after the Preakness and only a week or so before the Belmont, Jackson and Asmussen announced that Rachel Alexandra was going to take a long vacation.
The waiting game had paid off for Woolley: Calvin Borel was free to get back on Mine That Bird.
How did Borel feel about it? “He’ll win,” Borel said. “I see a Derby race, same style. He sits back there. Belmont has a long stretch and I can sit and wait. I watch this horse every day, he goes two miles, two and a half miles.”
Well, Borel says it’s over, but just in case, here’s your 141st Belmont Stakes in post position order:
CHOCOLATE CANDY (Morning Line Odds 10-1) California star ran fifth in the Derby after being squeezed at the start. He was ridden by Mike Smith, who goes back to the West Coast. Candy skipped the Preakness, so he should be a fresh horse, and he picks up the services of Garrett Gomez, the nation’s leading jockeys by money won.
DUNKIRK (4-1) A $3.7 million yearling who never raced as a two-year-old, colt won a couple of races earlier this year and became the “wise guy” horse for the Derby. So much for wise guys. He stumbled out of the gate and finished 20 lengths behind the winner. He gets trainer Todd Pletcher’s top jock John Velazquez, but 4-1 ML odds looks like wishful thinking.
MR. HOT STUFF (15-1) By leading 2009 sire Tiznow, this colt is full brother to Grade I winner Colonel John. He ran 15th in the Derby, beaten some 25 lengths by Mine That Bird. He skipped the Preakness and should be fresh. Edgar Prado, who rode Dunkirk in the Derby and Take the Points in the Preakness, gets the mount.
SUMMER BIRD (12-1) Interesting horse. Trained by the inexperienced Tim Ice and ridden by the equally inexperienced Chris Rosier, this colt finished sixth in the Derby at odds of more than 43-1. His running line reads: “Good 7-wide run.” He skipped the Preakness. Fresh, he picks up the riding services of veteran Kent Desormeaux and puts on blinkers for more focus. Looks dangerous at 12-1.
LUV GOV (20-1) Rumor has it this colt was named for former New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer, but he has won only one race, a maiden. (I’m sorry, really I am!) Trained by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lucas, he finished 8th in the Preakness, beaten nine lengths by Rachel Alexandra. He’ll have to move forward to make any money.
CHARITABLE MAN (3-1) Colt is 2-2 over the Belmont track and comes in fresh. He had physical problems early in the year and skipped the Derby and the Preakness, but he won the Grade II Peter Pan Stakes over this surface a month ago. His daddy, Lemon Drop Kid, won this race in 1999, and his trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin, won it three years ago with Jazil.
MINE THAT BIRD (2-1) No horse has ever gone off at 50-1 in the Derby then been favored at 2-1 in the Belmont just five weeks later, but here he is. He won the Derby, finished a fast closing second in the Preakness and gets Calvin Borel back in the irons. Jockey is going for his own Triple Crown. Bet against him at your own risk.
FLYING PRIVATE (12-1) Finished last in the 19-horse Derby field at odds of 47-1. His running line reads: “5 wide, stopped.” Given up for dead, the D. Wayne Lucas trainee recovered to run 4th in the Preakness, beaten only four lengths. Gets a rider change to the ever-patient Frenchman, Julien Leparoux, which is a positive move in a long race.
MINER’S ESCAPE (15-1) Colt won the Frederico Tessio Stakes on the Preakness undercard on May 9. He ships north under the care of trainer Nick Zito, who has won this race twice, with Birdstone in 2004 and Da’Tara last year. (Birdstone is the sire of Mine That Bird and Summer Bird.)
BRAVE VICTORY (15-1) The second half of the Zito entry, this colt ran third to Charitable Man in the Peter Pan Stakes over this track on May 20, and he turned in a nice work for the Belmont earlier this week. Outside post should not be a factor in such a long race.
Those of you who live in Georgia are allowed to carry a loaded, concealed weapon into a church, a school, a place of business where alcohol is being served and people are belligerent, and state parks; however, you are not allowed to place a $2 bet on a horse race.
God knows what calamity would rain down on us God-fearers if someone within our borders should wager, but if you sinners insist on knowing, here’s what I would do if I were in some enlightened state, like, say, Alabama, this Saturday:
I’d bet $20 to win on #7 Mine That Bird. (Forget handicapping the race. The Borel story is just too good to pass up.)
Then, I would bet a $5 exacta box on #6 Charitable Man and #7 Mine That Bird.
And I would bet a $2 trifecta box on #4 Summer Bird, #6 Charitable Man and #7 Mine That Bird.
That comes to $42.
I can’t wish you good luck or anything. Sonny Boy might find out.