Belmont Park Spoils Yet Another Try At Triple Crown

Calvin Borel, riding Mine That Bird, was unable to become the first jockey to win all three races of the Triple Crown series on two different horses.
Calvin Borel, riding Mine That Bird, was unable to become the first jockey to win all three races of the Triple Crown series on two different horses. (By Kathy Willens -- Associated Press)
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By Sally Jenkins
Sunday, June 7, 2009

ELMONT, N.Y. Belmont Park is a huge, vacant lot of a racecourse and it just doesn't pay to make predictions about what will happen over its empty mile-and-a-half length, when you can't even see who's leading on the far side of the track. Big dreams get buried in the sand and the distance, and so do favorites. Calvin Borel was so jabberingly cocksure that Mine That Bird was the best horse in the field that he guaranteed a victory, only to get the dirt kicked on it in the last sixteenth of a mile by a veteran who knew better, Kent Desormeaux.

You couldn't very well expect Mine That Bird's people to know what Belmont does to favorites, how it dulls hope and instead nurtures fresh mystery horses ridden by loss-hardened jockeys, or how it kills a good story line, because they had never been in such a position before. They'd come out of nowhere. Borel, that habitual rail hugger and ebullient chatterbox, had no way of judging when to move in the deep loam of a Belmont Stakes because he'd never been in one. "It's a very, very different track," said Desormeaux, whose Summer Bird nabbed the 2 3/4 -length victory ahead of Dunkirk and Mine That Bird. "They don't call it 'The Big Sandy' for nothing."

It was hard to imagine another animal with the skipping heart or late speed of Mine That Bird, the little gelding who was a 50-to-1 shot winner of the Kentucky Derby and the second-place finisher in the Preakness. And it was hard to imagine a jockey with more odds-defying audacity than Borel, the Louisiana grade-school dropout, who entered on such a hot streak. "If you don't come with confidence to a race like this you might as well not come," Borel said afterwards. Borel was so nervy he defected from Mine That Bird for Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness, and then came back to his mount when the big filly declined to enter the Belmont. He could hardly conceive of losing; in the month of May he'd won 33 of 125 races and finished in the money 70 times. No jockey had ever won a Triple Crown on different horses, but Borel didn't see why it couldn't be done.

"I can't blame him for it, he was starting to feel like Superman, invincible," Desormeaux guessed.

After a workout last week Borel swore that Mine That Bird loved the Belmont track, describing him as almost bouncing off the dirt. He was so convinced that he announced, "We're going to win it, no questions asked." It was an imprudent thing to say, given Belmont's long history of frustrating Triple Crown seekers, and especially foolish given the fact Borel had only ridden a handful of times at Belmont Park, ever. But could you really blame him?

Instead of studying the track, Borel enjoyed his newfound celebrity in Manhattan, which he had earned with a lifetime of hardscrabble work on the backstretches of Louisiana. He rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, and appeared on "Late Show With David Letterman" and "Good Morning America." Asked if he regretted guaranteeing a victory, he shook his head. The colt was well-trained, ready and had the breeding. If Mine That Bird didn't win, it would only be the jockey's fault, he suggested. "I have no excuses."

But perhaps neither Borel nor trainer Bennie "Chip" Woolley -- that New Mexico roadie with an amiable twang and a busted leg who won the Kentucky Derby on his first try -- realized how the five-week Triple Crown campaign can wear on a horse's stamina and disposition. Or just how grueling the run around that distended oval would be. Earlier in the week when Woolley had seen Belmont for the first time, he stared, daunted, at the yawning expanse. "It's a very large place," he said. "It's a little different when you walk up there, look at the oval and you can't see the whole thing. It's big." After watching his horse lope part way around the track, Woolley thought, "My God, he ain't gonna make it all the way around there."

Desormeaux knew all the things Borel and Woolley couldn't know. He knew them because he had learned by losing. In 1998 he failed in a Triple Crown bid on Real Quiet, barely beaten by Victory Gallop when he moved too early. A year ago he was the bitterly disappointed jockey again, when he had to ease up a mysteriously tired Big Brown and finished last -- after his trainer Rick Dutrow guaranteed a victory. That one "was like swallowing a spoon sideways," Desormeaux said. Told earlier this week that Borel had made a similar guarantee about Mine That Bird, Desormeaux had remarked, "He should keep those things to himself. Ask Big Brown."

But this time Desormeaux was, for once, the beneficiary of Belmont, instead of its scapegoat. He knew all week he had a promisingly lively mount in Summer Bird. And he knew his experience might tell. "We found us a rider that knows Belmont," trainer Tim Ice said. Summer Bird went to the starting gate an 11-to-1 shot, but he was "toeing and dancing," and he "broke like a rocket, and absolutely drug me around the racetrack," Desormeaux said.

Meanwhile Borel fought to hold back Mine That Bird, who all day had been worrisomely rambunctious, "a hair more amped up," according to Woolley. Borel decided to let Mine That Bird make his move -- "maybe . . . a little tad early, but he took me there." They had the lead at the five-sixteenth pole. And then they didn't, passed first by Summer Bird and then Dunkirk.

Afterwards, the team behind Mine That Bird exhibited all the qualities that had made them so refreshing and so worth following throughout the Triple Crown season. They were unassuming, gracious sportsmen, and appreciative of the experience of a lifetime. Their horse missed winning the Triple Crown by a grand total of just 3 3/4 lengths. Woolley refused to second-guess his jockey -- "That's a judgment call out there and I'll pat him on the back when I see him." As for Borel, he had "No regrets at all," he said. "We just got outrun. Don't take nothing away from the horse."

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