The Belmont Stakes does not forgive. It punishes tired horses at the end of a singular five-week test. It punishes jockeys who make even the slightest miscalculation in pace during the only major 1½-mile race in the U.S. It cares not in the least for story lines or happy endings. The only Triple Crown at stake last Saturday at Belmont Park was a historical oddity: Calvin Borel's attempt to become the first jockey to win all three races while riding different horses. Borel, 42, had won the Kentucky Derby on 50--1 shot Mine That Bird and the Preakness on filly Rachel Alexandra (box, right), a 3--2 favorite. He had delivered two of the best big-race rides in recent history, and his unpolished persona connected with the public. Leno and Letterman had him on their shows.
Back on Mine That Bird, the 6--5 favorite for the Belmont (Rachel Alexandra was not entered), Borel finished third, three lengths behind winner Summer Bird and jockey Kent Desormeaux. Borel's strategic decisions will be scrutinized long after he stops riding, much like Desormeaux's 11 years ago when he was beaten by a nose on Real Quiet, who was trying to win the Triple Crown. "In New York they ask tough questions," said Desormeaux on Saturday. "And they want all the answers."
In this case there is only one issue: Did Borel ask the fast-finishing Mine That Bird to run too fast too early, causing him to tire in the stretch, or did he simply have a stubborn horse who was too difficult to control?
Mine That Bird's trainer, Chip Woolley, has said that his gelding is good for a finishing run of three eighths of a mile and will tire if asked to kick from farther out. Borel allowed the colt to run free more than a half mile from the finish, and Summer Bird caught him inside the 16th pole.
But it's too simple to blame Borel. Where Mine That Bird galloped restfully on a loose rein early in the Kentucky Derby, he fought Borel right from the gate in the Belmont. "He was a little bit more aggressive," said Borel. "He wouldn't drop the bit."
At the top of the homestretch Mine That Bird was in front but already tiring. "I had to stop fighting him and let him run," said Borel. Much like previous Triple Crown near misses Funny Cide (2003) and Smarty Jones ('04), Mine That Bird was beaten in the Belmont by a horse that had skipped the Preakness.
At home in California, trainer Bob Baffert watched knowingly, having three times lost the Belmont with the Triple Crown on the line. "It wasn't the jockey," said Baffert. "The horse just got tired. After a while you start to understand what the Triple Crown takes out of these horses when they run all three races. That's why it takes a really special horse to win all three."
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