(For those of you not into horse racing, two things – this will be the last article for a couple of months on the topic, and what the heck is wrong with you?)
First, let me congratulate Summer Bird. That was one heck of a race for a horse that was quietly coming into his own. This is one crazy Triple Crown season – the Derby winner was 51-1, and the Belmont winner was 44/1 in the Derby. Not a great time to be a handicapper, but a great year to be a fan. I’m pretty thrilled with both of the Birds – when I went to the Derby for the first time in 1996, Grindstone was the winner, his son Birdstone won the Belmont in 2004, and now two grandsons are champions. That’s the kind of thing that makes a sentimentalist like me happy.
Now for the race this year. Frustrating. Extremely frustrating. I’m not positive that Mine That Bird was going to win anyway, but he didn’t stand a chance to win with the ride he was given. In the Derby he was only starting to unleash his move as they entered the stretch. The Belmont stretch is considerably longer than the one at Churchill, yet Mine That Bird have moved from the back all the way to the lead before they rounded the final turn. It was way, way too early, and even a horse with as much heart and determination as Mine That Bird didn’t stand a chance of holding on. It’s too easy to say that it’s all the jockey’s fault, but it’s hard not to question Borel here for several reasons:
1. Mine That Bird had run so well in the first two races by running the same basic race – staying back for 3/4 of the race or more before launching a single, sustained run to get to the lead. This is a horse that clearly only has one move in him, but it’s one heck of a move. Borel obviously knew that, but he totally ignored it here. He was able to get to the back smoothly and easily early on, but then he was on the move entering the final turn. It was way, way too early, and it caused the horse to do two things he doesn’t like to do – make a long, sustained move with stops and starts, and stare horses down in a prolonged duel. A jockey’s job is to use the assets he has to their best. Borel did that to perfection in the Derby, but he was terrible today. You can’t even argue that the strategy that worked before couldn’t work here – Summer Bird ran exactly he race that Mine That Bird should have run, and it obviously worked like a charm.
2. Borel has run just seven times in his life at Belmont, winning once, and going winless in six stakes races. He hasn’t been there in a long time. This is a unique track with a unique layout, and it can be very deceiving if you don’t know it and its quirks. Borel was in New York all week, and he showed up everywhere a budding star would want to go – Letterman, ringing the stock exchange bell, and everything else. He lived large. The only thing he didn’t do all week was ride a race at Belmont. Not a single one. Maybe this is simplifying things, but you’d think if you were faced with the biggest race of your life and a chance to make a piece of history that would never again be duplicated you’d want to give yourself every advantage. If I was Borel I would have had my agent get me onto every single closer that I could find all week. He wouldn’t have had any trouble at all picking up mounts, and it would have meant that he would have been more familiar with the track and how to handle it. Maybe then he wouldn’t have made his move so early. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Kent Desormeaux won the Belmont today after winning three other ties earlier on the card, or that two of those wins came from well off the pace like Summer Bird. Desormeaux didn’t get as much media time this week, but he was ready to run the race. Borel made the bold move of guaranteeing a win in the race. That’s not something jockey’s do, and it didn’t go over particularly well. You would think that you wouldn’t do that unless you knew you could back it up, and unless you were willing to do everything to make sure it happened. It seems like Borel spent too much time reading his own press clippings recently.
3. After the race Borel said that he went wide because the rail was dead. This raises several questions. First, how would he know? It’s not like he had run a horse on the rail. He’s the master of the rail run, and he had a natural rail runner under him, so it seems odd that he would take someone else’s word about the rail instead of trying it out himself. Borel never appeared to seriously consider the rail for his move, and instead hung his horse way wide through the whole turn. That caused Mine That Bird to cover much more ground that his competitors and to burn more gas – hardly the kind of thing you need in a race this long. Second, if the rail was so dead, why did Summer Bird stick on it for so long before making his move? And why did Dunkirk stick on the rail for so much of the race? Both Desormeaux on Summer Bird and John Velazquez on Dunkirk had been riding and winning on the track on Saturday, so they knew what Borel seemed not to.
4. Did Borel not study his history? Making a move to early is the kiss of death in the Belmont. It’s what got Big Brown last year, and what took down so many other before him – Real Quiet, War Emblem, Smarty Jones, and so on. Borel should have known this, yet he fell into the same trap as all those before him. It was frustrating every other time it happened, and it was especially frustrating here.
I don’t want to suggest that Borel is a bum, or that I don’t respect who he is and what he brings to the game. It’s just that I expect so much more from professionals at the top of their game. Borel had a chance to step into history in incredible fashion yesterday, but he seemed determined not to seize the opportunity. Extremely frustrating. I hope that the one thing people take from this is that the little gelding wasn’t at fault here. He is one special, determined horse, and I expect big things from him going forward. This one is on Borel. It might seem like I am piling on Borel, but I don’t think that it’s unreasonable to expect perfection from an elite athlete – especially one who has spent all week telling you all about his perfection.