Belmont tests champions, humility

ELMONT, N.Y. -- We've seen this before. The 12-furlong main course at Belmont Park, the longest, widest dirt racetrack in the world, is unlike any other. Experience counts. Those who discount its importance at Belmont Park are doomed to lose.

"I'm going to ride him with so much confidence. That's why I win races, because I ride horses with confidence" Calvin Borel said in the days leading up to Saturday's 141st Belmont Stakes.

Confidence is an admirable quality. Overconfidence is the mother of failure.

Borel guaranteed that Mine That Bird would win the Belmont and the bettors responded by sending the gelding, 50-1 when he won the Derby five weeks ago, to the gate at 6-5 in the final leg of the Triple Crown beneath a jockey attempting to become the first to sweep the series on two different horses.

Borel indeed rode Mine That Bird, with absolute confidence and the gelding responded with a gallant effort. What Borel needed was a map.

A premature move at Belmont Park is almost always fatal.

Kent Desormeaux, who rode Summer Bird to an upset victory in Belmont 141, learned that lesson in 1998, when a move similar to the one asked of Mine That Bird left Real Quiet a stride short of the Triple Crown and admitted Victory Gallop to the winner's circle. Stewart Elliott, who called upon Smarty Jones far too early in the 2004 Belmont, left the Triple Crown at the half-mile pole when he found himself with too little to hold off Birdstone, sire of this Belmont winner as well as the beaten favorite.

Borel is intimately familiar with Churchill Downs, where his daring, rail-skimming ride in the Derby took the gelding from last to the winner's circle and captured the nation's heart. Pimlico, where Borel rode the brilliant filly Rachel Alexandra to a victory in the Preakness at the expense of Mine That Bird, who was a fast-closing runner-up in Baltimore, is the standard issue one-mile racetrack, narrower than Churchill, but essentially the same configuration.

Belmont Park, like New York, is different. It rewards the prepared and punishes arrogance.

Borel spent the entire week in New York without riding a race at Belmont before the 11th on Saturday's card, a mistake for which he and Mine That Bird paid dearly. The rider appeared on Late Night with David Letterman, visited the New York Stock Exchange and the Empire State Building, did some sightseeing, perhaps a bit of shopping. But his agent sought no mounts at Belmont, where Borel has ridden few horses in the past and had never won a race.

Confidence alone does not get the job done at Belmont Park. Being on the best horse, even with a clear trip which Borel enjoyed is not enough to compensate of misjudgment born of unfamiliarity with this unique course.

"I didn't think [Mine That Bird] could lose," said Desormeaux, who has since costing Real Quiet a place in history become a fixture in the New York jockey colony. "But things happened the way they did. It's a very different lay of the land here at Belmont. They don't call it Big Sandy for nothing."

Last early, as expected, Mine That Bird began picking up horses on the backstretch with six furlongs yet to be run, moving into a strong pace set unexpectedly by Dunkirk, and was flying on the turn. Borel asked the Derby winner to sustain a move that would have left Pegasus gasping. Even the immortal Secretariat was reserved by Ron Turcotte beyond the point at which Mine That Bird had begun his move. Secretariat opened 31 lengths and established a Belmont course record that has been threatened since 1973.

One-run horses who strike the lead at the quarter pole with a middle move at Belmont are almost inevitably en route to defeat and Mine That Bird had no answer to a decisive rally by Summer Bird, who was ninth of 10 with a half-mile to run and Mine That Bird already sent prematurely in pursuit of the leaders. The Derby winner had so little left in the last sixteenth of a mile that he failed to hold off the pacemaker, who finished resolutely to pass Mind That Bird in the final yards and finish second.

Afterward, Borel, it seems, failed to grasp the blunder he had just committed or at least acknowledge his contribution to compromising a horse whose effort was far better than his rider's.

"He got outrun no excuses," Borel said. "I don't think he got tired. He had a lot of racetrack in front of him. I thought I had it won when I got to the quarter pole. Turning for home, I thought I was home free."

A lot of racetrack in front of him. That was the problem. Not tired?

In what world does Borel live?

"No regrets," Borel said. "I thought I was on the best horse going in."

He was.

"He was tired, he was used but he looked alright," trainer Chip Woolley said after examining Mine That Bird upon his return to be unsaddled. "I thought he might have moved a hair early, but I haven't watched the replay."

Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He has also been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul maintains paulmoranattheraces.blogspot.com and can be contacted at paulmoran47@hotmail.com.