OH, CALVIN! I FEAR YE HAVE ANGERED THE RACING GODS: Why Saturday’s Belmont Stakes is More Than a Two-Horse Race
When Calvin Borel exclaimed in emphatic tones earlier this week that he would win the 141st Belmont Stakes on Mine That Bird, I had to cringe. Borel is the jockey who won the first two legs of the Triple Crown on two different horses––an unprecedented feat––taking The Kentucky Derby on long shot Mine That Bird, then switching to one of his regular mounts, the super filly Rachel Alexandra, and winning The Preakness.
But greater men than this charming Cajun jockey have been brought low by hubris. As we mere mortals have been cautioned since antiquity: Keep your humility about you, or there will be hell to pay. Do not anger the gods, for they will spit on your pride and, without passion, crush you underfoot, and grind your bones into fertilizer. See: Xerxes (from Herodotus or Frank Miller’s 300, take your pick), Julius Caesar (the Shakespearean or HBO-ean version, your choice), and the 1990 Oakland A’s (sorry to remind you of the Bash Brothers).
The 42-year-old Borel has been riding thoroughbreds for a long time; he must realize how quirky his journey has been through this year’s Triple Crown season––Mine That Bird to Rachel Alexandra back to Mine That Bird. Seldom has a jockey been presented with three such stellar opportunities to win these races. So, it’s quite surprising that he would so boldly make a prediction on a horse race. It’s one thing to be confident in your mount, but a flat-out guarantee? Leave that sort of baseless certainty to the guys in team sports. (Like Mark Messier, who famously vowed a New York Rangers victory in Game 6 of the 1994 semifinals against the Devils, and buried a hat-trick to seal the deal and tie the series, which the Rangers went on to win).
In the days leading up to the 2006 Kentucky Derby, one of the favorites was Lawyer Ron, a star that year on the mid-western circuit. Ron’s jockey, John McKee, similarly shot his mouth off, saying how confident he was that his horse would win. When I read that quote, I knew that Lawyer Ron––as strong as he looked on paper––didn’t have a shot in hell. His jockey saw to that with his over-confidence: Lawyer Ron finished in 12th place, double-digit lengths behind the winner, Barbaro.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Calvin Borel. If you were lucky enough to catch his truly remarkable, on-track, post-Kentucky Derby interview after his astounding win on Mine That Bird, you couldn’t help but be moved. Here was a guy sprinkling his answers to NBCs Donna Barton Brothers with yes ma’ams and erstwhile expressions like Katy bar the door; lovingly thwacking his colt on the neck; periodically bellowing yeeehaws to the crowd, while simultaneously high-fiving every outrider, security guard, and track personnel he encountered on the long, post-race trot to the winner’s circle. If this scene didn’t give you chills and bring even one tear to the eye, then you have a heart of stone. He’s a guy you can feel good about rooting for.
While I would love for Calvin Borel to win on Saturday, both for himself (to become the first jockey in history to win the Triple Crown on different horses) and for the scrappy little Mine That Bird (an inspiration to the proverbial Little Guy everywhere), I can’t help feeling he’s gone and jinxed himself. Unlike in team sports, in horse racing there isn’t just one other guy to beat, there are many others. In the specific case of this Belmont, there are nine other horses to beat.
When the connections of Rachel Alexandra decided not to run her back in the Belmont after taking the Preakness, there was no more rematch angle to the Belmont. So the racing press came up with a new story: a match race between progeny of previous Belmont winners. Mine That Bird’s sire, Birdstone, won the race in 2004, while apparent best of the rest Charitable Man’s daddy, Lemon Drop Kid, took the Belmont in 1999. Both of those horses, incidentally, ruined the respective Triple Crown Bids of Smarty Jones and Charismatic.
But around here, we think this race a wide open affair, more so anyway than this two-horse storyline being touted elsewhere. Historically the Belmont has been kind to the favorite (which Mine That Bird will likely be at post time): the betting favorite has won 60 of the 140 runnings of the race. But recently, the Belmont has been a good race for longshots. Five of the last ten years, the race has gone to horses with double-digit odds, including such bombs as: Da’Tara last year at 38-1; Birdstone in 2004 at 36-1; Sarava in 2002 at 70-1 (the longest-odds winner in Belmont’s history); Commendable in 2000 at 19-1; and Lemon Drop Kid in 1999 at 30-1.
The great thing about this race from a betting standpoint is that every horse has a legitimate shot to win. You could literally pick a name out of a hat, and have as good a chance at picking the winner as what I’m about to tell you. But I’m going to ramble on anyway, so here goes.
There are six horses running here who ran in the Derby, including Mine That Bird. I completely overlooked him in the Derby and rooted hard for him in the Preakness. He almost got to Rachel Alexandra at the wire, but couldn’t quite overtake her, and finished a dogged second. I would love to see Calvin win a first-ever jockey-only Triple Crown, but I fear he’s overconfident. As they say, the only sure thing in horse racing is that there are no sure things. Enough about that.
Deep closers like MTB don’t usually do well in the Belmont. Jazil in 2006, is the only deep closer to win in the last ten years (compared to four closers who have won the Kentucky Derby in the same period). On the other hand, MTB’s pedigree says he’ll like the long, mile and a half distance of this race. Tough call: will root for him, but may bet against him, cold bastard that I am.
Charitable Man, the current second-favorite in the morning line odds, is deserving of that status. He’s only one of two horses who have previously raced at Belmont Park. He’s won twice here at Belmont, including his last race, the Grade 1 Peter Pan. He’s in good form, and has a top jockey, Alan Garcia, and trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin, who both count Belmont Park as home base.
One longshot I like is the Summer Bird, who happens to be Mine That Bird’s half-brother. Summer finished sixth in the Derby, and because of his sire, Birdstone, I thought he’d be a better play in this longer race (the Belmont is a quarter mile longer than the Derby). Since the Derby, Summer Bird has had a positive jockey-switch to the uber-experienced Kent Desormeaux, another local jockey. Look for Summer to be trying to keep up with his bro down the stretch. It’s the sibling rivalry betting angle: box the two Birds in an exacta. Who knows? Oh, and one more plus: his trainer’s name is Tim Ice. Let me repeat that name: Tim Ice.
Another Derby horse is the California colt Chocolate Candy. He had a troubled trip, and still managed to finish fifth. As predicted, he took a lot of name-money; that is, people bet him because they liked his name, so his odds were a little low for what he offered. Might get more of the same with his odds here, but I feel like this horse always runs decently, if not spectacularly, and always puts himself in a position to win. Look for him to run the race of his life.
Dunkirk was the enigma horse going into the Derby (where he lived up to that billing) and continues to be the enigma horse. Talented and expensive, lightly raced, and physically gorgeous, he probably needed the Derby for seasoning. His low odds (4-1 on the morning line) make him a tough call. Look for a breakout race here. Or for him to finish last. As I said, he’s an enigma. Wrapped in a mystery. Surrounded by a puzzle. You heard it here first: he’ll finish first. Or last.
One final angle to mention: two hall-of-fame trainers, D. Wayne Lukas and Nick Zito, each have two horses in this race. Both these guys have won The Belmont numerous times, Zito with last year’s bomb Da’Tara and in 2004 with Birdstone, and Lukas most recently with Commendable in 2000. These are two trainers who make their beer money by tossing seemingly-overmatched horses into big races and stunning bettors with the result. You look at the form and think their entries can’t possibly win. And then they do. Over and over again. This year is no different, their horses are once again longshots, and both trainers are quietly confident that they’ll be competitive. To sum up: be afraid. Be very afraid.
Lukas’s horses: 1) Flying Private has tactical speed which is always a good asset, finished last in the Derby, but came back for a gutsy 4th in the Preakness. Improving. 2) Luv Gov, named after Eliot Spitzer? Not sure. Has tactical speed. Zito’s horses: 1) Miner’s Escape, has won his last two races, speedy and improving, will likely battle for the lead with Charitable Man. 2) Brave Victory, finished third in the Peter Pan against Charitable Man, So, if the Man is 3-1 and this one is 15-1, that’s an odds difference that is quite enticing compared with their head-to-head difference from their last race. This is always a good betting angle.
How do you protect yourself from this Zito/Lukas thing? Place some sort of small, saver bet on their horses, just so that when they inevitably finish first, second, third and fourth, you can say: See, Zito and Lukas aren’t going to fool me ever again. But you won’t bet them. And you’ll kick yourself. Over and over again.
As always, good luck, have fun, don’t bet the mortgage.