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Beefy Belmont Stakes features 'Bird' in the 'Cal-Zone'

ELMONT, N.Y. – Saturday’s 141st running of the Grade 1, $1 million Belmont Stakes is loaded.

It’s loaded with horses and horsemen that have strong ties to this 1½-mile race for three-year-olds known as the “Test of the Champion.” It is loaded with history, as it is the oldest and longest leg of racing’s Triple Crown. And, it is loaded with possibilities, as 10 contenders will enter the starting gate in Belmont Park’s signature race, the 11th of a 13-race live card that begins at 11:35 a.m. (All times EDT).

The card features five other graded stakes, including three additional Grade 1 races, all of which will figure in a guaranteed $1 million Pick 6 on races 6-11 and a guaranteed $1 million Pick 4 on races 8-11. ESPN will provide television coverage on Belmont Stakes Day from noon to 5 p.m., with ABC starting its two-hour live broadcast at 5 p.m. Post time is 6:27 p.m. for the Belmont Stakes, and the final race will go to post at 7:45 p.m.

Standing out above all these elements is a 5-foot-5, 110-pound native of St. Martin Parish, La. who has never forgotten his roots, prizes loyalty and honor and had made his name – ‘Bo-Rail’ – by riding the rail.

Jockey Calvin Borel has been “in the zone” of late. He has been confidently winning races by the bunches at Churchill Downs, charmed network television and radio talk show hosts and their audiences and shaken any friendly, outstretched hand or posed for any fan photograph. He is enjoying this ride almost as much as the ones aboard Mine That Bird in the Kentucky Derby and Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness. And, he is out to become the first jockey to win all three Triple Crown races on two different horses.

Borel set this stage on May 2 when he shot the diminutive Mine That Bird through a narrow hole on the rail that brought him to a 6 ¾-length victory in the Kentucky Derby at 50-1. One day earlier, he guided the remarkable filly, Rachel Alexandra, to a huge victory in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks, and Borel had the two top horses in the three-year-old division to call his own.

That changed when Jess Jackson of Stonestreet Stable purchased Rachel Alexandra for a price reported to be as high as $10 million, and announced that she would take on colts in the Preakness on May 16. Borel, calling her “the best horse he ever sat on,” made the tough decision to take off the Derby winner and ride Rachel Alexandra at Pimlico.

She made history that day, becoming the first horse to win that race from post 13 and one of only five fillies ever to win the Triple Crown’s middle leg. Mine That Bird finished a length back in second.

Last week, Jackson announced that Rachel Alexandra would skip the Belmont Stakes, and Borel was back on Mine That Bird.

The modest Borel, who is making his first Belmont Stakes start, was welcomed back aboard Mine That Bird by co-owners Double Eagle Ranch and Buena Suerte Equine and trainer Bennie “Chip” Woolley Jr. He has not been so modest in his Belmont Stakes evaluation.

“He’ll win,” said Borel of Mine That Bird, who will break from post 7 aboard the 2-1 morning line favorite. “That’s what we’re here for. I see a Derby race, same style. He sits back there. Belmont has a long stretch and I can sit and wait. I watch this horse every day, he goes two miles, two-and-a-half miles.”

Woolley is more than happy to have “Bo-Rail” back on Mine That Bird.

“We understood Calvin’s situation,” Woolley said. “And we are glad to get him back for the Belmont because this is the race we’ve always felt we could win. We have always had confidence in this horse. He had won four of his first five starts -- and one ride that we didn’t think fit his style. But we started training him behind horses, and he showed he is a very competitive horse. For a small horse, he has a surprisingly big stride and gets over the ground easily. When we took him back, we knew he would have plenty of horse left, but even we didn’t expect how explosive that three-eighths of a mile run was. He’ll run over horses, if you let him. We think he’s going to love this track and this distance.”

A victory in the Belmont Stakes would make Mine That Bird the first Derby winner to win the Belmont since Thunder Gulch in 1995.

As happy as the Mine That Bird/Borel story is, there are plenty of challengers more than willing to re-write the ending.

Chief among these is Mr. and Mrs. William K. Warren’s Charitable Man, the “now” horse of this year’s Belmont Stakes. Trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, who won the 2006 Belmont Stakes with Jazil, this son of 1999 Belmont Stakes winner Lemon Drop Kid has won three of four career starts, including the Grade 2, nine–furlong Peter Pan here on May 9. His only loss came on Keeneland’s PolyTrack in the April 11 Blue Grass. That was his first start back in seven months, during which time he underwent surgery to correct a saucer fracture of the left shin.

McLaughlin has insisted that he would not trade horses with anyone for this race.

“I’m not trying to sound cocky or overconfident,” McLaughlin said when talking of Charitable Man, who will break from post 6 under jockey Alan Garcia, winner of last year’s Belmont Stakes with Da’Tara. “All I’m saying is that we have a horse whose style fits this race, who has the pedigree, who is 2-for-2 on this track and who couldn’t be training any better. I have a lot of respect for Mine That Bird, Chocolate Candy and Dunkirk, but I have a quality horse that couldn’t be doing any better.”

As a $3.7 million yearling purchase, Dunkirk has been watched closely ever since he started racing. After two victories, the Unbridled’s Song colt suffered his first loss in the Grade 1 Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. A closer, he made a huge move on the turn but finished a length and three-quarters on the speed-favoring track behind front-running Quality Road, who set the track’s nine-furlong record of 1:47.72

Dunkirk lost all chance in the Kentucky Derby, when he stumbled twice within the first 50 yards and finished 11th.

“We just have to draw a line through the Derby,” said trainer Todd Pletcher, who won the 2007 Belmont Stakes with Rags to Riches, one of only three fillies in history to win the Belmont Stakes. “He stumbled leaving the gate, and by the time he got his legs under him again and got to the first turn, he was squeezed.”

Since then, Dunkirk has trained steadily, including a spectacular half-mile bullet of :47 1/5 on May 18 that was the fastest of 62 works at the distance.

“If you look at his work tab, there are bullets all over it,” Pletcher said. “That’s not my training style. But I think it shows how much talent he has. He is out of a Kentucky Oaks-winning dam (Secret Status), and we have a lot of confidence in him.”

John Velazquez has the mount on Dunkirk, who will break from post 2.

Flying well beneath the radar here is Craig Family Trust’s Chocolate Candy, who has drawn the rail under jockey Garrett Gomez. Runner-up in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby to Pioneerof the Nile, he made his first start on dirt in the sloppy Kentucky Derby. He finished fifth.

“He had a tough start, like a lot of horses did, but he showed he wasn’t easily discouraged,” said Hollendorfer, who was en route to New York from California on Wednesday afternoon. “So, we brought him to New York early because it was suggested to us to train over at Belmont for a while before you run on it. I didn't want to leave him on the road that long, but it's worked out OK so far. He's been very happy there; [exercise rider Lindsey Molina] says he just skips over the track and he gallops out strong.”

Hollendorfer, best known to New Yorkers as the trainer of rap singer M.C. Hammer’s Lite Light during her early 1990s rivalry with champion Meadow Star, is one of three trainers, along with Hall of Famer Jack Van Berg and King T. Leatherbury, to have won at least 5,000 races.

The Kentucky Derby was also the first dirt start for WinStar Farm’s Mr. Hot Stuff, who was third in the Santa Anita Derby. He finished 15th at Churchill Downs.

“I don’t know if he got anything out of the Derby,” said trainer Eoin Harty, who will go with Hall of Fame jockey and two-time Belmont Stakes winner Edgar Prado from post 3. “I’m hoping it’s a throw-out race, one that we can just ignore and move on. He’s been training beautifully, but now he has to prove that he belongs.”

Sixth in the Kentucky Derby, Drs. Kalarikkal and Vilasini Jayaraman’s Summer Bird has only one win in four career starts. Trainer Tim Ice knows he is shooting for the stars with Summer Bird, who like Mine That Bird, is a son of 2004 Belmont Stakes winner Birdstone.

“He was sixth in the Kentucky Derby, and he faced a number of issues,” said trainer Tim Ice, who is making his first Belmont Stakes start. “He was eight-wide, the track was sloppy, a lot of things went against him and yet, he was still running at the end. We are here because we feel he is an improving horse. He has gotten stronger and he is a very smart, mature horse. We think he’ll be tough if he gets to run his race.”

Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux picks up the mount on Summer Bird, who will break from post 4 and will wear blinkers.

Between them, Hall of Fame trainers D. Wayne Lukas (Tabasco Cat, 1994; Thunder Gulch, 1995; Editor’s Note, 1995 and Commendable, 2000) and Nick Zito (Birdstone, 2004 and Da’Tara, 2008), have won six Belmont Stakes. This year, Lukas will saddle Marylou Whitney Stables’ Luv Gov and Robert C. Baker and William L. Mack’s Flying Private, his first Belmont Stakes starters since A.P. Arrow ran fifth in 2005.

“We felt we had horses that would make the first legs of the Triple Crown, but wouldn’t be at their peak” said Lukas, as Flying Private ran fourth in the Preakness after a 19th-place Derby finish, while Luv Gov was eighth in the Preakness. “We’ve won this race before with horses that no one gave a shot to – Commendable, Editor’s Note, even Tabasco Cat – but we knew they were developing horses that were coming into the race at the right time and the right way.”

Luv Gov will break from post 5 under Miguel Mena, while Flying Private drew post 8 with jockey Julien Leparoux.

Zito, who got his first Belmont Stakes victory with Birdstone in 2004, won it again last year with Robert V. LaPenta’s Da’Tara. He will send Brave Victory and Miner’s Escape here in hopes that LaPenta will win consecutive runnings of the Belmont Stakes. Meadow Stable most recently accomplished the feat with Riva Ridge (1972) and 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat.

“What’s great about the Belmont is that anything can happen,” Zito said. “It’s a one-of-a-kind race, and it is so big that you always have a chance. We’re coming into this race with two horses that have been running competitive races and that we feel will get the distance. Brave Victory was third in the Peter Pan, and Miner’s Escape has won two in a row, including the Tesio.

“When your horses are running well, you have to take a chance, especially in a race with this kind of history and this kind of importance. We all have to prove ourselves, because Mine That Bird has already proven himself. We’re all coming after Mine That Bird. The Belmont Stakes is Mine That Bird’s race to lose.”

 

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