DON’T PUT TOO MUCH OF THE BLAME ON CALVIN BOREL FOR MINE THAT BIRD’S BELMONT LOSS

                               Kallas Remarks by Steve Kallas

         

Calvin Borel has taken a real pounding for “moving too soon’ with 6-5 favorite Mine That Bird in this past Saturday’s Belmont Stakes. But if you listened to what was being discussed at length right BEFORE the race and know anything about the races, you knew Borel and his horse might be in trouble.

      

Here’s Jeanine Edwards of ESPN/ABC as she was walking over to the paddock with Mine That Bird’s trainer, Chip Woolley: “Chip was a little bit concerned that Mine That Bird has been quite rambunctious since he left the holding barn. He’s been bucking and kicking and playing quite a bit more than he normally does.”

     

If you’ve been around the race track, you know that is potentially a bad thing.

         

Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey (also on ABC) picked up on this immediately: “It’s a concern for me because if he’s [Mine That Bird] the least bit aggressive early on in the race and Calvin can’t relax him off the pace, and I mean really on a long rein relaxes him, then he’s going to wear himself out to a degree. It’ll minimize his [inaudible]. He’s gotta do what Calvin wants him to do and that’s relax.”

             

Even Kenny Mayne chipped in with “I’m no bloodstock agent but I would say Mine That Bird did not look as calm as we’ve seen him in the past.”

                 

Those are an awful lot of clues if you actually wait until the last minute (which you always should but rarely do) to bet the Belmont (or any race).

                

JERRY BAILEY STAYS ON TOP OF THINGS

               

But there was more to come. Jerry Bailey spoke to Calvin Borel right after the post parade and continued the questioning, asking Borel if he had any concerns about being able to rate Mine That Bird in the Belmont since he seemed more excited today than in the past. Borel said that Mine That Bird had been “dancing a bit” but, in response to Bailey’s question, Borel said, “I don’t think so, Jerry, like I say, he’s coming in a little bit harder [or hotter, it was unclear] than I thought he’d be.” Borel then confidently stated: “Nothing for me to handle” (meaning, presumably, nothing that he couldn’t handle).

            

And then the race began.

           

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED?

           

Dunkirk, the $3.7 million (that’s right) yearling, wound up setting the pace in a rather quick 23.2 quarter and 47 half. This is a quick first half, especially in a mile-and-a-half race. After getting away last as planned, Borel moved Mine That Bird at about the five furlong marker, surprisingly early to anybody who had seen the Derby and/or had heard his trainer talk about how the horse needed to be raced. After racing four or five wide the whole final turn (a very difficult thing to do), Mine That Bird took a brief lead at the top of the stretch. But he made the lead too early and Summer Bird, who had a Mine That Bird Derby-type trip down inside, blew by him to win rather easily. Even Dunkirk came back to beat Mine That Bird and finish a game second. Mine That Bird was third and, given his trip, raced pretty well.

             

Clearly, there had to be a reason why Mine That Bird came to the pack so early.

           

Jerry Bailey was on it right away, immediately after the race: “Calvin, on Mine That Bird, I think his horse got a little bit rank with him, he let him ease up a little soon and I think, if anything, the move might have been a little premature.”

              

Then, right before Borel was interviewed, still just a minute or so after the race, Bailey said “he got a little rank with him at the five furlong [5/8 mile] pole and pulled him up, pulled him up close to the lead.”

              

WHAT DID BOREL THINK HAPPENED?

              

Keep in mind that Calvin Borel had just lost his personal quest for an unprecedented jockey Triple Crown on two different horses. “They went so slow up front, you know, I mean I had to let him go a little bit down the backside. He was kind of fighting me a little bit.”

         

He also said, “He grabbed a hold to the bit so I didn’t want to fight him too much. I let him creep up easily.”

           

Of course, the reality was, with fractions of 23.2, 47 and 1:12.2 for the first three-quarters of a mile, that was slightly fast to fast – there’s no chance that the pace was “real slow,” as Borel stated.

           

WHAT DID TRAINER WOOLLEY THINK?

        

Understand now, that in these big races, the trainer and jockey don’t speak before speaking to the media and, in the case of immediate post-race coverage, to the national TV audience. Trainer Woolley, despite putting on a brave face, was clearly agitated. After saying he thought that his horse was the best in the race, he stated, “We just made a little early move there and he came up empty. Calvin set him down maybe a hair early.”

         

Woolley kept going, “Calvin was letting him drift up and when you let this horse do that he’s going to try to go, you know, and so he’d a been better off probably keeping him covered up down on the fence [the rail] for awhile.”

          

SO, WHY WASN’T IT BOREL’S FAULT?

           

Here’s why: If a horse is hot or grabby or rambunctious before the jockey gets on him, that’s not his fault, especially if he normally isn’t like that before a race. Borel probably thought he was in some trouble before the race; certainly Jerry Bailey did and said so with his comments literally minutes before the race.

         

While it’s a jockey’s job (and a tremendous skill) to keep a hot horse calm, sometimes there’s not a whole lot you can do. Even the trainer later admitted maybe he should have done something “to take the edge off” Mine That Bird prior to this third race in five weeks.

           

Clearly, Mine That Bird had not been like this before either the Derby or the Preakness (and presumably his other starts). So he had already raced in front of gigantic crowds in Kentucky and Maryland and there was no reason to expect this change in pre-race attitude.

          

If anything, the fact that he was too much on the bit has to be blamed on the trainer, not the rider. Maybe it’s nobody’s fault; maybe the horse got spooked or got nervous or got scared for some reason we may or may not ever find out about. But once he’s riled up (and by everybody’s account he was), it puts Calvin Borel in an almost impossible position.

                     

BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

                

Jerry Bailey again got it right: “Calvin was in a no-win position. If you strangle him [take a strong hold of him], that will wear him out.” Conversely, if you let him run too early, that will wear him out.

      

And the latter is exactly what happened.

                    

Should Calvin Borel have raced a few times at Belmont the week before or the day of the Belmont? Absolutely. Was it a mistake not to? Absolutely. Did he overdo it with Letterman, the NY Stock Exchange, etc.? Maybe, although that’s not as big a deal as not racing at Belmont.

                   

        

WHAT’S THE REALITY?

                    

The reality of it all is that Calvin Borel was given a rambunctious, hot horse to ride who races best from the back in a mile-and-a-half (or, apparently, any) race. He couldn’t hold him back any longer than he did (in his view) because, if he did take a heavy hold, he might have shut off his wind or choked him or made him fight the bit – all guarantees of a loss. So he took a shot as best he could and moved early (I’m sure he knew he was moving earlier than he wanted to but had no choice). He made the lead too early for this (and possibly only this) race.

               

So while he gets some of the blame, most of it goes to whatever made this horse on this day something he hadn’t been before – rambunctious and on the bit.

          

AND THAT TOOK PLACE LONG BEFORE CALVIN BOREL MOUNTED HIS BELMONT HORSE.

                  

And, as they say at the track, that’s horse racing.

                   

© Copyright 2008 by Steve Kallas.  All rights reserved.

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