Commentary

Belmont a two-horse race

Updated: June 5, 2009, 7:33 PM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

Never again will I utter or write a bad word about Mine That Bird. He is a lot of things, and a one-race wonder is not among them. Nevertheless, the key to winning Saturday is to throw Mine That Bird out in the Belmont: a race that is, for him, a terrible fit. It's going to be a two-horse race between Dunkirk and Charitable Man.

Mine That Bird will have two major factors against him Saturday: the Triple Crown grind and his running style.

One-run, deep closers traditionally have a difficult time in the Belmont Stakes, a race that plays into the hands of horses with at least some tactical speed. By the top of the stretch, the race is usually all but over. If not, it's down to two or three, all of them horses who have worked themselves into striking position. Since 2000, the only Belmont winner who was not first or second with a quarter-mile to go was Sarava in 2002, and he was third, less than a length behind. It's very rare that you see some horse flying through the stretch to get up at the wire.

Calvin Borel has been brilliant through the first two legs of the Triple Crown, but he's going to have a very difficult job Saturday. Mine That Bird is a horse who only turned a corner when his connections decided to let him drop far back early and then begin his run with about a half-mile to go. It was an effective strategy in the Kentucky Derby when the field clipped through early fractions of :22 4/5 and :47 1/5. It almost worked in the Preakness, when Rachel Alexandra went the opening quarter-mile in :23 and the half in :46 3/5. Mine That Bird will never get the kind of pace in the Belmont, a mile-and-a-half race with a field that doesn't include any serious speed horses.

When he launches his bid, presumably from well back, he'll be trying to run down horses that have not been beaten up by quick early fractions. They won't be easy to catch. And he cannot gear up any sooner than he did in the Derby and Preakness. Mine That Bird might have an explosive burst, but it's sustainable for only so long. If Borel puts him into gear five or six furlongs out he's going to fizzle in deep stretch.

Those are the scenarios if he runs his race. One of only two horses (Flying Private) in the Belmont field to have endured the entire three-races-in-five-weeks grind, Mine That Bird is no cinch to fire. There have been dozens of horses (remember Big Brown?) over the past several years that fell apart in the Belmont Stakes after running in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. That's the primary reason no horse has won the Triple Crown in 31 years, and 11 straight Derby-Preakness winners have failed in the Belmont. Many horses just can't take it.

If Mine That Bird doesn't come through, it looks as though the only two horses than can win Saturday are Charitable Man and Dunkirk.

My pick is Dunkirk, the same horse I selected to win the Kentucky Derby. On paper, his Derby was abysmal. He never got in the hunt, finished 11th and lost by 19 lengths. But I'm throwing that race out and giving him another chance, which is by no means a stretch. From the instant he left the gate at Churchill, it was clear that Dunkirk was not going to compete. He was slipping and sliding and never leveled off, acting like a horse who hated the slop. Very impressive in his first two career starts and then a solid second in the Florida Derby, he's a much better horse than he showed in the Derby.

Charitable Man had the makings of an exceptional 2-year-old, but his career went off track due to an injury. After a flat effort his first time out this year in the Blue Grass, his connections wisely passed the Derby and geared up for the Belmont. Along the way, he won the Peter Pan. He has yet to post a big speed figure, but he should take a step forward in the Belmont after prepping so well in the Peter Pan.

He's also likely to benefit from a slow pace. He'll either be in front early or sitting just behind Miner's Escape. Either way, he's likely to have a perfect trip.

Box those two in the exacta and use them and Brave Victory, Miner's Escape (Zito's horses always run well in the Belmont), Flying Private and Chocolate Candy in the trifectas.

Finley's Belmont selections
1. Dunkirk
2. Charitable Man
3. Miner's Escape

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at wnfinley@aol.com.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com