Borel's guarantee ruined by early move
BELMONT, N.Y. -- Calvin Borel was bidding to create his own brand of Triple Crown lore Saturday.
Instead, he rode himself into the sketchy company of other goats of recent Belmont history. Borel joins the lineup of jockeys who will be second-guessed in perpetuity for his ride with a Triple Crown -- equine or, in this case, human -- on the line. He's a future Hall of Famer, but today he takes a spot next to Stewart Elliott, who rode Smarty Jones to defeat in 2004. And a spot next to Kent Desormeaux, whose loss by a nose aboard Real Quiet in 1998 remains the standard for agonizing pilot error.
In a karmic payback 11 years in the making, Desormeaux finally got his Belmont by guiding 12-1 shot Summer Bird past runner-up Dunkirk and Borel's mount, third-place Mine That Bird, in the stretch. The result adds to the Belmont's growing history as the most unsatisfying sporting event of the year, and it exposes national darling Borel to his first experience as a national bum.
After winning the Kentucky Derby aboard Mine That Bird and the Preakness aboard Rachel Alexandra, there will be no Calvin Crown. But there will be Calvin Critics.
As Desormeaux and Elliott did before him, Borel made his move too soon to survive this mile-and-a-half meat grinder. In fact, all three of them erred in almost the exact same place: with about half a mile to go. That's an eternity in the longest race these animals will ever run.
After watching Desormeaux's move fail in person in '98, I knew a premature decision when I saw it from Elliott six years later (though, it must be noted, Elliott and Smarty Jones were pressed into an early speed duel that might have been a bigger factor in his defeat). And I sure as heck knew a premature decision when I saw it again Saturday.
So did Desormeaux, who said he was "utterly surprised" to see Mine That Bird ahead of him with so much dirt still to cover.
At this point the Belmont folks might as well erect a warning sign at the half-mile pole on the far turn. It would read as follows:
IF YOU'RE MOVING HERE, YOU'RE TOAST
Especially if you're riding a dead closer, as Borel was. Remember, Mine That Bird didn't explode into the lead in the Derby until well into the stretch, and his charge to second under Mike Smith in the Preakness was similarly late.
Here, in a longer race, Borel had launched from eighth to first with a full quarter-mile to run.
No way that was going to hold up. Not with Borel going to the whip on his gelding before they even straightened out for home. Not in the cruelest stretch in American racing, the place where Triple Crown bids go to die.
Sure enough, with Mine That Bird, Dunkirk and Charitable Man all starting to labor on the lead, here came Summer Bird rolling by. In the final 16th of a mile, it was all over but the finger-pointing.
The fairness of blaming Borel can be debated forever, especially among those of us who cannot appreciate all the arcane challenges of riding a race horse. Part of a jockey's difficult job is finding the delicate balance between pushing his mount forward and pulling it back, and according to Borel that proved arduous Saturday. Mine That Bird had a mind of his own and might have prematurely asserted himself, forcing his rider's hand.
"He was a little fresh," said Borel, who had to apply the brakes early to his mount and was worried in the second half of the race that choking him back again would kill any chance to win. "... Maybe might have moved a tad early, but he took me there."
Trainer Chip Woolley, who has handled himself and his horse beautifully in his first spotlight experience, said a lot with a little shortly afterward: "I thought we might have gone ahead early. Hard to say when you haven't seen the replay. I may have a whole different outlook on it when the time comes, after I really sit down and look at it."
Borel did get a chance to view a replay and came away believing he didn't ask for too much, too soon.
"No excuses, sir," Borel said, painfully polite as always.
Part of having no excuses means having to hear three other criticisms after this race:
• Borel was in New York all week but rode nothing at Belmont prior to this race. Several people thought that was a mistake given his relative unfamiliarity with this track (he was 1-for-7 lifetime here coming into the race, including 0-for-6 in stakes races). At least one trip around this massive oval might have reinforced how far it is from the far turn to the finish line.
• Borel has made his name with rail-skimming rides and won both his Kentucky Derbies that way -- his ride on Mine That Bird was a ground-saving genius. Yet this time Borel was rarely near the rail, and when he made his move he was about four-wide on the turn.
He said afterward that the rail was dead, which made it a perilous place to run. But winner Summer Bird spent much of his trip down the backstretch far inside.
• Borel's guaranteed victory came back to bite him. Hard.
Understand, jockey guarantees are different than, say, Joe Namath guarantees. They are outspokenly confident by nature and by design -- nobody ever admits any concerns going into a horse race, and horse owners like to hear nothing but raves from the hired help.
But still, if you come to New York and tell the nation's biggest media market that a race is in the bag, you're going to hear about it when the race wriggles out of the bag.
"If you're not going to come here and ride with confidence, you may as well not come," Borel said. "When I come to ride races like this, I come with confidence."
Desormeaux was the weary voice of Belmont experience when he said, earlier in the week, "Calvin is naive. Period." Desormeaux had come to this race twice before on the cusp of a Triple Crown. He had oozed optimism.
He was sure he'd win the Triple aboard Real Quiet -- a defeat the jockey blames more on his colt "gawking" at the crowd in the stretch and losing focus. He was even more sure last year aboard Big Brown. The comeuppance a year ago was nothing short of brutal, with Desormeaux wrapping up a thoroughly spent Big Brown before he even finished the race.
"Last year's Belmont was like swallowing a spoon sideways," Desormeaux said.
Desormeaux endured the hard slide from celebrated to castigated in just a few minutes' time last year. Just like Calvin now.
"I've been there," Desormeaux said. "I've been where I felt like I was Superman. I've been there where I would have said the same things in those shoes. ... I'm sure he believed it, every breath."
And his advice today for Calvin Borel? "I think Calvin should go home," Desormeaux said, "and know what a champion rider he is."
That's true. But that will be hard to remember amid the disappointment of this defeat. If the 2009 Kentucky Derby was the signature ride of Borel's career, the 2009 Belmont will be his most criticized.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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