IF HORSE RACING could find a way to bottle the feeling from the Triple Crown and stretch it out over a calendar year, it would be the NFL. But it really can't, so it isn't.

You could make a strong case that the sport's marquee series is more popular than it's ever been. More than 27 million watched the Kentucky Derby and Preakness on NBC, the biggest audience in 20 years.

Perhaps, it is all those almost Triple Crowns. The Derby somehow is bigger than it has ever been. It is the one race everybody in the sport wants to win, and people without even a passing interest in the sport want to see.

The 2009 Preakness was must-see because of 50-1 Derby winner Mine That Bird, Kentucky Oaks-winning filly Rachel Alexandra and Calvin Borel, the jockey who won the Derby on one horse and would win the Preakness on another.

There will be no Triple Crown on the line in Saturday's Belmont Stakes. There will no Rachel. There will be Preakness runner-up Mine That Bird. And there will be Calvin, going for his own Triple Crown.

Borel already guaranteed victory, saying "we're going to win it," after Mine That Bird's final Belmont workout on Monday. And who wouldn't believe Calvin?

On Memorial Day weekend at Churchill Downs, he won 14 of 25 races, a percentage that never happens in horse racing. He is the first rider to win the Oaks, Derby and Preakness in the same year since Don Brumfield in 1966.

Why wouldn't the jockey be confident? And why wouldn't a trainer want him to ride his horse?

Mine That Bird trainer Chip Woolley was willing to wait while Rachel's connections mulled whether to go in the Belmont. Borel was committed to ride the filly if she ran. When it was announced Friday that she wasn't running, Borel was back on the Derby winner.

"He won me a Derby," Woolley said last week. "I feel like I owe him the opportunity if it's possible."

It is now possible. In fact, after the 10 horses were entered yesterday, it is reality.

Mine That Bird, an afterthought in Louisville and a bit of a mystery in Baltimore, is now the 2-1 morning-line favorite. Woolley plans to give the gelding a nice rest after Saturday and then is looking for three races the rest of the year, culminating with the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita.

Woolley was the guy with the cowboy hat and the broken leg who drove his longshot from New Mexico. Now, he is a Derby-winning trainer.

"I guess the one thing it's done probably is validate a career that you know you spent 25 years getting to this point, a lot of hard work," Woolley said. "Went broke a couple of times."

Mine That Bird cost his owners $400,000 last fall. The horse has won $1.7 million this year. The trainer gets 10 percent of the winnings.

"We're just kind of enjoying the moment here and going to ride this out through the Belmont," Woolley said.

Mine That Bird is the horse to beat. The 1 1/2-mile distance should not be an issue. Only the Derby winner and Flying Private, 19th in the Derby and fourth in the Preakness, will contest all three legs of the 2009 Triple Crown.

"My horse only runs about three-eighths of a mile, so I think it probably didn't take as [much out of him]," Woolley said. "It's not quite as hard on him as it is on other horses."

As fascinating as the Triple Crown is, there is no question it is very hard on the horses, perhaps, given how few times the modern horse races in a career, harder than it's ever been. If Mine That Bird runs well Saturday and comes out the other side in top form, he will be the exception to the recent rule.

Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex never ran after the Belmont Stakes. War Emblem was never the same after the Triple Crown. Funny Cide peaked in the Derby and Preakness and never approached that form again.

Curlin was the recent exception to that rule, but the two-time Horse of the Year was the exception to a lot of rules.

If it's not Mine That Bird in the Belmont, it might be Charitable Man, a colt that stayed out of the Triple Crown wars, is unbeaten in three starts on dirt and loves the Belmont Park strip.

"He's bred to do it," said the colt's trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin.

The trainer was making a late run at the Derby with Charitable Man. The colt cracked his left shin last fall. A screw was inserted. Training time was missed.

Then, out of the blue, McLaughlin ran the colt in the Blue Grass Stakes, 3 weeks before the Derby. The colt did not take to the artificial surface and finished seventh. The trainer still considered the Derby, but thought better of it. After Mine That Bird won, he wished he had run Charitable Man.

"I'm never going to pass the Kentucky Derby again," McLaughlin said. "When I have a horse with the graded earnings, it's going to take a lot more to make me not run. I want to run from now on because Charitable Man, he's a beautiful horse, he's a talented horse and he's 3-for-3 on the dirt . . .

"We all loved him in my stable. And if we ran back in 3 weeks, you know he might have won the Kentucky Derby. You don't know that now, but he is a really nice horse. He just didn't handle the polytrack that well."

If that doesn't explain how much people want to win the Derby, nothing will. The trainer was prudent, waiting to run Charitable Man in the May 9 Peter Pan Stakes, where he won impressively. Now, he thinks he should have pressed on into the Derby.

"It will definitely alter my thinking in the future," McLaughlin said.

You can't win if you're not in.

"If you're eligible, you need to put them in the gate, because you never know what's going to happen," McLaughlin said.

A 50-1 from New Mexico will do that to your thinking. You can be sure the two Derby gates will be filled for years to come.

The Belmont Park gate won't be filled Saturday. No matter. Like the Derby and Preakness, this is a race with intrigue. Will there be a Calvin Crown? Or is there a longshot out there nobody has even mentioned that is ready to jump up, such as 29-1 Lemon Drop Kid (Charitable Man's sire), 36-1 Birdstone (Mine That Bird's sire) or 38-1 Da'Tara (2008) and win when nobody is expecting it. *

Send e-mail to jerardd@phillynews.com.