TOMORROW'S Belmont Stakes is not a complicated handicapping proposition. You either believe in Calvin Borel and Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, you go with Charitable Man, the horse that should control the pace, or you throw out Dunkirk's Kentucky Derby and take the $3.7 million yearling that was so impressive when finishing second in the Florida Derby.
Seven others are in the race, but picking any of them would require a leap of faith I am not ready to make.
Mine That Bird is the most likely winner. His second in the Preakness proved the Derby was no fluke. With new evidence, it is now clear that even his fourth in the Sunland Derby was not such a bad effort. Ten horses have run back from that race and five won their next starts.
Mythical Power, second at Sunland, came back to win the Lone Star Derby. Advice came back to win the Lexington Stakes. Mine That Bird overwhelmed the Derby.
And Mine That Bird has Borel back. His ride in the Derby will live forever. His ride to win the Preakness on the filly Rachel Alexandra was completely different, but brilliant in its own way. If not for Borel's decision to ride Rachel in Baltimore, Mine That Bird might be going for the Triple Crown.
"He'll win," Borel told a Belmont Stakes media luncheon Tuesday at Madison Square Garden. "That's what we're here for."
What Borel will not have going for him this time is the shape of the race. Unlike the Derby and Preakness when Mine That Bird had a hot, contested pace to run at, the Belmont is populated with horses that come from way back, just like Mine That Bird.
When you see a race like that, you have to look for quality speed. Charitable Man is quality speed. The only other horse in the race with any early speed is Miner's Escape, a colt that has won two straight, but is making his graded stakes debut.
"At this point, Charitable Man is going to be on an uncontested, easy lead," said Todd Pletcher, who trains Dunkirk. "That's my biggest concern, aside from the fact he's probably the horse to beat to begin with, and now he's got a pace advantage."
Charitable Man's trainer Kiaran McLaughlin is as confident as Borel.
"He's 2-for-2 at Belmont, 3-for-3 on the dirt, his sire won the Belmont [Lemon Drop Kid in 1999], he's a fresh horse, he's training great," McLaughlin said. "Should I go on?"
And then there is Dunkirk. The colt was a strong second to Quality Road in the Florida Derby. Quality Road would have been the Derby favorite if foot problems had not kept him out of the race. Dunkirk ran 11th in the Derby. Obviously, the colt is better than that.
"He's got terrific action, a smooth, fluid stride," Pletcher said. "I feel he's a top-quality horse, and has run well in three of his four races. The Derby, to me, I have to put a line through that race. I felt he didn't handle the surface at all in that race."
Top rider John Velazquez will ride Dunkirk for the first time. His mount likely will have to pass half the field to win. Mine That Bird might have to pass them all - again.
The jockey offered his fellow riders some advice on Tuesday.
"Stay on the rail," he said.
Don't let Mr. "BoRail" come through on the rail as he did to win the 2007 Derby on Street Sense and as he did in this Derby with Mine That Bird.
"I'll let him run his race like I did in the Derby," Borel said of his mount. "He has an unbelievable turn of foot. He reminds me so much of Street Sense when you set him down. That's why I like the little horse."
The mile-and-a-half distance, Borel said, should not be an issue. Nor is he concerned about Belmont Park, America's only mile-and-a-half track.
"It's like any track," Borel said. "You turn left."
Mine That Bird's trainer Chip Woolley has concerns.
"If you push the button too early, you could sure come up empty [at the end]," he said. "If you're close enough that you want to make a quarter-mile move, you've already ran as far as you ran in the Derby at that point. So you know it's going to be imperative that we get the right trip and make our move at the right time."
The trainer also understands that this is anything but a race that favors closers.
"People think just because it's longer that it will suit my horse better," he said. "But you know history says that you need to be a little closer to the pace. So he's got his work cut out for him."
If you are looking for a longshot that could get a piece of this, consider Summer Bird, the "other" son of Birdstone. The horse came about 10-wide into the stretch of the Derby and was really rolling at the finish.
I started this week liking Charitable Man because of the obvious tactical advantage. I gave Dunkirk a long look. I decided on Mine That Bird.
Why? Calvin Borel.
This sport is called horse racing, not jockey racing. The horses always matter more than the people. This Triple Crown has been different. Borel has owned it. He believes in himself. I believe in him.
He can become the first rider to win the three Triple Crown races in the same year on different horses.
"It would be awesome, but it won't sink in until afterward," Borel said. "I'm just going out there to win the race. I want to win it for Chip because I owe that to him for giving me the opportunity to ride the horse back. This is a dream and I'm just riding it right now."
Who can argue with that? *