IF THE BELMONT Stakes weren't enough action at Belmont Park today, consider that there is a $1 million guaranteed Pick 6 with four Grade I stakes (Just A Game, Acorn, Woodford Reserve and Belmont) two Grade II stakes (True North, Woody Stephens), ending with the Belmont. A $1 million Pick 4 also ends with the Belmont.
The wonderful Pennsylvania-bred sprinter Fabulous Strike headlines the True North. Justwhistledixie, owned by West Point Stable (Mount Laurel, N.J.), looms a solid favorite in the Acorn. It all culminates with the Belmont and the quest for the "Calvin Crown."
Calvin Borel is back on Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, the gelding that was 50-1 five Saturdays ago and will be the favorite today. If some horse is going to beat the Derby winner, the most likely is Peter Pan Stakes winner Charitable Man.
"[Mine That Bird] happened to be in the same barn I was in, Barn 42, at Churchill," said Charitable Man's trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. "And I had to be honest, looking at Charitable Man and looking at Mine That Bird, it's like you're looking at a magnificent animal to a small gelding that cost $9,500 as a yearling. But he's a runner and he's a very nice horse."
The Preakness proved it. Even though Mine That Bird was second that day, the gelding earned more respect than he did in winning the Derby. The word "fluke" was used a few million times in the 2 weeks between the Derby and Preakness.
"I don't blame [people] overlooking him [in the Derby]," Mine That Bird's trainer Chip Woolley said. "I managed to get him [beat] twice at Sunland Park . . . I can see why he went off at long odds. Nobody paid much mind to the fact that we changed his running style, which really made the big difference."
Borel took Mine That Bird out the back door in the Derby, letting him gallop many lengths behind the field. And the little gelding came with that giant run nobody will forget.
Unlike the Derby, all eyes will be on the back of the pack today. Mine That Bird deserves that attention. So does his jockey.
Borel has been everywhere in New York this week. He was on the "Late Show with David" last night. He rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange Thursday. He will be on the Belmont Stakes favorite today.
Borel said he was going to win the Preakness with Rachel Alexandra. And he did. He has not been shy about saying he is going to win the Belmont with Mine That Bird. And he might.
This is not, however, a one-horse race. Charitable Man could win. In fact, McLaughlin, the colt's trainer, is about as confident as Borel without actually saying he is going win in so many words.
"He couldn't be training any better," McLaughlin said. "We're very confident."
Wooley, Mine That Bird's trainer, is well aware of the issues.
"You've got to respect Charitable Man, no doubt," he said. "That horse is a real monster, loves that race track."
Dunkirk could win, although the colt's trainer Todd Pletcher is on record as saying he thinks Charitable Man is the most likely winner.
Wayne Lukas once owned this race, winning it four times between 1994 and 2000. The Hall of Fame trainer has not been a factor in Triple Crown races in recent years, but that has not stopped him from being involved. Lukas has Flying Private and Luv Guv in today's race.
"I think a horse has to have a high cruising speed and be able to maintain it to win," Lukas said. "Those horses who are steady, and can maintain it for a mile-and-a-half, are the kind which are successful in this race. Both of mine fit that mold. Whether they do it quick enough is the problem."
And that ultimately is the only issue. Which of these horses is quick enough to get there first. *