ELMONT, N.Y. - There is a fine line between confident and cocky. In the days leading up to the Belmont Stakes, jockey Calvin Borel, the unquestioned star of the 2009 Triple Crown, may have crossed it.
Borel's guaranteeing victory for Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird was hardly inappropriate. After all, the little gelding had clearly accomplished more than any of the other nine horses in the Belmont. What the rider failed to do was his homework.
He did not ride all week while seeing Manhattan and enjoying all the tributes he so deserved. He did not ride a single race at Belmont Park on Saturday until the Belmont. Then, he rode the Belmont like the finish line was the quarter pole.
One horse made a winning move in the Belmont. Only the move did not get the horse to the winner's circle.
Mine That Bird's "move" got him the Derby win and second in the Preakness. It got the colt the lead in the stretch of the Belmont, but there are no rewards for having the lead.
The reward comes from being in front at the wire. It was the other "Bird" horse that had the lead at the wire. Summer Bird, sixth in the Derby, was the only horse running at the end of the Belmont and won it by 2 3/4 lengths. Pacesetter Dunkirk, passed by Mine That Bird, re-passed the Derby winner in deep stretch to get second. Mine That Bird finished third.
With context, an unknown horse from New Mexico getting a win, a second and a third in the Triple Crown races will be seen as the great achievement it was. In the immediate aftermath of the Belmont, there were questions.
Like what was Calvin thinking? Did he understand that you don't make the same moves at 1 1/2-mile Belmont Park that you would make on a typical 1-mile track?
Borel, last early on with Mine That Bird, made his move about when he made it in the Derby - just prior to the far turn. Only there was just 3/8-of-a-mile left in Kentucky, but nearly 5/8 left in New York.
Mine That Bird went from eighth to first in a quarter-mile around the turn. The gelding went those 440 yards in an astounding 22.5 seconds. And then hit the wall in the final quarter-mile, running those 440 yards in 26.6 seconds.
Perhaps, the distance of the race, a 1/4-mile longer than the Derby, got to Mine That Bird. Or the Triple Crown grind. But, most likely, it was an ill-timed move.
"He kind of took me a little earlier than I wanted on the backside," said Borel, who took the horse off the rail to make his move. "I knew the fence wasn't good. It's kind of deep down there."
Actually, speed was king on Saturday. Horses were winning on the rail all day. Again, a lack of homework.
"I didn't move on him till the quarter pole," Borel said, incorrectly.
Mine That Bird's trainer Chip Woolley, classy to the end, knew the deal. But was not going to complain too much about the jockey who got him the Derby he never expected to get.
"We're a little down, disappointed right now," Woolley said. "I thought [Calvin] might have moved a hair early, but that's a judgment call. I know he was out there to win the race."
Never a doubt about that. Borel is not going to be cheated. Nor are those who bet on him. He will go for it.
"First two legs, I mean, I won't change it for nothing in the world," Borel said. "I'm going to be there tomorrow morning, try again, try to get another one."
The winning rider, another Cajun, can relate. Kent Desormeaux was far too tentative last year when going for the Triple Crown on Big Brown. He was very decisive on 11-1 Summer Bird, although he wondered when Mine That Bird passed him if the race had not passed him by.
"I was a little bit disappointed, I was like, 'How am I going to catch him, he's already in front of me,' '' Desormeaux said. "But when I did get that opportunity, this colt just laid down and took off."
Desormeaux now has his Belmont to go along with three Derbies and two Preaknesses.
"Last year's Belmont was like swallowing a spoon sideways," Desormeaux said.
Summer Bird and Mine That Bird were the only two horses running in the stretch of the Derby. While the winner came up the rail, Summer Bird came about 10 wide.
Summer Bird's trainer, Tim Ice, who turned 35 on Saturday, passed on the Preakness and put blinkers on the colt for the Belmont.
Summer Bird wasn't exactly flying at the finish, but was still coming as the others were slowing down. The final time of 2:27.54 translated to a Beyer speed figure of just 100, several lengths slower than the Derby and Preakness.
"If my career goes nowhere from here, I've got a Belmont win," Ice said. "They can't take that away from me."
All of which proves again that nothing is certain in horse racing. It was 5 years ago when Birdstone ran down Smarty Jones in the Belmont Park stretch. Now, in his first crop of 3-year-olds, Birdstone has a Derby winner, a Belmont winner, a Preakness runner-up and a Belmont show horse.
What is certain is that the lasting memory of this Triple Crown will be Calvin Borel's sheer joy in competing.
"Coming for home, I thought he was home free," the rider said of Mine That Bird. "He bellied down, run his little heart out. So please don't knock him down. He's not a bad horse."
In fact, Mine That Bird has proved himself a very good horse. After a nice rest, the gelding will be back in late summer, perhaps at Monmouth Park or Saratoga.
And Calvin Borel will be back riding the Derby winner, probably still confident, but perhaps a bit more circumspect. Given his May, it would have been difficult for him not to be on the dark side of confident in the first week of June.
Win the Derby on a 50-1 shot with a ride equal parts brilliant and daring. Take off the Derby winner to ride a filly in the Preakness and win that with the super Rachel Alexandra. Ride one of just three graded stakes winners in the Belmont, you should think you are going to win. Even if you don't and even if your ride was a significant issue, you always have the rest of it. *