Calvin Borel was one of the central figures in this year's bid for the Triple Crown.

Calvin Borel was one of the central figures in this year's bid for the Triple Crown.

Anne M. Eberhardt

Haskin's Triple Crown Wrap: Final Thoughts

All the obvious thoughts on this year’s bizarre, but memorable Triple Crown have been discussed regarding the major players. But there were unsung heroes as well who did not wind up in the winner’s circle, yet contributed to the memories.


Before we get to that, a lot has been written about Calvin Borel throughout the Triple Crown, beginning with his masterful ride on Mine That Bird in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), continuing with his unprecedented move of taking off the Derby winner and then defeating him in the Preakness (gr. I) with Rachel Alexandra, and concluding with his controversial ride back on Mine That Bird in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I).


Borel was criticized in many circles, including here, for not taking any mounts before the Belmont, despite his inexperience over the testing mile and a half oval. It has been learned that the decision was not his, and that he was unable to land any mounts. It is hard to believe not a single New York trainer would want the red-hot Borel on their horse and that not one mount was available from Wednesday to Saturday. Borel did manage to get named on one horse, but was advised to take off that particular mount.


If Borel indeed attempted to secure mounts and was unsuccessful, then the criticism was not justified. Borel is one rider whose work ethics have never been questioned. This information was never made public. At the Tuesday media luncheon, he was asked about not having any mounts and insisted it was not a big deal and that he had enough experience at Belmont, which led one to believe the decision was his.


But if he tried and was not able to get any mounts, then it is unfortunate, because the belief, as stated here on several occasions, is that a jockey who is inexperienced at Belmont, not having won a race there in 10 years, should have a few mounts prior to a race of this magnitude to get acquainted with the track, which has been the undoing of many a rider.


The wide trip around the turn definitely contributed heavily to Mine That Bird’s defeat. I am in the minority who believe Borel did not move too soon, and if he did it was inconsequential. The horse was in a position to win the race, but the ground loss (5-6 wide) from the five-eighths pole to the quarter pole left him empty in the final furlong. It has been brought up that the horse was too wound up before the race and was not as relaxed during the running as he had been in the Derby and Preakness. It must be noted that Mine That Bird’s neighbor in the detention barn was Summer Bird, who required about 10-15 minutes of walking before he was able to settle down. Did that unnerve Mine That Bird? Summer Bird also was on his toes before the race, dancing around the paddock. Dunkirk totally lost his cool going to the detention barn, bucking and kicking during the walk over.


It’s also possible Mine That Bird simply was not quite the same horse following the five-week grind of the Triple Crown. As for his inability to settle as he did in his earlier races, from our observation, the horse did not appear to have run on his mind until he was steered to the outside down the backstretch. The expanse of Belmont often does that to a horse when confronted with those wide open spaces, especially down the backstretch. But again, that is one opinion based on observation. Borel obviously felt that was the best place for him.


Whatever the reason for Mine That Bird’s defeat, the gelding proved himself to be a top-class, game, and exciting horse, who no doubt will provide many thrills for several years to come. And he has a personality that will endear him to racing fans wherever he runs. Trainer Chip Woolley, after a bit of a rocky start, made a complete transformation and became one of the most personable, well-liked, and accommodating trainers ever in the Triple Crown.


As for Borel, if he did not have any mounts because no one would give him any, then comments made about that should be retracted, which we do now. Whatever one may think about his ride or his “guarantee of victory,” the bottom line is that he was the face of the Triple Crown and provided it with a jolt of electricity – on and off the track -- powerful enough to put the sport on the cover of Sports Illustrated and all over the major nighttime talk shows and morning shows.


Unsung heroes


Let’s not forget some of the other names that helped make this year’s Triple Crown one that will be talked about for a long time.


We all hope that Dunkirk makes a successful return to the races, especially after his gutsy performance in the Belmont, in which he was taken out of his running style and set a testing pace, then fought back the length of the stretch after being confronted by Mine That Bird and Charitable Man to snatch second away from the Derby winner. It was this performance alone that justified his $3.7 million price tag as a yearling. We all knew he was a brilliant and talented colt, but he proved in that final quarter mile that he possessed something more defining than brilliance and talent and indeed is something special. And let’s also recognize John Velazquez, who was able to nurture him along on the lead and kept him going when everyone thought he was finished.


And how about Dunkirk’s trainer Todd Pletcher, who in the last four Belmonts finished second and third in 2006, first in 2007, and second in 2009. Pletcher has proven in this day and age you don’t have to train a horse long and hard to get him or her ready for a mile and a half race.


Also, kudos to Musket Man, the $15,000 yearling by the sprinter Yonaguska, who defied his pedigree and the odds by finishing a game third in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. He’ll be waiting to take on all comers, including Summer bird for sure, over his home track of Monmouth Park in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I).


Let us also give a tip of the cap to Big Drama, who was cast in his stall the morning of the Preakness, luckily escaping injury, and then became fractious, rearing in the gate before stumbling badly at the start. Breaking from the rail, he was forced to go head and head with Rachel Alexandra through quick fractions and still hung tough all the way to finish a respectable fifth, beaten only 5 1/2 lengths. And this was having only one seven-furlong race in five months and not having run in almost two months leading up to the Preakness. Watch out for this guy later on.


I miss Gary Stute, trainer of Papa Clem, fourth in the Derby and sixth in the Preakness. Stute brought with him a constant smile and infectious laugh, and gave the first two legs of the Triple Crown a cheery face and a number of humorous quotes. With cigar in hand, he became a ubiquitous presence at Churchill Downs and Pimlico, and we all hope he makes it back.


Finally, despite his poor showing in the Preakness, congratulations to Pioneerof the Nile  on his courageous second-place finish in the Derby -- his first start over a dirt track. One bit of advice to all his future foes: if he’s in front of you in the stretch, it would be wise to stay as far away from him as possible. This is one horse you don’t want to look in the eye.


So, to all these horses and personalities, especially newcomers like Chip Woolley and Tim Ice, and Wooley’s travel companion/groom/exercise rider Charlie Figueroa, who was always available for a great quote, thanks for all the memories.