#3 – The Belmont Stakes

THE INTRIGUE

The third leg of racing’s Triple Crown has been the undoing of many champions aspiring for all-time greatness.  It is the site of many historical performances and it’s place in racing’s landscape as big and broad as the racetrack over which it’s contested.  In a year like 2009 when two different horses win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, the dream matchup is for the two of them to meet up in the Belmont.  That wasn’t to be in this year’s rendition but a field with a core group that had real potential was in place for the “test of a champion.”  However, there was another rare occurrence on the line as jockey Calvin Borel was seeking a Triple Crown of his own after riding the winners of the Derby and Preakness.  He was to be re-united with Mine That Bird, five weeks after they were blanketed in roses.

THE PLAYERS

After Mine That Bird‘s dramatic upset in the Belmont he came back to run a very solid second in the Preakness to “super filly” Rachel Alexandra.  As ABC marketed it, the Belmont was to be “the race he was born for” as his sire, Birdstone, was victorious before better than 120,000 stunned fans five years earlier at “Big Sandy.”  His trainer, Chip Woolley, was a complete novice when it came to conditioning a horse for a big race but he had this to say to Joe Drape of the NY Times before the Belmont: “If you watch Mine That Bird run, his stride is bigger than most horses,” Woolley said. “He has a huge stride and gets over the ground real easy. With his running style, we’re going to have to let him run his race. But the good thing here is, when you start slowing the fractions down, if you let him run his same race, he’s going to move way up. If we can just be within 10 to 12 of them, I’m confident he’ll have enough kick left.”
Mine That Bird was installed as the 2-1 morning line favorite by NYRA oddsmaker Eric Donovan.

Charitable Man was considered a 3YO with a future when the calendar turned to 2009 as he won the Futurity at Belmont in September 2008.  A series of setbacks delayed his seasonal debut to April when he finished up the track in the Blue Grass at Keeneland.  He rebounded with a win in the Peter Pan over the Belmont strip and looked like another horse who’d handle the demanding 12 furlong distance being by 1999 Belmont victor Lemon Drop Kid.
Charitable Man was the 3-1 second choice.

The “blue blooded” Dunkirk came into the Belmont looking to atone for a poor effort in the Kentucky Derby when he was never involved and ultimately checked in 11th, 19 lengths behind Mine That Bird.  He was the subject of much hype after his smashing debut, in large part because of his hefty $3.7 million purchase price.  After finishing second to Quality Road in the Florida Derby it appeared as if he might be excluded from the Kentucky Derby field but made the cut via  a number of defections.  His pedigree also suggested that 12 furlongs would be right up his alley and fresh horses have notoriously done very well in the Belmont, so his five week break made him quite attractive.
Dunkirk was made the 4-1 third choice on the morning line.

A handsome chestnut son of Birdstone, Summer Bird boasted credentials for Belmont glory as he was a long-striding colt who seemed to excel with more ground.  His career didn’t start until March of 2009 but in just four starts he had broken his maiden, finished a close third in the Arkansas Derby and then hardly disgraced himself on the off track in the Kentucky Derby.  His trainer, Tim Ice, was another complete novice when it came to the big stage but his plan was to equip his colt with blinkers and change his rider to Kent Desormeaux, a Hall of Famer who was in search of Belmont glory after another failed Triple Crown bid a year earlier.

Summer Bird was a bit of an outsider at 12-1 on the morning line.

THE OUTCOME

The Belmont field was supposed to be led by Charitable Man in the early stages as he loomed the speed of the speed on paper.  Leaving the gate, John Velazquez took the initiative on Dunkirk as he put the gray son of Unbridled’s Song on the lead heading to the Clubhouse turn.  He took the field through testing fractions for the distance and looked as if he was starting to tire when confronted by a rallying Mine That Bird on the far turn.  Charitable Man was also in contention as the field hit the top of the stretch but it was Kent Desormeaux and Summer Bird that lingered just behind the leaders ready to pounce.  As the field hit the mid-stretch marker it was the “other Bird” that was in high gear and he swept by the leaders in the waning stages.  Dunkirk bravely battled back to grab the place dough in front of favored Mine That Bird with Charitable Man finishing fourth after steadying in the stretch drive.  After the race there was talk about whether Borel may have moved his gelding a little too early as they made the lead with a quarter-mile still to run.  As has happened with many favorites in the Belmont Stakes the demanding distance caught up to the Derby winner as he completed a trio of in the money finishes in the three legs of the Triple Crown.

THE AFTERMATH

Following a vacation Mine That Bird re-surfaced for the 2nd half of his 3YO season in the West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer.  After a disappointing third-place finish it was announced that he was having surgery to repair an entrapped epiglottis and he didn’t make it back to the races until the October 10 Goodwood on the Pro-Ride at Santa Anita.  He finished a non-threatening sixth that day and further proved his distaste for the Arcadia oval with a dull showing in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The Belmont ended up being the first step in a march to the Eclipse Award for Summer Bird, who would later run 2nd in the Haskell to Rachel Alexandra before winning the Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup.  He was the first colt to win all three of those races in the same year since Easy Goer 20 years before.  His 4th place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic showed what a quality animal he is and his 2010 debut following surgery to repair a bone chip is eagerly anticipated.

THE RACE

Enjoy the 141st Belmont Stakes:

See you tomorrow as we move on to the 2nd best NY race of 2009!

All Past Performance data and Charts provided by Daily Racing Form (drf.com)

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