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By Thomas Chambers
You've seen it here, and I won't deny it. The Triple Crown puts some of us into a real tizzy. But now that we know once again that there will be no Triple Crown winner, things have settled down and we ease into the joys of summer Thoroughbred horse racing.
Not to say there aren't some highly compelling stories this week as 10 will go postward in the 141st Belmont Stakes, the 12-furlong Test of Champions. (ESPN,11 a.m.-4 p.m.; ABC, 4 p.m.-6 p.m.)
Can Calvin Borel win his own human Triple Crown? He's back aboard Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird after winning the Preakness Stakes on the filly Rachel Alexandra. Can Mine That Bird win the race his sire, Birdstone, commandeered to thwart Smarty Jones (Stewart Elliott up) of his legitimate Triple Crown bid?
Will Chocolate Candy, Dunkirk, Mr. Hot Stuff, Summer Bird or Flying Private be able to put less-than-enjoyable trips in the Derby behind them? Flying Private and Mine That Bird are the only two in this race to have run the other two legs of the Triple Crown.
Either I think this race is wide open, or I don't know what to think. All the wiseguys are saying that should Mine That Bird understandably falter after a trying Crown trail, Charitable Man will be the horse to beat. They're also figuring Brave Victory and Miner's Escape will have something to say about the pace. Pace is everything in this race, and just when you think you've got it made, you've got four more furlongs to go! If you've got plenty of horse, don't use him up on the backstretch; I'm talkin' to you, Elliott. Lull them to sleep, and a slow front runner can wire this race, ala Da' Tara last year.
So here they are, in post-position order. Draw your own conclusions.
1. Chocolate Candy
He actually had a decent race on the Churchill Down goop - or is it glop? - but this marks the first time he will actually be running on a fast dirt track. He hails from the California synthetics. As with so many of these, you toss the Derby. He's been training at Belmont a month, and they say he looks pretty good.
The most highly touted $37K allowance winner in the land. Nobody knows how good he is, even with the 108 Beyer Speed figure in a losing effort in the Florida Derby. But his was a flashing rise up to the Kentucky Derby. He should get the distance and you're real sure of a good ride from Belmont veteran Johnny Velazquez. I don't think you can toss him.
3. Mr Hot Stuff
Hard to see. Another facing his first real race on fast dirt and it's the pressure packed Belmont. He looks to be more of a Grade III horse and has done all his training on the Keeneland Polytrack. Belmont Park veteran Edgar Prado will know if he has anything under him, and it looks like they're trying to see if 'Stuff will blossom on dirt. Price flyer can't hurt.
4. Summer Bird
Who luvs ya, baby? I do. My Derby wiseguy actually ran a good race and was gaining after having to come wide out of the turn. He looked like he could have danced all night. He gets a jockey upgrade in Kent Desormeaux, although you have to be concerned about Kent's mental residue from the Big Brown fiasco last year and his sometimes questionable pace management throughout the entire grind of this race. But he has been a money jockey before. Save some ground, Kent, and anything can happen.
5. Luv Gov
His speed figures are lacking, he seems more suitable to mud and Polytrack, and he has an awful lot of seconds in maiden special weights. He won his first race, a $52k MSW, just as the Oaks Day hangovers were subsiding early in the Derby undercard. No street cred and he got waylayed by a ton of these types in the Preakness. OK, Patti's the (former) Gov's Luv, so if you dig reality TV or snacking on bugs . . .
6. Charitable Man
Some call him a lock. This Lemon Drop Kid colt might just be able to control the pace and then run away. Toss the Bluegrass on the Polytrack, it's his third in the racing cycle, and he's got one of the hottest jockeys in the land in Alan Garcia. Young Alan's been making his bones on the New York circuit and I think he knows how to parcel it out over the mile-and-a-half. But what's the price here? 2-1 might be OK. Anything more would be great. I might like Garcia just as much as I like the horse.
7. Mine That Bird
Okay, I respect him now. He is fully capable of winning this race. Shoot, ol' sidewinder Borel guarantees it! After the romp in Louisville, he had a much tougher trip (Mike Smith has taken holy hell on his ride) in the Preakness and was most definitely all out in almost catching Rachel Alexandra. Borel can't think he'll win this race by falling back to Brooklyn Heights, so 'Bird's intended trip and his actual trip will be the most intriguing parts of this race. And Borel is not on his home court here. The long Belmont backstretch has confounded some of the great jockeys over the years. It's called the clock in the head. But you might get a price. If he wins the human Triple Crown, does Calvin endorse a cologne that smells like the paddock? Times Square's not far, and you never know.
8. Flying Private
Very tough to figure. He ran pretty well in the Preakness, but I think D. Wayne Lukas' efforts to get him on the Triple Crown trail left this one verklempt. He hasn't won since last August (!) and I think it took him until the Preakness to wash that damn Polytrack out of his mane from the Lane's End in March at Turfway. Another hot jock, Julien Leparoux, is aboard. This horse has a lackluster record and a tough 2009 season already. Get a price.
9. Miner's Escape
Nick Zito's first of two in this race, this winner of his last two, including the ungraded but respected Federico Tessio Stakes last out, may very well try to get to the lead and see what happens. It's the M.O. for any success he's had. His Beyer progression is good, but still short of where it probably needs to be. It appears he's maturing and has run very well at the end of his last two races. He's running his second off a short break and will be some sort of a price. Have I convinced myself yet?
10. Brave Victory
Zito's second horse, a colt out of one of my recent favorites, Lion Heart, has more paper credentials than the 9. New York veteran Rajiv Maragh has the mount here after he lost a whip in the Grade II Peter Pan May 9 but still was able to rally this horse to a third-place finish. He seems a tryer, but he hasn't beaten much, doesn't look like he closes much and doesn't look good in graded stakes races. Maybe Zito knows, but it also doesn't look like he'll get the distance. If you find something you like, drop me a line.
Races of the Day
Obviously, the 2009 Belmont Stakes is a big and important race and it looks like a good one this year, but check out the Belmont undercard for Saturday. I think this is the finest single card since the Breeders Cup, and if you're simply watching on TV for the entertainment, there's a good chance ESPN/ABC will give you decent background on each race. A couple might even be better than the Belmont. These are the horses who give us such a great game on a regular basis.
I'll just run it down, in race order, and tell you which ones get my juices janglin'.
* True North Handicap (Grade II), 3&up, 6 furlongs
Underrated sprinter of his time Benny the Bull (he was actually retired and now makes a comeback, of his own doing, they say), Fabulous Strike.
* Just a Game Stakes (Grade I Turf), 3&up, fillies and mares, 8 furlongs
Forever Together, My Princess Jess and price horse Diamondrella.
* Woody Stephens S (Grade II), 3yo, 7 furlongs
Maybe this is where some of these, including the Triple Crown wannabes, belong. Regal Ransom, This One's for Phil, up-and-comer (?) Munnings, needs-redemption Hello Broadway, and on the big stage for the first time, the Holy Bull colt Hull.
* Acorn Stakes (Grade I), 3yo fillies, 8 furlongs
Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra aren't here, but these lasses are mighty good looking in their own right. Justwhistledixie, Gabby's Golden Gal (at a price), Doremifasollatido.
* Woodford Reserve Manhattan Handicap (Grade I Turf), 3&up, 10 furlongs
Where to start? Court Vision, Champs Elysees, Gio Ponti, Better Talk Now (10 years old!), Cosmonaut, Lauro and the relative spring chicken Cowboy Cal. This could be the race of the day.
Big Z & Big D
I've heard that Sweet Lou Piniella likes to play the ponies. I wonder if he's had a chance to tell Carlos Zambrano what true sporting adversity is. I wonder if he's had a chance to tell $91 million dollars-can't-buy-maturity Carlos about Rene Douglas.
Winner's circles across the continent will fill with horsemen, track officials and, most assuredly, fellow jockeys at about 3:15 Saturday as they all salute Douglas, who looks to be permanently paralyzed from the waist down after a spill at Arlington Park May 23.
You've probably already heard about it, so, simply, in trying to get through a hole, another horse in the Arlington Matron Handicap came out, a slower horse got in the way, hooves were clipped and Rene's horse went down. The horse rolled over Douglas and then lay on top of him. Miraculously, Douglas lived. He was taken off the respirator a few days ago. He's making slow progress. But progress.
Eyes will be on Belmont Park, of course, and attention will be given to the dangers jockeys live with and the woeful plight they face if injured in this manner. The industry needs to get it together for these guys.
Douglas won the Arlington riding title seven times and was one of the best turf riders around, go-to on the grass. He won the Belmont Stakes in 1996 with Editor's Note. The Panamanian knocked around, had some success on the mighty California circuit, and was seen on many a big undercard and in the Breeders Cup. Chicago was his racing home, the scene of his greatest accomplishments. He gave it his all, and he never had to remind us railbirds. We knew. Douglas, Catalano, Calabrese, look out. Big gun trainers invading Chicago on the turf came looking for Douglas. And you didn't hear a peep out of him, unlike the pampered polyester posers. He just went out and rode the hell out of every race. He knew tomorrow was never promised.
So next time you see Baby Huey smash a soda fountain, remember who the real athletes, the sportsmen and sportswomen, are. I'll bet Sweet Lou knows. And Lou knows what he has. And doesn't have.
Thomas Chambers is the Beachwood's man on the rail. He brings you TrackNotes every Friday. He welcomes your comments.More from Beachwood Sports »