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TrackNotes: The Backstretch Blues

By Thomas Chambers

As anticipated, Belmont Stakes Day from Elmont, New York, lived up to its potential and turned into a great day of racing capped off by an exciting main event.

Summer Bird, he of the same Birdstone/Grindstone sire side as rival Mine That Bird, turned on an electric finish to clear by nearly three lengths in front of the gallant Dunkirk, who led the race much of the way. Mine That Bird finished third. Charitable Man made an effort to sprint home, but was only good enough for fourth. In the aftermath, it was announced Dunkirk suffered a non-displaced fracture in his right rear leg, but he is expected to be back racing this year.

As I had hoped, Kent Desormeaux saved a great amount of ground and tucked in Summer Bird ($25.80, 9.30, 4.70) fifth or sixth on the rail much of the way in a race eerily reminiscent of his sire's victory in 2004, when Birdstone snatched the Triple Crown from Smarty Jones.

The moves Calvin Borel made with Mine That Bird and the early backstretch move Stewart Elliott made with Smarty Jones will continue to catch criticism for years to come. As Elliott lost his patience and gunned Smarty on the backstretch - and then made another quickness move at the eighth pole - so did Borel disobey two commandments of Belmont. He took Mine That Bird very wide into the first turn and then sent him too early to the lead at the eighth pole, a move that actually started before that. Desormeaux and Summer Bird calmly held to the rail as Mine That Bird made his patented rush, blowing by him at the quarter pole. But it was the difference in the race.

Mine That Bird trainer Chip Woolley said he thought Borel moved too early and that once Mine' sees the leader, it's tough to keep him from taking off. Borel's behavior the week before the race was curious. He spent most of the week in New York and yet chose not to get in a few rides at Belmont for practice and familiarity. He reportedly had previously ridden at Belmont only seven times, last winning there 10 years ago. He had no other mounts on Belmont Day either, a day when Desormeaux won four races. For a guy who was a local hired gun at Churchill Downs for the Derby, you'd think he would know better.

Borel talked after the race of how slow the pace was going, but the race interior was actually somewhat quick, with opening fractions in :23/2, 47 and 1:12. The final time was not barn-burning with Summer' logging a 100 Beyer Speed Figure, but the Belmont often encompasses more than one speed scenario. Could the clock in Borel's head have failed him? It's said that the backstretch at Belmont is so long that jockeys misjudge and figure the turn must be coming soon, soon, soon. Borel said he had plenty of horse and that might have lulled him into a false sense of security. But still, he moved too early.

Jackson Street Freeze-Out
It was a weird Belmont Stakes Day, from a horseplaying point of view as InterTrack Partners announced to patrons that it is closing the Jackson Street OTB, effective after this weekend.

I called it a few weeks ago, what with the declining level of service and all. I passed on the $35 buffet for Derby Day. Believe me, it's never worth $35, and that's a steep price these days. Upon arriving for the Belmont, a $5 admission fee was requested to sit on the third-floor club level. It was a ploy to gouge the civilians who wouldn't know better, and I didn't see anyone except the regulars up there Saturday anyway. This after years of them not enforcing the $5 minimum food & beverage on that level that only a few of us met (we would have anyway).

Management there never really acknowledged the regulars, ignoring the amounts of money we pushed through the windows. And the joint's management was a revolving door, not that any of them took the time to find out who their best customers were. In the past few weeks, I noticed a general sputtering of the wagering machines, with everything from grossly wrong bet amounts to just not working. That was another tipoff.

I ended up at my favorite Italian restaurant for the bulk of Belmont Day, but noo ne else there shared the focused enthusiasm I had for the day's racing card, so it wasn't the same. Fun, but I was a fish out of water and had to make sure a couple of times they didn't throw a net on me.

So the OTB alternatives now are the Stretch Run on LaSalle or the Mudbug on Weed Street (Hawthorne Race Course is actually handy for me just off the Stevenson from the West Loop, but you're talking $25-30 in cab fares). Forget MudBug, it'll be packed. I wonder about Stretch Run, because it isn't as big as Jackson. And I wonder if some of the Jackson OTB "railbirds" will go anywhere else. But I believe a few of my gang have a plan.

I really question if Jackson St. was losing money, but that's what they said. Probably just not making as much as they wanted and I imagine they're also trying to consolidate leases and steer some of the weekday players to Stretch Run.

If you've ever been to a Las Vegas race book and then come back to an OTB here, you know what I mean. The absolute absence of business sense and care for the customer is astounding at the OTB.

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Thomas Chambers is the Beachwood's man on the rail. He brings you Track Notes every Friday. He welcomes your comments.

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