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Five lessons from the Belmont

ELMONT, N.Y. -- Here are my five quick thoughts following a stirring, if anticlimactic, Belmont Stakes.

1. This track will eat you up.

We should all be used to this by now. For the last 30 years, when something has been on the line at Belmont, there has been nothing to count on but disappointment. Eleven times since 1979 -- seven times in the last 12 years -- a horse has come to New York with a shot at the Triple Crown and failed to seal the deal. This time, it was a rider. Calvin Borel had won the Derby atop Mine That Bird and the Preakness aboard Rachel Alexandra, and he was in position today to make an unprecedented rider sweep of the three races. He was piloting the 6-5 favorite. The pace was fast. Everything was in his favor. And he still couldn't get it done.

They don't call the Belmont the "Test of the Champion" for nothing. It is the longest race most of these horses will ever run, and it is contested over the biggest track in the United States (1.5 miles). Mistakes are not forgiven. The Derby, with its long home stretch and 20-horse fields, might be the toughest race in the world to win. But luck can play a role around the mile long oval at Churchill Downs. There is no luck at Belmont, where you can get lost going around its huge sweeping turns. You win and you lose at Belmont on your own merits. And today, Borel and Mine That Bird lost decisively.

2. Blame Borel for hubris, but don't blame him for losing.

He predicted victory earlier this week. He chose not to ride in even one of the 10 races on the Belmont undercard. And he seemed to start his move for the lead with just over a half-mile left to run. What was Borel thinking? Perhaps he left his Belmont notes in the green room at Letterman.

Not so fast. Borel and Mine That Bird may have broken last, but the jockey insists, and replays seemed to confirm, that the colt was rank as he ran down the backstretch. "He kind of took me a little earlier than I wanted down the backside," he said afterwards. "So I let him go on."

Borel is sure to be roundly criticized for this ride. He is now, with five starts on the main track under his belt, zero-for-his-life at Belmont Park. Five starts. That is not a misprint. It might have been a good idea for him to ride at least five horses earlier in the afternoon. Kent Desormeaux, who rode Summer Bird to the upset win -- and owns his own piece of Belmont infamy for moving too soon on Triple-Crown hopeful Real Quiet in 1998 -- had ridden three winners Saturday before the Belmont even went off.

But the fact is that Borel was riding a horse in the Belmont that was tired and worn down by the five-week Triple-Crown grind, a horse that wasn't interested in being rated until the moment was perfect. The jockey might be guilty of predicting victory, but nothing about his ride indicates that he was at fault for this defeat.

Borel was on the verge of being anointed the best jockey in the game today -- admittedly by a press corps that follows racing for the most part only during the Triple-Crown season; the regular racing press takes a far more balanced view of his strengths and weaknesses. The truth about his talent is probably somewhere in between. He certainly gave Mine That Bird a great ride in Louisville. But those looking to hang this defeat around his neck should take a look at another replay.

3. Even in defeat, Mine That Bird distinguished himself.

Mine That Bird is one of the great rags-to-riches stories in recent memory. And he has only burnished his legacy since his improbable Derby victory. In hanging on for third Saturday -- Dunkirk bested him by a neck -- Mine That Bird showed a champion's heart. This was a horse that had been in a steady drive for a little over a half mile, and had been in a furious one for just about a quarter mile. Borel said afterward, "Don't take anything away from the little horse."

Don't worry Calvin. We won't. We can't.

4. Dunkirk lived up to his potential.

Ever since he was purchased for a cool $3.7 million as a yearling, horsemen have been waiting for Dunkirk to live up to his enormous potential. The regally bred son of the great sire Unbridled had won his first two starts of 2009 before running a huge race in a runner-up showing in the Florida Derby, where he lost a stretch duel to Quality Road. But in Louisville on May 2, he'd stumbled out of the starting gate and finished a disappointing 11th.

By steadying him in the stretch that day, jockey Edgar Prado may have helped the horse save something for the Belmont. Under a steady ride from John Velazquez, Dunkirk seized the lead early and set solid fractions all around the track. He held the lead on the turn for home, but surrendered it to Mine That Bird. At that point, it seemed his day was over.

But Dunkirk held on and dug in. And he took the lead back from Mine That Bird in the final furlong. It was a huge effort, and it would be a shame if it was forgotten.

5. Today was sweet redemption for Kent Desormeaux.

Few riders in Triple-Crown history have taken as much abuse in recent years as Desormeaux. In 1998, he rode Real Quiet to wins in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, and came to Belmont with a live shot at victory. But, perhaps remembering the way he had swept to wins at Churchill Downs and Pimlico in the previous weeks, Desormeaux put the spurs to Real Quiet in the Belmont as the field entered the far turn. The two opened a huge lead entering the stretch, but were run down easily by the hard-charging Victory Gallop, who nipped them by a nose at the wire.

Through hard experience, Desormeaux learned his lesson and rode a near-perfect race on Saturday. He knows that Belmont does not forgive. But he also knows that the track rewards those who pay it respect.

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