05/03/2010 11:00PM

Cheering this Derby win too much of a stretch


TUCSON, Ariz. - Hi, it's the old tree-hugger checking in.

I dislike interrupting parades or anointments or deifications, and I am particularly averse to disturbing the canonization of saints. So as hesitant as I am about stepping in where angels fear to tread, I regretfully cannot join the millions celebrating the elevation of Calvin Borel to sanctity, and must cast a lone vote of disapproval of his use of the whip with Super Saver.

I was not one of the announced crowd of 155,804 enraptured by the wild cavorting of Borel as he raised his arms and thumped his chest and slapped hands with every groom and outrider in sight, in ecstasy over his third Derby win in four years.

I understand all of that overwhelming happiness, but I was not one of the millions who joined in the joyful celebration of his rail-riding skills. The punishment he administered to his mount in the last eighth of a mile dulled my enjoyment of all that. I had cleaned the screen on my home TV to make sure I had a clear picture, and I counted eight hard blows in the final eighth and at least 14 from the head of the stretch to the wire. I may have missed a few before Borel and Super Saver cleared the pack, but he worked the colt over pretty good.

I have spent much time in recent years joining the successful campaign for less whipping in harness racing, with raising the whip shoulder-high and drawn back to hit the horse now getting the attention it deserves from judges and stewards. It is drawing penalties, including suspension, in more and more jurisdictions, and I have celebrated, along with other tree-huggers, the use of rules that have long been on the books but have been ignored.

I realize this was the Kentucky Derby, with all the hype on the line and on the air, but I still found it surprising that the writers who joined in the angry chorus following the Eight Belles incident a few years ago - although it did not involve whipping - were nowhere to be found bemoaning the hard stretch beating last Saturday.

I went back and read at least 25 post-Derby reviews, all drooling over Borel's skillful ride without one mention of his whip artistry. No one I know of bothered to check to see if there were welts on Super Saver after the Derby, but Borel was giving the best whacks his arm could deliver. Big bettors may have said they would be enraged if Borel had not hit his mount so vigorously, but it would be interesting to know how many out in Tubeland were equally enraged that he did.

As for that Bo-Rail moniker, I come from a background where drivers and trainers understand the shortest distance around a racetrack is to keep turning left along the rail, and the biggest surprise to me is the adulation that comes from people, including racing writers, who think it remarkable and some special talent that Borel, out of the bayous, understands this. The really surprising thing is that other jocks apparently don't.

It was amusing to see Borel counting out three on his fingers before displaying them to the crowd in Louisville and around the world on TV, but he didn't need to count the yards saved by getting to the rail and staying there.

Also strange to me is that an absolutely top trainer like Bob Baffert believed he was doomed when his horse drew the rail in the Derby. You can get trapped there, of course, if your horse doesn't have gate speed and can't leave fast enough to avoid being buried, but the notion that just because not many horses have been able to take advantage of it at Churchill Downs doesn't mean it's a death sentence or a law of physics that you're done before you start if you draw there. The next jock who wins from post 1 in the Derby will likely be heralded as Borel has been, but it will be no super accomplishment.

The 2010 Derby, with its fine television ratings and giant crowd, will go down as the huge artistic and marketing success that it was, given the wide-open, mediocre field and Borel's masterful rail ride.

I would like to know, however, what Super Saver thought of it. Or the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Or all those at home who dislike what St. Calvin administered to his mount through that long stretch last Saturday.