06/05/2009 11:00PM

Crown's third-act curtain rising

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Barbara D. Livingston
Mine That Bird gets his first feel of the Belmont Park surface Thursday.

ELMONT, N.Y. - For a guy who was suddenly, unexpectedly thrust into the public eye five weeks ago when Mine That Bird scored an upset in the Kentucky Derby, trainer Chip Woolley has handled himself with the self-assurance and wisdom of someone who has been down this road countless times before.

:: RACE OF THE DAY:

Woolley doesn't seek the media, but has been graciously accommodating to every request, and there have been hundreds, from the serious to the frivolous. Throughout it, though, from Churchill Downs to Pimlico and now to Belmont Park for the 141st Belmont Stakes on Saturday, Woolley has never lost his focus on exactly the reason he has been able to journey to all three legs of the Triple Crown.

So when Mine That Bird first stepped foot on the Belmont Park main track on Thursday morning, Woolley's attention was riveted on the little gelding. Hobbling on crutches because of his broken right leg, and peering through a light rain shower, Woolley hopped on a bench near the finish line to get a better view of the expansive track. As Mine That Bird galloped through the stretch, smoothly handling the sea of slop, Woolley broke into a grin.

"He gets over the ground super," Woolley said. "If there's a track he doesn't like, he hasn't found it yet."

Since Derby Day, Mine That Bird hasn't found a 3-year-old male who could beat him. Only the filly Rachel Alexandra, who held off Mine That Bird in the Preakness Stakes, has kept Mine That Bird from bidding for the Triple Crown on Saturday. Interest in the Belmont can wane when a Triple Crown is not on the line, and the atmosphere here is certainly unlike a year ago, when Big Brown was going for a sweep. But this Belmont itself is a terrific, competitive race - with the speedy Charitable Man and the pricey yearling Dunkirk considered the main rivals to Mine That Bird - and there is the compelling backstory of whether jockey Calvin Borel can garner his own Triple Crown.

Borel rode Mine That Bird in the Derby, was aboard Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness, and on Saturday will again ride Mine That Bird. No jockey has ever swept the Triple Crown on two different horses. Rather than get in a snit over Borel's Preakness decision, Woolley calmly and rationally assessed the situation, and it eventually resulted in him getting back together with the jockey who helped turn Woolley into an overnight sensation.

"I respected the decision to ride Rachel Alexandra," Woolley said. "He had won five in a row on her. I didn't begrudge him. And the best option for this race was going back to Calvin."

Borel has become a pop culture figure of late, Mine That Bird has endeared himself with his plucky persistence, and Woolley, with his black cowboy hat and angular frame, seems to be channeling Clint Eastwood in "High Plains Drifter." This race makes for great theater.

"It's been a lot of fun," Woolley said. "The media attention is sometimes not quite what you're used to. One thing this has done is validate a career. It took 25 years to get to this point, and I went broke a couple of times along the way. I'm just living in the moment, taking it all in."

The Belmont, at 1 1/2 miles, is the longest of the Triple Crown races. It is one lap around Belmont Park's main track. Because of the distance, the race often unfolds at a far slower pace than the shorter Derby or Preakness. That will be one of the hurdles Mine That Bird will have to overcome. His late run was enhanced by the sharp fractions in both the Derby and Preakness.

"This track is so much deeper," Woolley said. "If you go too early, you could come up empty at the wire. History says you need to be closer to the pace. He's got his work cut out for him. But we can't change his running style. That's what's made him a Grade 1 horse."

Woolley has never run a horse at Belmont Park. Borel has never ridden in the Belmont Stakes.

Mine That Bird should be the favorite. Of his nine challengers, Charitable Man is expected to be the strong second choice. He has won all three of his races on dirt; has won twice at this track; his sire, Lemon Drop Kid, won the Belmont 10 years ago; and Charitable Man's tactical early speed should be suited by the likely race shape.

"He's got the right running style for the Belmont," said Kiaran McLaughlin, the trainer of Charitable Man, who won the Peter Pan Stakes here four weeks ago.

McLaughlin will be keeping a wary eye on Mine That Bird, though.

"With a little bit of luck, he'd be going for the Triple Crown, so you have to respect him a lot," McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin won the Belmont with Jazil in 2006. Charitable Man's jockey, Alan Garcia, won the race last year with Da' Tara.

Dunkirk won his first two starts, finished second in the Florida Derby, but was 11th in the Kentucky Derby after stumbling at the start.

"You've got to draw a line through his Derby," said Todd Pletcher, the trainer of Dunkirk. "After he stumbled, he got squeezed back during the run to the first turn and lost position."

Pletcher and jockey John Velazquez, who will ride Dunkirk for the first time, combined to win the Belmont two years ago with Rags to Riches.

Like Dunkirk, both Chocolate Candy, who was fifth in the Derby, and Summer Bird, who was sixth, have not raced in five weeks.

Chocolate Candy was 15th midway through the Derby.

"I would rather he be more forwardly placed in the Belmont," said his trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer.

Hollendorfer has been shuttling between New York and California for the past five weeks, tending not only to his horses in California, but to his wife, Janet, who recently had surgery for a brain tumor and is now undergoing radiation treatment.

"She's more than halfway through the radiation," Hollendorfer said Thursday morning. "They way we look at it is we feel fortunate it was caught. She should be fine with the radiation."

Summer Bird has trained well this week.

"The further he goes, the stronger he gets," said his trainer, Tim Ice.

Mr. Hot Stuff, 15th in the Derby, also has been off for five weeks.

"I have no idea how he'll run," said his trainer, Eoin Harty. "I'm going to throw him in there and see what happens."

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, a four-time winner of the Belmont, sends out Flying Private and Luv Gov.

Nick Zito, who has won the Belmont twice, including last year with Da' Tara, has two longshots, Brave Victory and Miner's Escape.

The Belmont has a purse of $1 million, with $600,000 to the winner. It is the 11th race on a 13-race card that begins at 11:35 a.m. Eastern. Post time for the Belmont is scheduled for 6:27 p.m. The race is part of a two-hour ABC telecast beginning at 5 p.m. Before that, ESPN will show all the undercard races that are run between noon and 5 p.m.

The Belmont is the final leg of pick four and pick six wagers that both have guaranteed pools of $1 million. Each leg is a graded stakes race. Three of the races preceding the Belmont are Grade 1 races - the Just a Game, Acorn, and Manhattan. Two 2008 Eclipse Award winners - Benny the Bull (Grade 2 True North) and Forever Together (Just a Game) - are scheduled to compete.

"All these races are on turf or old-fashioned dirt, and we plan on keeping it that way," said Charles Hayward, the president and chief executive officer of the New York Racing Association.

It rained here on Thursday, when the high was 68 degrees, and heavier rain and cooler temperatures were forecast for Friday. But the outlook for Saturday was promising, with a high temperature of 77 degrees and a 20-percent chance of rain.

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