06/08/2009 11:00PM

They don't run 'em on paper

Email

Perhaps you made some of the same handicapping mistakes I did during the 2009 Triple Crown series; or maybe you avoided them and made some good scores. In either case, there were valuable lessons learned that may prove beneficial in the future.

For the Kentucky Derby, I believed that the Bob Baffert-trained Pioneerof the Nile was the best prepared horse for the 1 1/4-mile contest. While I came close to being right when Pioneerof the Nile finished a gritty second to 50-1 shot Mine That Bird, there were two obvious facts that stopped me from patting myself on the back.

* The unheralded Mine That Bird was so much the best it would have been a hollow victory if he never had gotten through that narrow hole on the rail en route to his runaway victory.

* Pioneerof the Nile deserved to be disqualified to fourth, for bearing out and bumping eventual fourth-place finisher Papa Clem in deep stretch. Had this occurred in a mid-week allowance race instead of the hallowed Kentucky Derby, the Churchill Downs stewards probably would have viewed the incident more harshly.

For the Preakness, Rachel Alexandra seemed a logical favorite to beat the boys, given her dominating Kentucky Oaks victory. But again I made two glaring misjudgments.

* I overestimated the negative potential of post 13 on a track that often penalizes a wide run around the first turn. Given Rachel's natural speed, there was ample reason to believe she actually would get a perfect, outside stalking trip and be difficult to catch once jockey Calvin Borel let her assume command.

* As too many horseplayers tend to do, I stubbornly stayed with my Derby pick in the Preakness, even though the thought did occur that Pioneerof the Nile might bounce to the moon from his strenuous effort battling for second in the Derby after racing wide on the inside-favoring Churchill Downs racing strip.

Realistically, there was no concrete handicapping reason to support Pioneerof the Nile against the filly. Moreover, Mine That Bird was the only horse in the Preakness with an equal winning chance. Thus a cold exacta box was missed due to foolish allegiance to a previous play.

The Belmont without Pioneerof the Nile, Rachel Alexandra, or Musket Man, who was third in both the Derby and Preakness, would prove to be the most instructive of the three races with a rude reminder that this unique 1 1/2-mile classic often plays out much differently than it appears on paper. Consider these prerace thoughts against what really happened.

* Charitable Man, a son of 1999 Belmont stakes winner Lemon Drop Kid, was supposed to control the pace, with only Miner's Escape as a likely early challenger. With Charitable Man's two prior wins over the track, including his recent prep race victory in the Peter Pan and his pace advantage, it seemed reasonable to expect significant improvement in his third start off a layoff.

* Mine That Bird was still in the game and was to be reunited with Calvin Borel, whose extremely patient, yet daring rail-skimming ride in the Derby seemed a blueprint for how to handle the son of 2004 Belmont winner Birdstone. Wouldn't Borel be sure to wait as long as possible before he would ask Mine That Bird for his patented late burst of speed?

* Dunkirk, a disappointing 11th in the Kentucky Derby, seemed a legitimate threat to recover his promising Florida Derby form, but if the pace was going to be a major issue, would it be fast enough for his liking?

Surely, lightly raced Summer Bird deserved a chance similar to Dunkirk, given how well he had finished in the Arkansas Derby and how his trip for sixth place in the Kentucky Derby was compromised by an extremely wide run. Likewise, Chocolate Candy, a fair fifth in Louisville, had trained strongly at Belmont and also seemed eligible for improvement.

So, what did we see in the race itself that conformed to the above?

Not very much.

Charitable Man was held under light restraint during the run to the first turn while Miner's Escape also was not asked for much more than to gain a respectable stalking position. Meanwhile, Dunkirk, with moderate encouragement from jockey John Velazquez, unexpectedly went right to the front for the first time in the colt's five-race career.

No longer was Charitable Man the controlling speed in this 1 1/2-mile race. Instead, his chances were diminished by jockey Alan Garcia's decision to let him sit fourth in the four path, on a track that was playing very kind to horses on the inside rail. If he was going to win, he would have to overcome Dunkirk, as well as the deep closers, Mine That Bird, Summer Bird, and Chocolate Candy.

Beyond the eventual fate of Charitable Man, who finished fourth after making a spirited move on the final turn to gain a slight advantage on Dunkirk in the upper stretch, one other fact emerged during the Belmont: Calvin Borel does not walk on water.

Why did he take Mine That Bird off the rail? Why did he not remain covered up in the rear of the pack until the final three-eighths, as he had done at Churchill Downs? Most of all, why did he choose not to ride a single race during Belmont Week, or on the Belmont Stakes Day card to familiarize himself with the most unusual, largest dirt racing surface in America?

Maybe the down-to-earth Mr. Borel let his sudden-found celebrity go to his head. He certainly went overboard predicting certain victory for Mine That Bird in several pubic forums. As brilliant as he was riding Mine That Bird and Rachel Alexandra to their respective victories in the Derby and Preakness, Borel was nowhere near as good as he needed to be in this Belmont.

Once he moved Mine That Bird outside midway down the backstretch, the horse was unwilling to stay far behind, just as trainer Chip Woolley feared since Mine That Bird lost two races at Sunland Park while chasing the pace. Once this gelding picked up the bit and began to move forward at the six-furlong pole, he was doomed to pay the price when the real test came in deep stretch. This was, after all, a 12-furlong race on a track that is notoriously unkind to horses who launch their best rallies more than a half-mile from the wire.

Summer Bird? All he really did was take the trip Mine That Bird needed, first saving ground through the first nine furlongs followed by a steady outside rally that wore down his rivals inside the final furlong.

Dunkirk, fighting back when headed first by Charitable Man in the upper stretch and again by Mine That Bird in midstretch, ran the best race in the Belmont, even taking into consideration Summer Bird's 2 3/4-length winning margin over him. But as a somewhat fragile horse who lost considerable body weight after running second in the Florida Derby, and as a horse who needed the full five weeks between the Kentucky Derby and Belmont to recover his full power, it is not certain Dunkirk will ever achieve his true potential.

At the bottom line, the horses we saw in this Triple Crown - with the possible exception of Rachel Alexandra - had distinct limitations and vulnerabilities that left us wondering if they will be able to handle a healthy Quality Road when he returns this summer. Yet it seemed worth the ups and downs; there were lessons to be learned and they sure put on a very entertaining show.