Mine That Bird has deservedly completed the journey from 50-1 shot in the Kentucky Derby to 2-1 favorite in the Belmont Stakes, but before we just hand the “Trip-Cal Crown” to his jockey, Calvin Borel, let’s consider another possibility: a colt that can end the Triple Crown on a sweet note for anyone willing to consider him at 10-1.
Liquor may be quicker, but he’s not in the race, so my pick to win the Belmont on Saturday is Chocolate Candy, a colt who figures to be just dandy in the 1 ½ mile “Test of the Champion.”
Mine That Bird has finally been given his due by skeptics, including this one, but the deck is stacked against the tough little gelding in the Belmont.
Foremost, there are only two horses with even a modicum of speed in the 10-horse field – 3-1 second choice Charitable Man and 15-1 long shot Miner’s Escape.
Common sense would suggest that having the best kick at the end of the race would be an effective tactic in the longest of the Triple Crown races, but history says that’s not the case. In the last 10 runnings of the Belmont, seven of the winners were within 2 ½ lengths of the leader a mile into the race – a position that it’s nearly impossible to envision the late-running Mine That Bird in at that juncture.
So unless trainer Nick Zito instructs Miner’s Escape’s jockey, Jose Lezcano, to go out and duel with Charitable Man, who will be ridden by Alan Garcia, winning rider of last year’s Belmont aboard the huge Zito-trained long shot Da’ Tara, Mine That Bird figures to have a big hole to climb out of in the stretch.
Add to that the fact that while the horses who ran well in the Preakness, such as runner-up Mine That Bird, tend to be well-bet in the Belmont, they haven’t fared too well in recent years.
Passing on the Preakness an advantage
Looking at those same 10 most-recent Belmonts, we see that only two horses who won the Preakness came back to win the Belmont, the most physically demanding of the three races. Over the same period, four Kentucky Derby also-rans collected the carnations (the least known Triple Crown flower) in New York after sitting out the Preakness, as did a Kentucky Oaks winner. Three other horses won the Belmont after capturing a stakes on the Preakness undercard, as did one winner of the Peter Pan stakes at Belmont the week before the Preakness.
But while horses that were also-rans in the Derby often came back to win in New York, horses that didn’t win in the Preakness were blanked in the past decade.
That’s not a lot of history for a race that has been run 140 times, obviously, but recent history is the most important history, given how the training of top-level thoroughbreds has changed over the last decade.
So what do the last 10 Belmonts tell us?
In addition to Mine That Bird, who won the Kentucky Derby win and was runner-up in the Preakness to the filly Rachel Alexandra, the horses that can be tossed on this angle are the two D. Wayne Lukas trainees -- Luv Gov (8th in the Preakness) and Flying Private (20th in the Kentucky Derby and fourth in the Preakness).
That leaves seven horses who fall into the other category, if you’re willing to fudge a bit to accommodate Miner’s Escape, who won the Federico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico on the same day that Mine That Bird was blowing away his foes in the Churchill Downs slop.
OK, but how do you get from that seven to the one – Chocolate Candy?
Anticipating a sweet score
Well, there are a couple reasons:
First of all is the fact that the Jerry Hollendorfer-trained colt had an awful trip in the Kentucky Derby. He was squeezed back shortly after the break and was even behind Mine That Bird in the early going. His eventful trip continued through the race – as so often happens in the Derby – including a moment when jockey Mike Smith moved him inside, a position the colt apparently detests, and another when he was bumped fairly hard in midstretch.
Despite those difficulties, he managed to fun fifth – 13 lengths behind Mine That Bird but only 6 ¼ lengths behind runner-up Pioneerof the Nile. And the only horse who finished in front of him in Louisville who is in the Belmont is Mine That Bird.
Now 13 lengths is not easily made up, but if you factor in the fact that Mine That Bird had a tough race in the Preakness while Chocolate Candy was on the sidelines and the pace scenario, suddenly that doesn’t seem like such an insurmountable margin.
Then there’s the fact that while he was far back in the early stages of the Derby, Chocolate Candy actually possesses good tactical speed that should allow him to stake out a decent position in the early stages of the Belmont, meaning he will have far less to do in the late stages than Mine That Bird.
You want some more?
Four works over Belmont surface
OK. How about the fact that Hollendorfer sent the colt directly to Belmont Park after the Derby, giving him time to put in four solid works over the surface. Best of the bunch was a smart 7-furlong drill on May 23 in 1:26 2/5 that says to me that he’s sitting on a big race.
Or maybe it’s the fact that Chocolate Candy, ironically owned by diet queen Jenny Craig, has picked up the services of Garrett Gomez, who is to my mind the best big race jockey riding today, with the possible exception of Mr. Borel.
Or perhaps it’s that Hollendorfer may well be the best trainer around who is not in the Hall of Fame, attributable to the fact that he has won most of his 5,000-plus races in the racing backwaters of Northern California and has never been given his just due.
I could go on, but enough already.
Is there a way to top the $659 exacta of Da’ Tara and Denis of Cork that I gave out in this race last year, rewarding those followers who followed through thick and thin (mostly thin)? Sorry, that bus has left the station.
But Chocolate Candy has the potential to inject some value into this edition of the Belmont as well.
Here’s how I plan to attack it:
- A $5 exacta box with Chocolate Candy, Dunkirk, Mine That Bird and Charitable Man.
- A $2 exacta box with Chocolate Candy, Charitable Man and Miner’s Escape.
- A $1 trifecta constructed thus: Chocolate Candy/Dunkirk, Mine That Bird, Charitable Man/Dunkirk, Mine That Bird, Charitable Man and Miner’s Escape.
- Total: $81.