Jenny Kellner is an award-winning journalist and educator who has written about horse racing for more than 20 years. She has been a media specialist with NYRA for the past four years.
I am convinced that Mine That Bird has bad breath.
The poor little gelding can't seem to get a second date. The Belmont Stakes (The Belmont Stakes!) is just over two weeks away and he still doesn't have a rider.
First, Calvin Borel becomes the first jockey in history to ditch the Kentucky Derby winner to ride another horse in the Preakness. And then you have his replacement, Mike Smith, who says he has to ride “Madeo” in the “Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap” at “Hollywood Park.” Come on! As Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito once put it to another jockey, "We're talking about the Belmont Stakes!"
Smith had no problem taking off Madeo in the Arcadia to ride Stardom Bound in the Ashland on April 4. And, come to think of it, wasn't he supposed to ride Chocolate Candy in the Belmont anyway? But I digress.
My point is, the only solution for trainer Chip Woolley and Mine That Bird’s owners is to find a rider who has no commitments to another three-year-old. A rider with a proven record aboard a come-from-behind horse. A rider who is strong and athletic. A rider who will not be intimidated by the sheer size of Belmont Park.
A rider like …. Shaquille O'Neal.
Think about it. Phoenix is out of the playoffs. Shaq’s been to Belmont Park. And who can forget his memorable last-to-first performance aboard Chunk of Love in the Vitamin Water Super Bowl commercial?
I called the Suns to see what they thought.
ME: I'm calling to find out if Shaq might be interested in riding Mine That Bird in the Belmont Stakes.
FIRST SUNS PERSON: Excuse me?
ME: Do you know if he has any other commitments that day? Because it's really important that he doesn't.
FIRST SUNS PERSON: Let me give you to someone else.
(transfer to new Suns person)
ME: Hi, I wanted to find out if Shaq was free on Saturday, June 6, for Mine That Bird in the Belmont Stakes.
SECOND SUNS PERSON: What city is that?
ME: New York.
SECOND SUNS PERSON: He's not available.
Anyone have a breath mint?
BALTIMORE – It was maybe an hour or so after Preakness heroine Rachel Alexandra departed Pimlico Sunday morning and on her side of the stakes barn, now virtually empty, Chip Woolley was balanced on his crutches, watching closely as Mine That Bird’s groom jogged the little gelding down the shedrow.
“What a neat little horse,” said the trainer as the Preakness runner-up bounced towards him, head up, ears pricked, as eager as if he were about to get a mint or a carrot.
“He doesn’t look like he ran hard at all,” I said.
“That’s because he don’t waste anything,” said Woolley. “Not around the barn, not when he trains, not in the post parade …. he saves it all for the race. And then, he only runs for a half-mile. He’s held up well.”
“How about you? How are you holding up?”
“In the morning when I get up, I feel fine, but by the end of the day, I get tired,” he admitted, propping his crutches against the wall and settling into a canvas director’s chair. “It’s been an enjoyable experience that would have been more enjoyable if I didn’t have a broken leg. But it’s been great.”
True enough. A week ago, Woolley came to Baltimore with a Kentucky Derby winner that everyone said was a complete fluke, nothing more. He leaves Monday with a racehorse that everyone now realizes is the Real Deal.
“That’s the most satisfying thing,” he said. “No one can question his ability. In the Derby, he ran past 18 of the best horses around in a quarter-mile. He did the same thing Saturday – made a huge move and ran hard, just didn’t get there.”
By now, Mine That Bird was outside, dragging his groom around in the drizzle as he munched away on the grass. There was no sign of the horde of people which had thronged the pavement by the stakes barn in the official Post-Preakness Party (a far more lively crowd than the alcohol-free group in the infield); in fact, the only other trainer around was Larry Jones, wrapping things up as he prepared to ship back to Delaware Park with 10th-place finisher Friesan Fire.
“He moved way up off the Derby,” Jones said to Woolley with a wicked grin. “He got a 43 Beyer in the Derby; hell, yesterday he must have gone all the way to a 60, maybe even a 61.”
Woolley has been kind of quiet around the barn, feeling, as he put it, a bit like “an outsider” in amongst the Bob Bafferts and D. Wayne Lukases and Todd Pletchers, but Sunday morning with Jones he was as relaxed as could be. He doesn’t smile much, but with his sunglasses off, you can see the laugh lines around his eyes and you kind of get the idea he’s going to have a great time in New York with this horse.
“I’m looking forward to it. It’s a great, historic place to run a great, historic race. The big, sweeping turns, the wide track – it should suit my horse well. Actually, running a mile and a half on a straightaway would suit him best.”
I can’t wait.
This year, when asked, “Jenny, who do you like in the Belmont Stakes?” I will be careful to preface my response with a discussion of past performances, recent workouts, pedigree analysis, speed figures, and, most importantly, names.
The importance of names in the 2009 Triple Crown cannot be understated. In the weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby, for instance, Professional Handicappers were touting “underlays” like Pioneerof the Nile and Friesan Fire and urging fans to include “overlays” like Papa Clem or Desert Party in their trifecta boxes. Armed with this information, people rushed to the windows to bet Mine That Bird at 50-1 because they were a) bird lovers, or b) fans of Calvin Borel, or c) fans of birds who also loved Calvin Borel, or d) 8 years old.
However, in my professional opinion, the only Derby runner worthy of my $2 show bet was the horse who represented two of the four Major Food Groups – Chocolate Candy. (One might argue that the colt’s name is somewhat redundant, but candy refers to a confection made from a concentrated solution of sugar in water, while chocolate comprises foods that are produced from the seeds of the cacao tree. It may not matter to you, but it matters to me.)
|The rejected mint
Even though I was wearing my lucky “Just Give Me the Chocolate and No One Gets Hurt” tee-shirt on May 2, Chocolate Candy checked in fifth in the Derby, and was declared from the Preakness in order to train up to the Belmont Stakes. Still sweet on him despite the loss, I went over to meet him for the first time in the annex behind Shug McGaughey’s barn.
The first thing Chocolate Candy did was lay his ears back and try to bite me. The second thing was to turn around so his butt was facing the front of the stall.
ME: Do you think he would like me any better if I gave him a peppermint?
After a quick trip to the dollar store, I returned with a 99-cent bag of round, red-and-white striped peppermints. Intrigued by the crackling sound of the cellophane as I took it off the wrapper, Chocolate Candy swung around, his ears pricked. He took the sweet from my outstretched hand, mumbled it around in his mouth for a minute, spit it out on the floor, and turned his back again.
ME: Do you think he would like more expensive mints better?
|Chocolate Candy showing us his better side
I called my friend Ashley, who last month purchased a huge bag of pricey after-dinner mints with the express purpose of feeding them to Quality Road. She came over to share them with Chocolate Candy, who continued to stare sullenly at the back wall of his stall no matter how madly we crumbled the cellophane. Eventually, he turned around, took the new, more expensive mint, rolled it around his tongue for a moment, and once again dropped it on the ground. This time, though, he tried to bite us first before turning his back.
Crankiness aside, how can you have a name like Chocolate Candy and not like candy?
I’m looking for another Belmont horse.
After dozens of dank, dreary, damp and downright depressing days, Mother’s Day dawned at Belmont Park windy, dry, and with a sky so blue you’d swear it had been freshly washed. In the barn area, roosters were crowing as if they were personally responsible for the change in weather; barn cats everywhere were content to simply stretch out in the warm sunshine, and exercise riders, always polite to those on foot, today added a wide grin to their greetings as they made their way to and from the track.
Yes, it’s a backstretch, not unlike dozens of others across the country, but it’s also Belmont Park, conceived more than a century ago as the most elaborate racetrack in the nation, home to “The Test of the Champion,” and possessor of an unparalleled place in history, both equine and human. At Belmont Park, you know you will see things you won’t see anywhere else.
Sunday morning, between the main track and the training track, a total of 276 horses made the work tab. Look to your right and there goes Preakness-bound Take the Points zipping five furlongs over the training track in 1:00.09, the second fastest of 38 works at the distance. Look to your left and here comes Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf winner Ventura in her first breeze in New York this year, covering five furlongs in 1:00.10.
It was a parade of stakes winners, from Doremifasollatido (1:01.26) to Ariege (1:12.82), Taqarub (48.25) to Collegiate (1:02.26), and you might be forgiven if you missed Big Motor, a 5-year-old gelding who has spent most of his career bouncing around the claiming ranks and was recently haltered by Panamanian jockey-turned-trainer Pastor Mena.
His six-furlong move shortly after 9 a.m. was unremarkable in all respects save one: his rider, Hall of Fame jockey Jorge Velasquez.
It has been 12 years since Velasquez retired, 12 years since he had been aboard a horse going full speed. He climbed back in the saddle several weeks ago with the express intent of getting in shape for an upcoming Legends all-star jockey race, jogging a horse on the pony track at first, galloping a mile or so on the training track a few times and finally galloping all the way around the main track on Friday.
Standing on the TV platform by the winner’s circle Sunday, watching Velasquez heading toward the finish line, his bright red jacket that bore the name of 1985 Juvenile Fillies winner Twilight Ridge gleaming in the sun, it was impossible to keep from grinning. How many hundreds of times had I seen Velasquez barreling down the same stretch, the magnificent grandstand as a backdrop, only aboard horses like Phone Trick and Life’s Magic, Spectacular Bid and Pleasant Colony, Lady’s Secret and, of course, Alydar.
In my mind’s eye I could see Velasquez imploring Alydar for just a little more as he and Affirmed strained towards the wire in those final frantic moments of the 1978 Belmont, the crowd screaming, my hands shaking and my heart pounding as I watched from the stands, and I was there again, for a second or two, no more.
Aboard Big Motor, he turned and headed back to the barn. When I asked him later if the experience had jogged any memories, Velasquez laughed.
“No,” he said, “I was having too much fun being in the moment.”
But for me, for those few minutes, it was like being in a wonderful time warp, in a place where the past and the present, and the future, came together in the only place it could – Belmont Park.