NEW YORK — A Cajun, a cowboy and a tough little gelding have teamed up to make this Triple Crown season one to remember.
In Saturday's Belmont Stakes, Cajun rider Calvin Borel will be reunited with trainer Chip Woolley's Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird in an attempt to become the first jockey to win the Triple Crown on different horses.
Borel has guaranteed victory in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont, and isn't about to back down as post time approaches.
"I said it, and I'm sticking with it," the jockey from St. Martin Parish, La., said. "I'm confident 100 percent that he'll win."
Woolley, a former bareback rider from New Mexico with the big, black cowboy hat, loves Borel's fearlessness, and was thrilled he was available to ride Mine That Bird in last month's Derby.
"You've got to go into these big races with a lot of confidence and patience and belief in yourself to do it," he said. "He's the perfect match."
Borel won the Derby on the 50-1 long shot by an astonishing 6¾ lengths in a daring rail-rattling, last-to-first ride. The plot thickened when Rachel Alexandra — the filly he rode to six straight wins — was entered in the Preakness by new owner Jess Jackson and Borel was obligated to ride her.
Borel guided the filly to a one-length win over late-charging Mine That Bird. With Rachel Alexandra not in the Belmont, the stage is set for Borel to carve out his own place in thoroughbred racing history.
"Sure I want it for myself," Borel said. "Why not? Nobody did it. I'd like to do it. It's another milestone. I want to do it for Chip, too. I'm grateful he gave me an opportunity to ride the horse back. It's a dream, and I'm just riding it."
Mine That Bird is the 2-1 morning-line favorite in a field of 10 3-year-olds, with Charitable Man the second choice at 3-1. Son of 2004 Belmont winner Birdstone, Mine That Bird will leave from the No. 7 post for one lap around the wide, sweeping turns of huge Belmont Park.
"It's a very large place," Woolley said on a rainy Thursday morning as Mine That Bird galloped over the track for the first time. "When you walk up there and look at the oval, you can't see the whole thing."
After several rainy days, the weather forecast for today called for partly cloudy skies with a high temperature of 77 degrees, and a 10 percent chance of rain. Post time for the Belmont is 4:27 p.m. MDT.
While it's now 31 years since Affirmed became the last Triple Crown champion, the novelty of a "Calvin Crown" has become the popular theme.
Personal Triple Crowns are not entirely new, though. In 1995, trainer D. Wayne Lukas won the Derby and the Belmont with Thunder Gulch and the Preakness with Timber Country. The Hall of Famer is bidding for his fifth Belmont win with long shots Flying Private and Luv Gov.
"You almost wonder if it isn't destined for him," Lukas said. "There were so many decisions that had to be made for it to fall into place for him to get the ride back. That said, at least he's in a position to do it."
Again, Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito will try to play spoiler with a pair of long shots of his own in Brave Victory and Miner's Escape. Zito dashed the Triple Crown bids of Smarty Jones when Birdstone won at 36-1 odds and of Big Brown last year when Da' Tara won at 38-1 odds.
"I think I've got live long shots here," Zito said. "If we're good enough, we'll make it. If not, we won't. We just gotta play the game and see."
The biggest threat appears to be Charitable Man, who did not run in the first two legs of the Triple Crown but won the Peter Pan Stakes by 3¾ lengths at Belmont on May 9. The colt is trained by a confident Kiaran McLaughlin, winner of the 2006 Belmont with Jazil, and will be ridden by Alan Garcia, winner of last year's Belmont aboard Da' Tara.
"I've got a lot of respect for Mine That Bird, but my horse couldn't be doing any better," McLaughlin said.
Look for Charitable Man and Miner's Escape to set the early pace, with Mine That Bird somewhere near the back of the pack. After a long run down the backstretch, the key to victory likely depends on when a rider asks his horse to make a move. Woolley thinks Mine That Bird could be about 10-12 lengths behind the leaders.
Borel said he doesn't have to be "out in the cloud like I've been, going a mile and a half.
"There's a long stretch here, and he has about three-eighths of a mile run. I think I'll be in position at all times, and from the eighth pole home, he'll take me there."
And perhaps into history.
The field, from the rail out: Chocolate Candy (10-1, Garrett Gomez); Dunkirk (4-1, John Velazquez); Mr. Hot Stuff (15-1, Edgar Prado); Summer Bird (12-1, Kent Desormeaux); Luv Gov (20-1, Miguel Mena); Charitable Man (3-1, Alan Garcia); Mine That Bird (2-1, Calvin Borel); Flying Private (12-1, Julien Leparoux); Miner's Escape (15-1, Jose Lezcano); and Brave Victory (15-1, Rajiv Maragh).