While the Derby remains the template, stamping a 230th edition at Epsom on Saturday, only its most insular devotees would disregard the adaptation staged across the ocean, just a few hours later. The Belmont Stakes, itself being run for the 141st time, is the final leg of the American Triple Crown – a quest that seems only to gain romance and intrigue from a drought now extending 31 years, to Affirmed.
True, New Yorkers will not be getting the rematch they craved after an epic Preakness Stakes last month, when Rachel Alexandra narrowly thwarted another electrifying finish by the Kentucky Derby winner, Mine That Bird. Having taken on the males after a 20-length win in the Kentucky Oaks, the freak filly is now being rested, leaving Mine That Bird as hot favourite to emulate the Belmont success of his sire, Birdstone – who himself thwarted an odds-on shot for the Triple Crown in Smarty Jones.
This, then, looks like another one that only just got away. Had Rachel Alexandra not been adventurously switched to the Preakness by her new owners, Mine That Bird would have flown into New York yesterday in the same tempest of publicity that preceded Big Brown before his shattering failure at 1-4 last year. Instead, the focus is on Calvin Borel, the veteran jockey who rode both Mine That Bird and Rachel Alexandra in Kentucky.
When they met in the Preakness, Borel was vindicated in his unprecedented desertion of the Derby winner – albeit many suspect that his replacement, Mike Smith, would have caught the filly had he not abjured Borel's trademark run along the rails. Either way, Borel now seeks the unique distinction of winning his own "Triple Crown" on different horses. (The only man to achieve something similar is Wayne Lukas, who trained Thunder Gulch to win the Derby and Belmont in 1995, and Timber Country to beat him into third in the Preakness.)
After riding Mine That Bird in the Preakness, Smith announced that he could not do so in the Belmont because of a commitment in California. Chip Woolley, the colourful trainer of Mine That Bird, won more friends with his diplomatic reaction to this bombshell, and was rewarded when Rachel Alexandra was scratched, enabling Borel to get back aboard the little gelding.
With his 10-gallon cowboy hat, handlebar moustache and crutches, Woolley has proved a theatrical addition to the Triple Crown drama. He has only a small stable on the Mexican border and famously drove his gelding 1,466 miles to Churchill Downs in a trailer. Getting home may not be quite so straightforward. A couple of nights ago, someone broke into the truck and made off not only with the GPS, but also Mine That Bird's registration papers. Some villain presumably got himself an unexpected windfall there.
Woolley describes this adventure as the "most humbling experience" of his life. "You think it would make you feel huge," he says. "But I felt like the smallest thing in the world." At first dazed by the attention, he has settled comfortably into his new profile. He "spent 25 years getting to this point, and a lot of hard work. Went broke a couple of times. So it's more of a validation stamp than anything. We're really enjoying it now."
As for Borel, he has somehow ended up as the humble nexus linking the best American thoroughbreds of either sex foaled in 2006. The Cajun is certainly in uncompromising mood for his reunion with Mine That Bird. "We will win," he said. "I'm gonna win it for Chip. I owe him that."
Nap: Jafaru (4.20 Lingfield)
Nb: Mountain Cat (3.40 Hamilton)