Many observers, myself included, were critical of jockey Calvin Borel -- in print or otherwise -- for having no mounts during Belmont Stakes week and trying to win the third leg of the Triple Crown on Mine That Bird with very little experience traversing "Big Sandy."
Today Steve Haskin of The Blood-Horse reports that the decision wasn't Borel's. Haskin says he's been told nobody would give Borel a mount during the week at Belmont save one trainer, and that Borel was advised to take off that horse. (I believe I've heard elsewhere that lone ride was to be on the turf course, anyway.)
Calvin Borel is such a kind man that it isn't surprising, I guess, that he would deflect all criticism of his lack of mounts during Belmont week by good-naturedly saying it didn't really make a difference; that like all races, you just "break ... and turn left." It likely did make a difference -- Big Sandy and the Belmont aboard a keyed-up horse have been the undoing of more famed jockeys than he -- but if he tried and couldn't get mounts, what was he to do? Call the whole Belmont trainer colony everything but sons of God?
I don't really know what to make of a situation in which the hottest jockey in America can't get a ride for a week. On the one hand, you'd think somebody -- some little barn with a handful of horses, typically stuck hiring bug-boys and second-tier NY-circuit veterans -- would hand him the reins for a race or two during the week. Even if Borel wasn't aboard a winner, he'd get the feel for just how expansive that turn for home and how long the final stretch are; how you can't go as early as your instincts make you think.
(Haskin doesn't think Borel moved to soon aboard Mine That Bird; I still do. The outside trip might have cost him even more, and maybe Borel just couldn't hold back an uncharacteristically rank horse, but Mine That bird used too much energy, too soon.)
On the other hand, if you're a New York trainer of any stature, top-rung or bottom, what's really to be gained by naming Borel to a half-dozen mounts during Belmont week? Why break commitments and risk fracturing relationships with local jockeys for a rider, Borel, who almost certainly won't be there to ride your horse back the next time he runs?
It isn't your job to get the guy ready to run the Belmont. It's your job to win today, tomorrow and next week and next month with your owners' horses. Even if Borel wins on your horse, you can only say you've benefited if it seemed there was little chance of that horse winning without Calvin Borel. At Churchill Downs that happens almost every day; at Belmont Park, you probably have just as good a shot with any of a dozen other, more familiar, guys or gals in the irons.
There'd need to be some compelling reason to ride Borel instead of your regular guy, or even in the case of a horse that hasn't established a good working relationship with a jockey yet. You might do it if Borel was there to ride a friend's horse in the Belmont; a fellow trainer with whom you've had an on- and off-track friendship for a decade all around the Northeast. Or if it's realistic that you might have a horse in a nice race at Churchill someday and could want Borel in the irons for that one. Or even if the owner of Borel's horse is someone with whom you'd like to earn points, so that you might train some of his horses in the future.
It's likely none of that's the case with Belmont's trainer colony and Mine That Bird.
This might be a product, then, of a formerly obscure horse with perhaps destined to again be obscure connections in owners Double Eagle Ranch (Mark Allen) and Buena Suerte Equine, and trainer Bennie Woolley Jr. What's a Belmont-based trainer to think of collaborating with them?
They're the Sunland Park crowd; New Mexico guys. Mark Allen, despite his oil-business money, will likely never have a substantial string at Belmont and consider you as the trainer. And Woolley -- personable though he seems to be in horse circles -- is someone you just met; you owe him no return of a former favor and it's unlikely he'd ever be in a position to repay your favor of putting Borel aboard a long-shot in the fifth on Belmont Friday. Legging-up Borel would be a courtesy from which you'd not be expecting ever to benefit directly; nothing but "a kindness," as we say in the South.
I mean, follow the links ... there's probably an explanation behind why the NTRA has mugshots but still no bios on these men, nearly six weeks after their horse won the biggest race in America, the Kentucky Derby. Aside from Mine That Bird, nobody in racing's upper echelon is really expecting to hear from these guys again.
So in a game that's all about gaining and exploiting advantages -- not just from gate to wire, but from the sales, to morning workouts, to the entry box, to the saddling enclosure, to post-parade, to gate, to wire -- there was almost nothing to be gained for any Belmont trainer to put Calvin Borel on horses during Belmont week.
Call it a "blackball by default," perhaps.
There might have been some New York allegiances involved -- trainers who'd rather see a jockey or conditioner from the Belmont colony win the Belmont Stakes, rather than these upstarts in cowboy boots and their sudden-celebrity jockey. Or even some jealousy among NY-circuit jockeys and trainers watching this Louisiana middle-school dropout from Churchill breeze into the Big Apple and appear on late-night TV as a guest of David Letterman.
But there didn't need to be any animosity at all for the same net result to occur: No rides for Borel to prep his skills for the Belmont.
It's tough for the guy, for his horse, and for the connections. And it makes you admire Calvin Borel all the more that he had the good spirits and grace to smile through defeat and never utter a harsh word -- knowing he and the horse had tried their best when nobody would do him a favor all week in New York.
No "kindness" for the kindest jockey in America. That is a little bit sad, isn't it?