NEW YORK — In the backstretch, Calvin Borel knew he was losing the wrestling match the he was having with Mine That Bird. The little gelding was pulling him down the backstretch, wanting desperately to blow past the nine horses loping ahead of them. This was the 11/2-mile Belmont Stakes, though, and they were a long, long way from home.
Borel knew that the "Test of the Champion" had been flunked many times because of pilot error in the backstretch of this race. All he had to do was look ahead and inside of him at a fellow Cajun, Kent Desormeaux, who moved Real Quiet too soon in the Belmont in 1998 and lost a Triple Crown by a nostril.
Still, Borel could not restrain the Kentucky Derby champ. He had to let Mine That Bird loose, and horse and rider slung shot around the turn like they had been fired out of a missile launcher. The crowd rose in unison and roared as Mine That Bird squared his shoulders in the lead for the long stretch run.
Borel shuddered, certain he was going to become the first jockey in history to sweep the Triple Crown on different horses.
"I thought we were home free," Borel said.
They were not. There was another horse bred to relish Belmont's grueling marathon distance. He shared a daddy with Mind That Bird — Birdstone — and was similarly named: Summer Bird. And wouldn't you know it, Borel's friend Desormeaux was aboard him and had hugged the rail and saved his colt for nearly a mile and a quarter.
There was no moving early this time — or quitting late. It was Desormeaux who ended the tender-footed Big Brown's Triple Crown bid last year when he eased the colt at the mile mark and jogged him home in last place.
"I was having an armchair ride," said Desormeaux, a Hall of Famer, of Summer Bird. "He was doing it himself, and when I found some room, he really exploded."
Summer Bird bounded down the middle of the track like a fresh horse. Ahead of him, Mine That Bird and Dunkirk, who had led virtually every step of the way, were trading heads on wobbling legs. Charitable Man was a length behind them.
In the clubhouse, Chip Woolley, Mine That Bird's trainer, quit hopping on his crutches. His signature black cowboy hat was still. He knew Summer Bird was about to inhale his little gelding and bring a wild, magical ride to a bittersweet end.
He had sensed it a half-mile before.
"I saw Calvin letting him run up there, and when you do that, my horse is going to go," Woolley said. "I thought he might have moved a hair early."
When Summer Bird crossed the finish line 23/4 lengths ahead of Dunkirk, who was a neck better than Mine That Bird, trainer Tim Ice wasn't thinking that he was a pretty smart trainer. Instead, he was grateful that the colt's owners, K.K. and Devi Jayaraman, had entrusted him with most of the 25 horses in his barn.
For their trust in Ice, who has been a head trainer for about a year, the Jayaramans — both doctors — had collected a $600,000 first-place check for Summer Bird.
Ice also had something else on his mind. "If my career goes nowhere from here, I got a Belmont win, and they can't take it away from me," he said.
For Woolley and Borel it was not exactly the storybook ending that they had intended to write. Their saga had begun with a two-day drive from New Mexico to Churchill Downs, where they stunned the world by winning at 50-1. Borel then left Mine That Bird to ride super filly Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness.
She won; Woolley and Mine That Bird finished a close second. Now that they were reunited for the Belmont, Woolley and Borel had hoped to honor their little gelding. Borel had guaranteed a victory.
"We're a little down, disappointed right now," Woolley said.
Borel, 42, was even more melancholy.
"He ran his heart out," he said. "No regrets. I thought I was on the best horse going in. It's been a good roll, and I wouldn't change it for anything. Don't take anything away from the little horse."