Bird’s owners check in on Derby winner

Latest update on Belmont favorite Mine That Bird, direct from the Churchill Downs publicity office:

OWNERS DROP IN TO CHECK OUT MINE THAT BIRD – Mine That Bird’s entourage grew a bit Sunday morning as Mark Allen and Dr. Leonard Blach, the New Mexico-based co-owners of the Kentucky Derby (Grade I) winner, made a quick stop in Louisville en route to New York for Saturday’s Belmont Stakes (GI).

“We’re leaving later today for New York so we can get settled in and ready for everything,” said Allen, who never has been to Belmont Park where Mine That Bird will try to take down the 1 -mile final jewel of the Triple Crown.

Sunday marked the first time Allen had seen Mine That Bird since the gelding’s runner-up finish to Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness Stakes (Grade I) on May 16.

“It looks like he has put on a little weight,” said Allen, whose first Belmont Stakes recollection was Secretariat’s 31-length romp in 1973 when he was 15 and grooming horses at Santa Fe. “For as hard as he has run and the shipping, I am real happy with the way he looks.”

With regular exercise rider Charlie Figueroa up, Allen led Mine That Bird to the track around 7:30 a.m. Figueroa backtracked Mine That Bird to the paddock runway and then galloped 1 miles.

“He was a little more into the bit today,” trainer Chip Woolley said. “That should set him up for his breeze tomorrow. He’ll work a half-mile and gallop an eighth past the wire with Calvin (Borel) on him right after the break..”

Woolley leaves for New York early Tuesday morning and Mine That Bird flies out the next day.

Also scheduled to work Monday is Rachel Alexandra, who went twice around the main track early Sunday morning with exercise rider Dominic Terry up.

Belmont Q & A with Woolley, Borel

Here’s a brief question-and-answer session, courtesy of Churchill Downs’ publicity office, with Chip Woolley Jr., trainer of Mine That Bird, and jockey Calvin Borel that was held after it was announced Friday that Rachel Alexandra will not race in the Belmont Stakes on June 6:

BENNIE “CHIP” WOOLLEY JR. – trainer of MINE THAT BIRD

“Mr. Jackson called me personally prior to releasing it to the media to inform me that they had decided not to run Rachel in the Belmont, and that would release Calvin from any conflict. So, when he called me I called Jerry Hissam (Calvin Borel’s agent) and he’d already talked to Jerry. He was going to release it to the media, so we gave it a little while before we told anybody else to give him the opportunity. It showed a lot of class on Mr. Jackson’s part. We really appreciate him letting us known and letting us make our decision. Now we’re just looking forward to going on to the Belmont.”

Q: Chip were you surprised to hear that Rachel wouldn’t run and that you’d get Calvin back for the Belmont?

“I actually wasn’t too surprised. I wondered whether she would go on and run the mile and a half. You know it’s grueling to put these races back-to-back. She run one day earlier than I did in the Derby, but it’s hard to put these races back-to-back and even harder on a filly. So that really didn’t surprise me and it’s one reason I’ve held out for Calvin, thinking possibly that she might not run.”

Q: Let’s talk about your horse and having Calvin back in the saddle for the Belmont…

“You know, we’re tickled with that. Calvin’s done us a great job. He won us a Derby and we were committed to letting him ride for us, if possible. So we’re really glad to have him back.”

Q: Was it a relief to get the call today…would it have mattered to wait three or four more days?

“It wouldn’t really have mattered to wait two or three more days. One thing that was for sure was the people that were open today would have been open in two or three days. So, that wasn’t so much of a problem. We’re just tickled to have Calvin and tickled to have this behind us and move on to the Belmont.”

Q: Your horse just seems to look better and better in the mornings…

“You bet. He’s looking super. I actually thought this morning was probably the best day he’s had on the racetrack since he’s been here. We’re real tickled with him. He’s just marchin’ around there and feelin’ good.”

Q: You still plan to work him Monday after the maintenance break?

“We’ll work him after the break on Monday, then we’ll ship him Wednesday on an airplane to Belmont. Calvin will work him Monday right after the break.”

CALVIN BOREL – jockey on MINE THAT BIRD

Q: How did you get the news?

“Jerry was the one that told me. Mr. Jackson got in touch with him. First of all, I want to thank Chip and the owners of Mine That Bird for hanging in there. I want to thank Mr. Jackson for coming out as soon as he did, because I didn’t think we’d get an answer until next Monday and I probably would have sat out the race. I just want to thank Mr. Jackson for coming out as early as he did with the announcement, and thank Chip and the owners for an opportunity to ride the colt back. We’re gonna get the job done.”

Q: You had said before that you would like to ride Mine That Bird…did you think you’d be able to do it again?

“It was just a matter of timing. Chip loves the way I fit the colt. I couldn’t see why he wouldn’t let me ride the colt back, because I fit him a hundred and ten percent. I love the filly – she’s the greatest thing in the world, I think. And I just want to thank Mr. Jackson for making the decision this early so I can give chip an answer at the right time.”

Q: What about Mine That Bird in the Belmont – it’s a different kind of race, a mile and a half, big turns, big racetrack…

“I’m just going to ride it like it comes up, you know. It’s nothing different – just turn left when you get in the turns. It’s like any other racetrack. I’ll tell you what, the colt worked really good the other morning. I was very happy with his work. I worked him real easy and he was bouncin’ – he was a happy camper. That’s all you want. With three races back-to-back like that, you just want him to go into the race happy and I think Chip’s got him happy. So we’re to hope for the best and have a good trip and, like I said, I want to thank them for putting me back on the colt and giving me this much time, and thank Mr. Jackson for announcing it today.”

Q: Were you disappointed that Rachel is not going into the Belmont?

“Whatever Mr. Jackson wanted to do, I was a hundred and ten percent behind. But I think he did the right call. I think Mr. Jackson is all about the horse, not the races. It’s not money – it’s his horse. I think he has more confidence in his horse and he wants to keep her safe and make sure she’s healthy and everything. She run hard the other day. She struggled a lot, like I said when I come back (from the Preakness). I think he did it for the horse.”

Q: Was it a relief to get the call today:

“It was a big relief. You know, for Chip and them, to let them know because they sat chilly. They’ve been good to me and I’ve just got to thank ‘em again.”

Gamely a wide-open Grade I race

Today’s $250,000 Grade I Gamely Stakes at Hollywood Park appears to be a wide-open race on paper, with Bobby Frankel holding a pair of aces as he tries for a record ninth victory in the stake.

Frankel will saddle both Toque de Queda and Visit, the latter of whom finished fourth and was moved up to third via disqualification in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf last fall at Santa Anita. I like Toque de Queda the best of the two as she’s coming off a third-place effort, beaten only three-quarters of a length, in the Grade II Santa Barbara at Santa Anita on April 18.

Here’s the way I see the race:
Toque de Queda — Sitting on her first win in the U.S.
Black Mamba — Unlucky to lose Santa Barbara
Diamond Diva — Loves this turf course
Magical Fantasy — Got up to win Santa Barbara by a nose
Visit — Hasn’t duplicated effort she gave in U.S. bow

Rachel will not run in the Belmont Stakes

I wrote shortly after the Preakness Stakes that I’d be surprised if Rachel Alexandra ran in the Belmont Stakes on June 6, and earlier today it became official that the fabulous filly will not run. That means Calvin Borel will ride Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird in the Belmont.

Here’s the statement released by co-owner Jess Jackson on behalf of Stonestreet Stables and Harold McCormick:

“Rachel Alexandra is an incredible thoroughbred who has proven to be
the best three year old in racing today. We are elated by all the
attention her wins in the Oaks and Preakness has garnered the sport.
The many letters and emails we have received from young girls and racing
enthusiasts lets us know that many fans are proud of Rachel. When we
purchased Rachel, our goal was to restore the sport’s vitality and
grow its fan base by extending the racing careers of its stars.

After careful consideration, we have decided not to run Rachel
Alexandra in the Belmont Stakes next weekend. We have advised Calvin
Borel, Chip Woolley and Belmont of our decision. We thank them, the
media and the fans for their many courtesies and patience while we
pondered.

We know the media and many fans would have liked to see her run in the
Belmont Stakes — we feel the same. But all of us sincerely interested
in the horse must agree that we only want to see her run when it is best
for her. While she is in great shape, having strong works, and
recovering well from her amazing performances, we feel Rachel deserves a
well-earned vacation. Since March 14, Rachel has won four graded races
with just two weeks rest between her last two victories. We will always
put her long-term well being first. And, of course, we want to run her
when she is fresh.

Rachel, her owners, her trainers and her fans can continue to
anticipate an exciting campaign. All major races will be considered as
we look to the rest of Rachel’s racing career.”

Triple your fun at Hollywood Park tonight

OK, three horses caught my eye on tonight’s eight-race card at Hollywood Park — Something Sonic in the second, Sky Marni in the sixth and Denizen in the nightcap.

Something Sonic, 6-1 on the morning line, is trained by the red-hot Doug O’Neill, who is making a mockery of the Hollypark trainer standings. He leads runner-up John Sadler by 10 wins, 19-9, heading into tonight’s program. The 5-year-old gelding finished second for a $8,000 claiming tag at Hollywood on May 15 and O’Neill puts him in for $10,000 tonight. I like the jump in class, as small as it is. He’s ready to fire.

Sky Marni, 9-2 on the morning line, has run third, third and second in her past three starts and has the Beyer to be ultra competitive in this spot. The capable Martin Garcia sticks with this 3-year-old daughter of Sky Mesa and I think she’ll be rolling in the stretch.

Nothing better than wrapping up the night with a win, and Denizen — 9-2 on the morning line — has the speed to wire this group and send all his backers home with thicker bankrolls. The 3-year-old gelding, who’ll be ridden by Rafael Bejarano, finished second in his debut against $25,000 maiden claimers on April 24 at Hollypark before running sixth against $40,000 stock on May 13. He’s back with the $25,000 brigade tonight and should prove tough to catch.

Good luck tonight!!

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Baffert speedster will be on display tonight

A young star in the making will be racing at Hollywood Park in tonight’s seventh race, a 6 1/2-furlong optional claimer ($80,000) for 3-year-olds. His name is Zensational, and he’s possibly got as much speed if not more than any horse on the grounds.

The Unbridled’s Song colt, a $700,000 purchase by Ahmed Zayat in February 2008, will face nine rivals, including the highly regarded Dark and Deep, who broke his maiden by 4 1/4 lengths for trainer Brian Koriner on May 6 at Hollywood Park. Also in the field is the Eoin Harty-trained Best Mon, who won at second asking by 1 1/2 lengths at Hollywood Park on May 2.

Zensational, who’ll be ridden by Victor Espinoza, finished fourth in his career debut on Aug. 6 at Saratoga under the tutelage of Bill Mott. He was then shipped west and put under the care of Bob Baffert, who watched as the speedball sped to a 3 3/4-length maiden score at Santa Anita on Feb. 21, running the six furlongs in a swift 1:08 3/5.

Wanting to find out just what he had and to see how far Zensational would carry his speed, Baffert tried him in a one-mile, $80,000 optional claimer at Santa Anita on March 27. It didn’t work. He opened an early 10-length lead down the backside, eventually blowing a five-length lead in the stretch and finishing second as the 1-5 favorite.

Baffert says he’s been able to harness the colt’s speed somewhat since then and has cut him back to 6 1/2 furlongs tonight. How high is Baffert on the colt? Well, the man who saddled Midnight Lute for back-to-back victories in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint told the Daily Racing Form he could be one of the best sprinters in America this year.

Could Zensational give Baffert three consecutive Breeders’ Cup Sprint victories on Nov. 7 at Santa Anita? Well, it’s a little early to predict something like that. But the colt has the bloodlines, the talent and the trainer to make it happen. It will be interesting to see how he performs tonight.

Riders are always putting themselves in danger

When I first started in this business, I wrote a column about how some fans heckle and verbally abuse jockeys after a losing race. I’m sure it’s probably the worst in New York or Philly (surprise, surprise, huh?), but there were some instances at Santa Anita that surprised me. I’ve heard retired riders like Eddie Delahoussaye and Chris McCarron bark back at hecklers on the way back to the jocks’ room, but most times the riders will just quietly walk away.

Racing’s most recent tragedy, the terrible spill involving veteran jockey Rene Douglas at the top of the stretch in last Saturday’s Matron Stakes at Arlington Park near Chicago, left Douglas with broken bones in his neck and damage to his spine that could render the 42-year-old rider paralyzed for the rest of his life. He currently has no feeling in his feet or his legs, but reports are that that does not necessarily mean he will remain paralyzed. Doctors won’t know for days until swelling goes down.

What this accident does is again point out how jockeys put their lives and good health on the line each and every time they ride in a race. Yes, they are paid well in many instances to perform their duties, but that doesn’t give us the racing public the right to just lay into these guys because we didn’t think they made the right riding decision during the course of a race.

I’ve heard people say their horse would have won if “Stevens had done this, or Bailey had done that!” but the fact of the matter is, these professional riders have to make split-second decisions on animals that weigh between 1,000 and 1,200 pounds and in many cases they have to make the decisions while in very tight quarters. Some times the decisions pan out, many times they don’t. But I’ll tell you, I wouldn’t want their job for all the money in the world. I admire the work they do, their strength in steering these powerful horses in one way or another. It’s a dangerous job, and oftentimes they take abuse that is not deserved.

When Rene Douglas rode in the Southland many years back, I’m sure I made some losing bets on him. But you know what? He was trying as hard to win on those horses as I was rooting for him to succeed. If he made a bad decision, oh well. He’s human, folks. And there’s no way most of us would have made a better decision or done half as well given the opportunity.

These athletes are well-conditioned, much more so than some of their baseball and football counterparts. They have to be. They don’t have the luxury of carrying around extra baggage like C C Sabathia, Bartolo Colon and many NFL linemen who are not nearly in the shape these riders are.

I admire their work and I’m glad I’m a fan of a sport that allows me the pleasure of watching them in action four or five days a week. It’s too bad it takes a tragic accident like the one Douglas was involved in to make us realize just how truly dangerous their job is.

Say a prayer for Rene Douglas tonight before you go to bed. Hopefully, he’ll walk again and give us all another example of just how courageous these jockeys are.

Here’s a link to a story on the Daily Racing Form’s Web site, detailing the updated condition of Douglas:

http://www.drf.com/news/article/104119.html

Some notes on potential Belmont runners

Here’s some updated news on a few of the probables for the Belmont Stakes on June 6, courtesy of Belmont Park publicity official Jenny Kellner:

Belmont Stakes contender Mr. Hot Stuff worked a bullet five furlongs over Polytrack at Keeneland Race Course Tuesday morning in preparation for a start in the 141st running of the Grade 1, $1 million “Test of the Champion” on Saturday, June 6 at Belmont Park.

The son of Tiznow was caught in 1:01.00, the fastest of 12 at the distance. It was Mr. Hot Stuff’s third work at Keeneland since finishing 15th in the Kentucky Derby (May 2), which was his first start on dirt.

“He went very well, easy enough, and there was plenty left in the tank” said trainer Eoin Harty from California. “He’s fit and ready to go.”

Mr. Hot Stuff, owned by WinStar Farm, will have the services of Hall of Fame jockey Edgar Prado in the 1-mile Belmont Stakes. Prado won the Belmont in 2002 aboard Sarava and again in 2004 on Birdstone.

Harty said he and Mr. Hot Stuff will most likely arrive in New York on June 3.

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Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas said Belmont hopefuls Flying Private, fourth in the Preakness, and Luv Gov, who was eighth at Pimlico, will work at Churchill Downs this week before a final decision is made whether to run in the $1 million race.

“I haven’t decided yet whether they will go in the race,” said Lukas from Louisville. “They’ll work midweek and then we’ll decide.”

Lukas has saddled 19 Belmont Stakes starters, with four wins – Tabasco Cat (1994), Thunder Gulch (1995), Editor’s Note (1996) and Commendable (2000). Lukas has not had a Belmont Stakes starter since A.P. Arrow ran fifth in 2005.

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Summer Bird, sixth in the Kentucky Derby, continues to train forwardly for the Belmont, trainer Tim Ice reported Tuesday.

“He had a good gallop this morning,” said Ice, who brought the Birdstone colt to New York early last week from Louisiana to prepare for the race. “The difference between him last week and this week is noticeable in the way he’s moving over the track.”

Summer Bird will have his final serious move for the Belmont on Saturday, going five furlongs with his new rider, Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux, up for the work. Ice originally had named Joe Talamo aboard Summer Bird, but changed plans and chose a rider more familiar with Belmont Park.

“The more I talked with people, the more important it seemed to have someone who really knows this track,” said Ice, who worked as an assistant with Desormeaux’s brother, trainer Keith Desormeaux, in Louisiana for five years. “I’m just glad Kent wanted to ride him in the Belmont.”

Desormeaux has had six Belmont Stakes starts, with two seconds, including a nose loss to Victory Gallop in 1998 that cost Real Quiet the Triple Crown. Desormeaux’s second Triple Crown chance was thwarted last year when his mount, Big Brown, did not finish the Belmont Stakes.

Zenyatta will probably race next in the Vanity

Despite owner Jerry Moss’ apparent eagerness to raise the bar for his unbeaten mare Zenyatta, it appears trainer John Shirreffs will choose the safe route and keep racing the 5-year-old daughter of Street Cry against other distaffers for the time being.

After Zenyatta returned from a seven-month absence to win the $150,000 Grade II Milady Handicap at Hollywood Park on Saturday, Moss told reporters in the winner’s circle that he was more willing to race against males this year, that last year they tried to protect Zenyatta in an effort to earn the Eclipse Award for top older female that she ended up winning.

But Moss lets Shirreffs make the decisions, and why not? There are few trainers around the Southland with better win percentages than the former marine, who is not fond of racing females against males. Shirreffs does not believe it’s a good idea to race Zenyatta against males at a mile and one quarter in only her second race back. Can’t blame him there.

But some point this season, if the Zenyatta camp wants its brilliant mare to be mentioned with the best distaffers of all time, they are going to have to raise the bar and try the boys. Personal Ensign did it, winning the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga in 1988, and finished her career 13-0. Lady’s Secret did it too, defeating the boys four times in 1986 at age 4 en route to Horse of the Year laurels and is regarded as one of the best of all time.

For Zenyatta, it won’t be the Hollywood Gold Cup. It won’t be the Pacific Classic at Del Mar because Shirreffs does not like the Polytrack surface. It looks like the only two options would be the Goodwood Handicap during the Oak Tree meet or the Breeders’ Cup Classic a month later. Problem is, Moss also owns Tiago, one of the best older handicap stars on the West Coast, and he figures to be a candidate for those two races as well.

They could ship east and try the Whitney at Saratoga during the summer or the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park about a month before the Breeders’ Cup. The latter option probably is not a viable one because Shirreffs does not want Zenyatta traveling that close to the Breeders’ Cup.

So it’s entirely possible that Zenyatta’s 2009 campaign, one that would include the Vanity, the Clement L. Hirsch at Del Mar, the Lady’s Secret at Oak Tree and the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic to round out her career, will not feature a race against the boys. My guess? If she does race against the males, it will be the Whitney, which is far enough out from the Breeders’ Cup to suit Shirreffs.

So what do you think? If Zenyatta never races against the boys, will it harm her legacy even if she finishes her career undefeated?