Riding a Horse? Buying a Car? … Patience is a Virtue

June 11, 2009
Share this story:

brad-eastland1    Last weekend was pretty cool, huh?   Lakers go up two-love (thanks to me and my good friend Lamar Odom), Federer finally conquers the cruel clay battlefields of Paris (who cares if Nadal gagged?), the Dodgers steal two more games in the late innings (how nauseating), 86-year-old Randy Johnson finally wins his 300th game, and Tiger overpowers a bunch of mistake-prone mere mortals on the back nine at Jack’s tournament in Ohio.    A big sports weekend to be sure.

      But none of those stories should be the headline.

      Nope.   To me, the most significant Slice Of Life worthy of examination ‘neath the glad microscope of Sport (indeed the very purpose of this column) played out atop the fabled sandy loam of the biggest racetrack of them all, the big one on Long Island, in the 141st running of the “test of champions”, the Belmont Stakes.

      In case you neither saw it live nor TiVo’d it—and if so, shame on you—it was a genuinely magnificent circumnavigation of Belmont Park’s mile-and-a-half dirt oval.   Dunkirk, a gorgeous gray son of Unbridled’s Song who cost his owners $3.7 million, set the pace and dug in bravely through the stretch, Kentucky Derby upsetter Mine That Bird rallied like a whirlwind from last place to first around the far turn, looking every inch a winner and a folk hero, and then finally an unknown colt called Summer Bird (who is, I’m not kidding, Mine That Bird’s brother) came flying down the stretch to catch them both in the final yards to reward his backers to the happy tune of 11-to-one.   It was the kind of race that makes horse racing nuts like me sneak off to the track without telling their wives or girlfriends.   Or employers.

      There were so many fascinating angles to this year’s Belmont, perennially thee most fascinating and transcendent of all American stakes races.   You must first understand that the Belmont Stakes, restricted to three-year-olds and run at a mile-and-a-half (which, as stated, is exactly once around the biggest racing loop in America) is the longest race any of these horses have ever run or will ever run.   It is an absurdly unfair test of a young horse’s courage, heart, stamina, and will.   More than anything it tests a jockey’s patience.   Because most horses have only one big, brief run in them; move too soon and you are asking your horse to finish the longest race of his life in style, when all he wants to do is lie down and die.   And yes, the favorite who just lost and the longshot who just won both happen to be sons of the 2004 Belmont Stakes winner, Birdstone.   This is a Hollywood script waiting to be penned.

      But this year’s Belmont was not a race where the actual runners were the key players.   This is not a story starring the ‘Bird’ brothers.   Call it a tale of two jockeys.   Of Mine That Bird’s pilot, the goofy toothless Cajun Calvin Borel, and Summer Bird’s eloquent reinsman and fellow Cajun, Hall-of-Famer Kent Desormeaux.  

      More specifically, which is to say more precisely, this race was about the hubris and arrogance of Borel, and the patience, maturity, humility, and deft genius of Desormeaux.   And what we can learn from both of them.

      Is Summer Bird a better horse than his brother?   No.   Then why did he win?   Was Mine That Bird the best horse in the race?   Absolutely.   Then why did he lose?   Well, the brutal truth of the matter is that Summer Bird had, in his corner, the great Desormeaux, who has come by his newfound maturity honestly and over time, which is to say through painful experience, whereas the superior Mine That Bird was saddled (clever word play, huh?) with Borel, and his textbook laundry list of human frailties and shortcomings.

      I suppose we should forgive Borel for getting a big head.   He has become something of a rock star of late.   First he guides Mine That Bird to a brilliant rail-skimming ride to win the Derby at 50-to-1, and then, amazingly—it’s never been done before—he actually jumps off Mine That Bird to ride another horse, the huge, super-filly Rachel Alexandra, in the Preakness….and wins!   He’s pushing all the right buttons.   He makes the rounds on Leno and Letterman, people who couldn’t pick him out of a line-up before are now taking his picture and demanding his autograph, and once it has been determined that no jockey has ever won all three “Triple Crown” races in the same year but on different horses, the media dubs Borel’s quixotic quest to be the first to do it the “Calvin Crown”.   You’d get a big head too.

      Unfortunately for Borel, the loss of his humility came Siamese-twinned with the loss of his judgment.  

      First, Rachel Alexandra’s owners decide not to run the filly against the boys again, not at a mile-and-a-half.    Then, not long after getting the mount back on Mine That Bird, the smitten Borel guarantees victory for his beloved little gelding in the Belmont.   We’re going to win “no questions asked”, he drawls (Which of course is the wrong idiom, he was no doubt trying to say “no question about it”, Borel, as usual, carrying this home-spun illiterate thing of his a bit too far.).   And finally, Borel—who has only ridden in a handful of races at Belmont Park in his whole life—for some reason embarks on a strange strategy of not coming to Belmont to ride a few races the day of the big race.   Or during the entire preceding week, for that matter.   Or at all.   Says he doesn’t believe it is necessary to get accustomed to Belmont Park’s unique mile-and-a-half circumference, its sweeping turns, its sand-rich surface.   Says he simply doesn’t need to schedule a couple days of races over the course, because his brave little horse is going to win “no questions asked”.   Ugh.   But since everything Borel has touched of late has turned to gold, he is generally given a free pass by the media.   Those guys just love it when an athlete does the Joe Namath “guarantee” thing….

      However, there are a few horsemen who mutter quietly about how foolish it is not to familiarize oneself with the track in question.   Especially a track with the unique sedimentary composition and oversized dimensions of Belmont Park.   Desormeaux himself publicly terms Borel’s words and actions “naïve”.   (Of course Kent D. is scheduled to ride a rank outsider, an 11-to-1 shot who’d never done anything of consequence, so no one listens to him.)

     Borel should have.   Because Kent knew what he was talking about.   The 39-year-old Desomeaux has already blown a couple of Triple Crown quests in the Belmont Stakes, last year aboard Big Brown (the only loss of his career) and way back in 1998, aboard Real Quiet.   The Real Quiet debacle is the one that really stung.   Desormeaux was still in his 20s back in ’98, as talented as they come, and cocky as hell.   He badly underestimated the enervating effect the Belmont’s twelve furlongs would have on his mount, and saw nothing wrong whatsoever in swinging Real Quiet four-wide around the far turn, moving hard and fast and prematurely to the lead, and hitting the stretch four lengths in front.   As far as cocky young Kent was concerned he had boldly disposed of the entire field, and was only about 15 seconds from the first Triple Crown in 20 years, and therefore only 15 seconds from what every jockey secretly lusts for; racing immortality.

      Except that Gary Stevens aboard Victory Gallop was busy back in the pack making all the right decisions.   He had kept Victory Gallop covered up behind horses on the rail to relax him and save ground, and he didn’t ask the colt for run until the last possible moment, midway around the far turn.   By the middle of the stretch Desormeaux fully realized he was on an exhausted horse, went begging for the wire, tried everything he could to keep Real Quiet going including flapping his arms wildly as if he were a giant multicolored bee that had landed on the weary horse and was trying to lift him across the finish line, but the racing gods weren’t impressed.   Victory Gallop got up in the final jump to win by about an inch.   No Triple Crown.   Unless you were one of Victory Gallop’s owners or had bet on him, it was excruciating to watch.   Was Victory Gallop as good as Real Quiet?   No.   Not by a longshot.   But Stevens had learned his lesson the previous year, when he himself had moved too soon on Silver Charm and blew the 1997 Belmont.         

      What had happened to Stevens and Desormeaux a decade earlier is exactly what happened to Borel and Mine That Bird last week.    Rather than relaxing in last place and then covering him up behind horses like he usually does, Borel swung the little gelding to the outside, the horse saw daylight and got rank, moved too soon, Borel panicked and pushed hard on the gas pedal, and they flew four-wide around the far turn like something out of an old silent western.   I thought the track announcer was going to soil himself.   By the head of the stretch they had made the lead and everyone, everyone at Belmont Park figured them for sure winners.

      Except Desormeaux.   He had done what Borel usually does and should have done this time.   He stayed at the rail, covered Summer Bird up behind horses and saved ground, waiting, waiting, and finally, with less than a quarter of a mile to go, he finally swung Summer Bird out wide and into the clear, finally laid into him with boot and whip, the unheralded colt slingshot to the front inside the 16th pole, it was an utterly magnificent bit of horsemanship by Desormeaux, and victory was theirs.   I got chills.

      Mine That Bird had lost, and it was definitively Borel’s fault.   But to make matters worse, toothless Calvin thoroughly embarrassed himself in his post-race remarks on his way back to the unsaddling area.   Complained that the pace was just simply too slow.  “They backed ‘em up so slow today, y’know?” he moaned.   Said it “was unbelievable how slow they went, y’know?”   Said the horse got rank on him and he had to move him a little sooner than he wanted because “they just went so slow up front, y’know?”   No, Calvin, I don’t know!   Because my problem with you mumbling three times within a span of 30 seconds that the pace was too slow is that the pace wasn’t slow!   It was, in fact, pretty darn fast for a mile-and-one-half race.   The leaders went 23-and-two-fifths the first quarter, 47-flat the first half mile.   Trust me, folks, those are pretty stiff fractions.   (Y’know?)

      Mine That Bird’s trainer sure agrees with me.   His name is Chip Woolley.  (You gotta love a sport where they have guys in cowboy hats with names like Chip Woolley.)   Anyway, right after the race, you could tell that despite his manly efforts to remain calm and sportsmanlike, all ol’ Chip wanted to do was ring poor little Calvin Borel’s neck.   For instance, the very first thing he said was, “I think my horse is probably the best horse here,” which is code for, “The jockey blew it!”   Then he declared, “We just made a little early move there, ‘come up a little empty,”, which is code for, “The damn jockey panicked and moved too soon and naturally the horse blew his whole wad by the time they hit the quarter pole and that’s why he had no spunk left for the stretch!”   Then, getting angrier by the minute, the mustachioed Woolley snapped, “When they flashed up the numbers I thought we would win pretty much for sure, I thought 23 and 47 was fast enough to bring them back a little,” code for, “What the hell is Calvin talking about with this pace-was-too-slow routine, the minute I saw those fast fractions I know we’d gotten the hot pace we needed and that victory was in the bag, dammit!”, and then finally he drawled in his now-famous New Mexico twang, “He’d a-been better off keepin’ him covered up down on the fence for awhile,” which wasn’t code at all, but rather a flat-out declaration that his jockey was a complete fool for swinging the horse out wide to where he’d lose ground and get rank and move too soon, without a wall of horses in front of him to slow him down.   Man.   I’ve been following horse racing for 35 years, and I can’t recall a trainer ever sounding less pleased with a jockey he’d employed to mete out a professional ride aboard one of his horses but had failed to do so.    Virtually everything he said was 180-degrees the opposite of how Borel saw it; or should I say how Borel spun it.   Simply different points of view?   Obviously.   But the simple fact of the matter is that ol’ country Chip was right and ol’ toothless Cajun Calvin, the culprit, was wrong.

      So bottom line, first Borel doesn’t prepare properly for the race, then he goes out and blows the race, making every race-riding mistake in the book, and then the minute it’s over he tries to deflect the blame.   That’s a hard trifecta to duplicate, people; choking before, during, and afterwards.  

      See what sports does to people?

     Funny thing is, all Desormeaux had done to Borel was what Gary Stevens had done to him with Victory Gallop eleven years ago.   And all Borel had done was make every one of Desormeaux’s mistakes aboard Real Quiet.   Desormeaux has learned.   The way Stevens had learned before him.   Maybe Borel will learn too, someday.   A little humility tempered by patience goes a long way in sports.   In life.

      And in buying a car.   For the last few days I have been observing my girlfriend, Roxanne, go through the familiar crucible we have all gone through, that of discarding one vehicle (in her case, an old truck) in favor of something sexier (in her mind, an Audi).   Yes sir, one of her dreams has always been to have a cool car like an Audi.   That’s right, an Audi.   (I know, I know….don’t get me started.)   Anyway, I guess she feels a lot of pressure to buy—or not buy—an Audi, because she is constantly changing her mind about it, investigating and considering various models of cars other than her beloved long-longed-for Audi, almost buying a different car every night it seems, simply out of sheer panic, or self doubt, not to mention the guilt that comes from stringing along multiple car salesmen, and all the while fretting, fidgeting, threatening to make a variety of poor decisions.   You know.   Just like Calvin Borel did.

      Naturally I tell her to pull herself together and be patient.   Just like Kent Desormeaux did.   “Be like Kent!” I counsel her.   Play it cool.   Be like Kent.   Be like Kent.

      I hope she stays the course, follows Desormeaux’s example, waits, waits, and holds out for the car she’s always wanted….y’see, one of my dreams has always been to have a cool girlfriend with an Audi.

  The Sports Philosopher

Brad Eastland is an author, historian, film buff, and sports nut, in no particular order.   Brad’s other recent columns for LaVerneOnline can be found in Sports under ‘The Sports Philosopher’ and also in Viewpoint under ‘Brad Eastland’s View’.    Brad has also written four novels and over 20 short-stories.    Samples of Brad’s fiction work can be discovered within the links below :

One Response to “Riding a Horse? Buying a Car? … Patience is a Virtue”



Leave a Reply