Thirty-five years ago, Virgil "Yu Yu" Blanchard gave the 8-year-old neighbor boy his first ride in a Cajun match race. On Saturday, he'll be rooting from Catahoula, La., for his protege, Calvin Borel, and Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird in the Belmont Stakes.
Yu Yu (emphasis on the second Yu) trained for 50 years, and until Borel became an apprentice at 16, he rode "hundreds of quarter horses" for him.
Blanchard, 73, was a jockey for 23 years, and when Borel is in a big race, his mentor rides with him without realizing it, moving back and forth in his easy chair. "That's what my wife says," Blanchard said.
If Borel wins on the 2-1 morning-line favorite, he'll be the first rider to sweep the classics on different horses, having won the Preakness with the filly Rachel Alexandra. "I hope he can," Blanchard said. "But a horse is a horse, and anything can happen."
That's been the story of the 1ÂÂ½-mile Belmont since 1997, when Silver Charm became the first of seven denied a Triple Crown at Belmont Park. The anticlimactic upsets have turned the Test of the Champion into the Great Disappointment, and deep closers such as Mine That Bird rarely win the Belmont. But trainer Chip Woolley thinks if his little gelding can stay within "10 to 12 lengths," he can validate Borel's guarantee of victory.
Charitable Man, who could get an easy lead, and Dunkirk are the main threats to cancel a Calvin Crown.
"[Charitable Man] couldn't be doing any better," trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. "I don't want to sound cocky, but I wouldn't trade places with anyone."
Todd Pletcher, who won the 2007 Belmont with the filly Rags to Riches, thinks Dunkirk will rebound big-time from an 11th-place Derby finish in the mud.
"One bad race, you turn people off," Pletcher said. "I have to draw a line through the Derby. Coming out of the gate, he stumbled, and at the first turn, he got squeezed back and lost position. He's training very well and has put on weight, and I stand by the fact he's a very high-quality horse."
The other seven horses seem overmatched, but no one predicted 38-1 Da' Tara would lead all the way last year and that Big Brown would be pulled up and finish last.
The forecast is sunny with a high of 79. Despite Friday's heavy rain, a fast track is likely by 6:27 p.m., the Belmont's post time. "I don't anticipate an off track unless it rains Saturday," Pletcher said. "This track dries out pretty quickly."
One of Borel's four older brothers, Carol, and his wife, Diane, run a convenience store in Lafayette, La. Their son, Shane, has been Calvin's valet for five years. The back wall shows Calvin with Queen Elizabeth II at the White House, making "The Pit Stop" the only Cajun git 'n' go featuring photos of a relative posing with royalty.
The Borels spent Derby weekend in Louisville because Calvin and Rachel Alexandra looked like a lock in the Kentucky Oaks, which they won by 20ÂÂ¼ lengths. On Shane's advice, Diane bet on Mine That Bird, with no expectations. "The Derby was wonderful," she said. "We went for a single and we hit a double."
But nothing's harder than hitting a triple. As Calvin says, "Oh, you wouldn't imagine."