Thirteen Ways to Lose the Triple Crown

Yet again we have no new Triple Crown winner.  The drought moves into 37 years now.

Personally, I can’t say that I’m real disappointed as I’ve not been a California Chrome believer since the start of this run and if you’ve read or look back on some of my previous posts you know I was all about Tonalist for the Belmont.  So I couldn’t have been more happy with Saturday’s outcome.  Plus, it was an exciting race that played out in some ways no one expected.

But let’s go through a quick rundown of how, since 1978, we’ve come to be without a Triple Crown-winning horse:

1979–Spectacular Bid, who in this list, may be the most superior horse to have failed.  The night before the Belmont steps on a safety pin from one of his wraps.  Also receives one of the worst rides ever in a Classic race.

1981–Came into the Belmont of a mild illness with a rash.  Then breaks somewhat poorly from the gate.  Race over.

1987–Alysheba just doesn’t fire or get the best ride.

1989–Sunday Silence–As much as it pains me to say it, ran out of gas and Easy Goer shone on his home track.

1997–Silver Charm–Doesn’t see Touch Gold coming down the middle of the track and falls short at the wire.

1998–Real Quiet–Probably sent in the stretch too soon, gets rubber-legged in the final furlong and gets nipped/the wrong bob at the wire.

1999–Charismatic–Breaks his leg in the last furlong.

2002–War Emblem–Stumbles to his nose as the gates open, race over.

2003–Funny Cide–Outrun by Empire Maker.

2004–Smarty Jones–Comes out strong from the start as was his wont; withstands multiple runs at him by other horses in the field, finally run down by Birdstone in the final furlong.

2008–Big Brown–Has troubled trip within the first furlong and is eased by Jockey Kent Desormeaux who says he simply had no horse to persevere with.

2012–I’ll Have Another–Injured and withdrawn the day before the Belmont.  And now…

2014–California Chrome–Not such a great break from the gate where he or Matterhorn in the next gate stepped on the right front hoof and caught a quarter.  And in the stretch, simply ran out of gas. Game effort on the part of the horse, just not enough.

I’ll reiterate.  The Triple Crown is THE MOST DIFFICULT achievement in all of sport.  Not only must you have a SUPERIOR horse over the course of six weeks, but EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING MUST go PERFECTLY–your horse’s health, the ride he receives, the weather, the trip, the gate break.

Which leads me to my response to one of California Chrome’s owner’s petulant remarks post Belmont.  EVERYONE knows how closely spaced the races are when this journey begins; the current race configuration has been in place for decades.  Everyone knows what the qualifications for entry in the Preakness and Belmont are and participation in the Kentucky Derby is not a prerequisite. In 1973, Secretariat and Sham were the only two horses that ran all three races.  In 1977, five new horses entered the Belmont against Seattle Slew.  In 1978, only Affirmed and Alydar ran all three races.  This is the way the game is played; no one changed the rules midstream and on Saturday, June 7, 2014 Tonalist was the BEST horse.

I’ll say it again.  If you want another Triple Crown winner BREED A BETTER HORSE!  As far as changing things, reduce the Derby field size from 20 to 14 horses (as is the maximum allowed in Breeders’ Cup races).  Year in and year out, regardless of how they qualify to get there, there are usually about 10 horses that really don’t need to be in the gate and can impede the progress and chances of deserving horses in the field.  Give both these options a try and you might be pleasantly surprised by the result.

Finally, Congratulations to trainer Christophe Clement for bringing Tonalist back around to racing health and preparing him for a great effort in the Belmont and owner Robert Evans for finishing his family’s Pleasant Colony story; the grandson winning the race that denied his grandsire the Triple Crown.  Full Circle!

 

Affirmed

On the eve of the Belmont Stakes and the potential for another Triple Crown winner, I want to reflect on my favorite Triple Crown winner: Affirmed.

I was 19 at the time and not very sophisticated in evaluating Thoroughbred talent beyond looks and a name that struck me as special (and I won’t deny still falling in that trap from time to time still!).  With that criteria, Affirmed had the complete package to get my attention.  He was always immaculately groomed and turned out for his races; with his braided mane and tail you could have easily mistaken him for a lovely hunter mount headed to the show ring.  So much the better for me, being actively involved in showing my mare in hunter classes throughout the summer.  And then there was that classy, succinct statement name–Affirmed.  Undoubtedly, a serious contender with that moniker!!

And then I saw him run.  I believe the first time I saw him race was as a two-year-old in the Hopeful Stakes where he was victorious over long-time rival, Alydar.  I was completely sold.  He was beautiful, tenacious, and developing into a fine race horse.  In his prep races leading into the 1978 Triple Crown series his ability continued to develop and I was firmly and confidently in the Affirmed camp, being a fan of his trainer, the masterful Lazaro Barrera and the preternatural 18-year-old jockey, Steve Cauthen.

To my chagrin, Affirmed did not go off as favorite in the Kentucky Derby; Alydar did, but no matter, it just made Affirmed’s victory that much sweeter.  By the time the Preakness rolled around, the world was catching up to me 😉 and Affirmed went off as the well deserved favorite and once again dispatched Alydar in the stretch.  And then on Saturday, June 10, 1978 it was a D-Day of another sort, this time on the 1 1/2-mile oval in Elmont, NY.  It was indeed a battle as Affirmed and Alydar separated from the remainder of the field and engaged each other in the stretch to the wire virtually in tandem.  My best friend and I had just skated in from participating in a hunter show at our barn earlier in the day, about a half hour before the gates opened.  She was an Alydar fan.  I’m quite sure our screams of encouragement for our respective champions could be heard in New York.  On that day, in that epic moment, Affirmed for me defined the word “will.”  There was no quit in him, no yielding; just supreme effort and determination to get to the wire first ahead of a rival who was nearly his equal.

After such an effort, it would have been easy to retire Affirmed to a well-deserved retirement.  Owners Patrice and Louis Wolfson were as game as their horse and Affirmed raced, and won, throughout the remainder of the 1978 season and then returned as a four-year old.  Among his post-Triple Crown victories: the Santa Anita Handicap, the Jockey Club Gold Cup over the highly regarded Spectacular Bid, a horse many expected to win the Triple Crown in 1979, the Hollywood Gold Cup, and Californian Stakes.  Affirmed was named Horse of the Year in both 1978 and 1979 and was the first Thoroughbred to accumulate $2 million dollars in winnings midway through his four-year-old season in June 1979.

Fast forward 22 years to September 2000.  My same Alydar-fan friend and I made the pilgrimage to what was then Jonabell Farm to see the then 25-year-old Affirmed.  It was and is easily one of the happiest, most memorable days in my life.  Once Affirmed’s groom realized my friend and I were horse people he really engaged us in conversation and proudly showed Affirmed off for us.  When he led Affirmed out of his stall, my heart really did skip a few beats.  There he was right in front of me and he was magnificent.  Even as a senior horse he was still exceptionally beautiful, with a glistening chestnut coat.  And, to me there was an aura of elegance and humility about him; not so much pride although that was a part of it, but a sense of accomplishment that he had lived up to every ounce of his potential and ability as a racehorse and that somehow satisfied him.  One of my prized possessions is a photo of me standing next to Affirmed and I am beaming!!

Less than a year later, Affirmed was felled by damnable laminitis.

But my love for all things Affirmed continues.  It was delightful to watch his son, The Tin Man be a Grade I success, winner of the 2006 Arlington Million at the age of 8.

Each night before I go to sleep and first thing when I awake in the morning I can look at the opposing wall, and gaze at a painting of the magnificent and magical embodiment of will–Affirmed!

 

 

 

At LAST!!

The three longest weeks on the Thoroughbred racing calendar, those between the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes when a Triple Crown is on the line are finally drawing to an end.  Post positions for the Belmont Stakes were drawn this morning.  Eleven horses will enter the starting gate Saturday, June 7, 2014; one with a chance to make history and potentially one of the remaining 10 to dash it and send the Triple Crown drought to 37 years.

Derby and Preakness Stakes winner California Chrome has drawn Post 2 and has been made the morning line favorite at 3-5.

The entire field with their post positions:

1. Medal Count

2. California Chrome

3. Matterhorn

4. Commanding Curve

5. Ride On Curlin

6. Matuszak

7. Samraat

8. Commisioner

9. Wicked Strong

10. General a Rod

11. Tonalist

California Chrome has an excellent chance to win the Belmont and by extension the Triple Crown.  I’m still looking for the upset and three colts in particular to me stand a very good chance of rocking the racing world come early Saturday evening.  They are Commanding Curve, Wicked Strong, and Tonalist.

Take a look back at the close of the Kentucky Derby.  Commanding Curve was closing.  Sure, Victor Espinoza was likely wrapping up on California Chrome, but the gap between the two at the close was narrowing.  And expect Commanding Curve to be closer to the pace in the Belmont.  That alone could make all the difference.

Wicked Strong, by all accounts has been training lights out, back at his home base at Belmont Park.  Trainer Jimmy Jerkens has been putting quite a few stamina building efforts in the colt.  Expect him also to benefit from a cleaner trip.

Tonalist, I have been taken with since seeing his Peter Pan victory at Belmont several weeks ago.  He’s a big colt at 17 hands already and while that can be a bit of a detriment at his age, the way he skipped along during the Peter Pan shows he’s quite comfortable in that frame.  And it would be a fitting win as Tonalist is a grandson of 1981 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Pleasant Colony.  Pleasant Colony is one of the 12 colts to date that hasn’t been able to secure the Crown since Affirmed’s 1978 victory.

Dark Horse Special for the Belmont: Medal Count.  Medal Count finished well in the Derby, again following a troubled trip.  Late in the race as he was truly getting in stride and gaining some ground, he encountered several significant bumps from other colts.  Though possibly better on the grass, he seemed to have no problem handling the dirt and being a son of Dynaformer, stamina should be no issue.  Worth consideration.

I anticipate this year’s Belmont Stakes to be one of the most interesting Thoroughbred races of the year.  I’ll refrain from saying entertaining as that will largely depend on the outcome.  We shall see.