The following is a potpourri of impressions, observations, afterthoughts, and memorable quotes from this year's Triple Crown, which proved to be a pretty wild ride. There was nothing ordinary about the cast of characters and the unusual paths they took to get to Churchill Downs and beyond.
-- Starting back at the beginning, in my first Kentucky Derby (gr. I) column, I wrote about seeing two omens during my drive to Louisville regarding Afleet Alex. They both were seen shortly after passing Philadelphia Park, the center of last year's Triple Crown universe. The first was a street sign on an overpass with the name Ritchey Road. A few minutes later, the first tractor-trailer of the morning roared by me. It was all white, with only two words in huge letters on the side that read, "Triple Crown." I should have known I needed to see a third omen for Alex to complete the sweep. Looking back now, I can't help but wonder if Alex would have become racing's 12th Triple Crown winner had I seen an Alex's Diner or any darn thing with the name Rose in it. I had 800 miles to find something. Heck, I could have even concocted something.
-- So, did Jeremy Rose cost Afleet Alex the Kentucky Derby, as he maintains? A number of people would agree with him for one reason or another. But the opinion here is that, if he did cost Alex the Derby, it was not what he did on the first Saturday in May, but three weeks earlier. History has shown us that Derby winners do not romp in their final prep race. The majority of them don't even win it. But Rose, looking to restore the colt's tarnished reputation after the Rebel (gr. III), kept whipping him in the stretch after he had opened a six-length lead, eventually increasing it to eight lengths at the wire. It is just possible that his Arkansas Derby (gr. II) romp, in which he received a career-high 108 Beyer Speed Figure, caused him to regress (OK, bounce) slightly in the Derby, in which he only ran a 98. That might have been just enough to cost him that precious length he was beaten. Then again, maybe it's impossible to prevent Alex from winning off by himself once he kicks into gear. But it was curious why he'd whip the colt with such a big lead and the Derby only three weeks away. Yes, Alex needed a hard race after the debacle in the Rebel, but he didn't need to win by eight lengths under the whip.
With that said, however, Rose's rides in the Preakness (gr. I) and Belmont (gr. I) were masterpieces, except for all that looking back and whipping the horse in a weird fashion in the final furlong of the Belmont. His greatest moments were steering Alex to the inside in the Preakness and Belmont after breaking from outside posts that could have been disastrous had he gotten hung wide on the first turn. Also, the patience he showed in the Belmont, and the way he negotiated Belmont's evil "turn of no return" was nothing short of brilliant. It is safe to say Jeremy Rose has come of age.
Two Afleet Alex toasts: Here's to training a horse the old-fashioned way. Boy, would Max Hirsch, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, and Hirsch Jacobs have been proud of Tim Ritchey. He knew his horse, he stood by his beliefs, despite a barrage criticism and ridicule, and in the end he gave everyone a lesson in how to train a horse, while proving that today's horses aren't quite as fragile as most people think.
And here's to racing's newest equine star and the rider with whom he has bonded. It is a rare, inexplicable bond that we have seen both in real life and in fiction. This was Velvet Brown and The Pie; Red Pollard and Seabiscuit; Bob Champion and Aldaniti; Tommy Woodcock and Phar Lap; and Alec Ramsey and The Black Stallion. Add to that list Afleet Alex and Jeremy Rose.
-- With Afleet Alex walking away with this year's Triple Crown Hero Award, let's not forget Giacomo. You can say all you want about his Derby victory and the slow final quarter, and how the race was set up for him. The important fact to remember is that Giacomo will always be remembered as the winner of the 131st Kentucky Derby, which will earn him a place in racing history. And, with all the heartwarming stories in the Afleet Alex saga, let's also not forget what a great story we had with Mike Smith winning the Derby aboard a son of Holy Bull, not to mention owners Jerry and Ann Moss and trainer John Shirreffs and his wife Dottie Ingordo, who also is the Moss' racing manager. It was a pleasure being around such wonderful people. I will always remember Shirreffs as the most humble, unpretentious trainer I have ever had the good fortune to meet. So, let's raise a glass of apple and carrot juice and salute the Derby winners.
And about that final quarter in :26 4/5, first off, Giacomo ran his final quarter in about :25 4/5, the same closing fraction as Swale, Ferdinand, and Riva Ridge. Seattle Slew ran his final quarter in :26 1/5. Let's not get too hung up on final quarters in a race like the Derby, where virtually no one gets to run their race or has clear sailing throughout. With all the bumping and maneuvering through a 20-horse field, times do not mean nearly as much as they do in a normal race.
-- The Pimlico stewards, after deciding that Ramon Domiguez did nothing wrong in the Preakness, should have issued a statement to the public that included a transcript of what was said in their interview with the rider, especially his detailed explanation of why he gave the horse a roundhouse left-handed whip at such an awkward point in the race – coming out of the turn, right before the colt was about to change leads. Also, why he used a roundhouse whip on a horse that was wearing full-cup blinkers and was unable to see it coming.
-- Is there a luckier owner in racing than Robert LaPenta? He has a Hall of Fame trainer in Nick Zito, who can sniff out a potential top 3-year-old colt like a hound dog chasing a drag. Yet, LaPenta takes all these promising yearlings and pinhooks them the following year. That's fine. LaPenta is in racing as a businessman, and obviously knows how to make a buck. But when you tempt fate that way, you can expect to get burned on occasion. Yet, other than selling Pomeroy and Zavata, LaPenta has been able to keep most of his best horses, such as The Cliff's Edge and Pies Prospect, after they failed to meet their reserves as 2-year-olds.
Last year, LaPenta pinhooked a Fusaichi Pegasus colt that Zito had purchased for him for $270,000 as a yearling and sold him for a world-record $4.5 million. Another Fusaichi Pegasus colt, who Zito picked out for $370,000, did not meet his lofty reserve and was bought back by LaPenta for $725,000. How many $725,000 RNAs do you see?
On June 11, the $4.5-million colt, named Fusaichi Samurai, finished eighth, beaten 19 lengths, in a non-winners of two allowance race at Hollywood Park, the same day the buy back, named Andromeda's Hero, was finishing second in the Belmont Stakes. Of all the owners Zito was able to get to the Triple Crown this year – LaPenta, George Steinbrenner, Charlotte Weber, Tracy Farmer, Arthur Hancock III, and Len Riggio -- only LaPenta was able to finish in the money. Farmer had a pair of fourths, with Sun King in the Preakness and Indy Storm in the Belmont, while the others simply had bad luck, either due to injury, rough trips, or falling victim to a grossly misplaced rabbit.
Speaking of which, what was the thought process in putting a rabbit (Spanish Chestnut) with no shot in the Derby to set a blazing pace for a stalker? Bandini had never been farther back than third in any of his races, yet they put in a rabbit that killed off every horse but one who was within six or seven lengths of him. Has Bandini not gotten hurt he more than likely would have been done in by his own rabbit anyway. That one made no sense at all.
-- Of the six jockeys who finished in the money in this year's Triple Crown – Mike Smith, Jeremy Rose, Cornelio Velasquez, Ramon Dominguez, Rafael Bejarano, and Norberto Arroyo Jr. – only Smith had ever finished in the money in a Triple Crown race before. With most of the great riders of the past 20 years either retired or near retirement, it's time to usher in a new guard.
-- The world according to Ramsey: Here are several quotes from Ken Ramsey, whose maiden, Nolan's Cat, finished third in the Belmont:
"Well, I think I just found my Belmont horse." – Ramsey, just minutes after Nolan's Cat's second-place finish in a Gulfstream maiden race on March 5
"I really don't think we have a shot of winning, but he's by our own sire (Catienus
), and I've got the mother, the brother, and the sister, and if he can finish third it would really improve the family." – Ramsey, after announcing Nolan's Cat would run in the Belmont
And Ramsey's post-Belmont quotes:
"Now, I've got to decide whether to run him in a maiden race or the Travers (gr. I)."
"We know how to spot 'em, don't we?"
"The best thing is that he still has his conditions."
Other memorable Triple Crown quotes:
"He's sleeping and I'm not going to wake him up. We'll try again tomorrow." -- John Shirreffs after deciding to cancel Giacomo's 11:30 a.m. schooling session in the paddock
"Hey, buddy, I bet you wouldn't mind going for a little walk right now." – Shirreffs, the next day, trying to determine if Giacomo was up for his paddock schooling session (he was)
"Have you looked at any of your paintings the way you look at him?" – Dottie Ingordo to Jerry Moss as he stood outside Giacomo's stall at Belmont just staring at the horse
"Can I use your grass? You don't mind? -- Patrick Biancone to Wayne Lukas about allowing Chekhov to graze on Lukas' side of the fence
"Hell, no," Lukas replied. "Just take the board down and come on in, and then if he likes it, leave him here."
"I didn't think it was ever going to end." – Shirreffs after his first tour around the Belmont oval on his pony
"I'm lookin' for the guys who voted against my brother (Mel) for the Hall of Fame, but no one will admit it." -- Greeley's Galaxy's trainer Warren Stute at Churchill Downs
"I just want to hug everybody." -- Mike Smith in the jock's room after the Derby
"There are several accomplished horses we have to worry about. Giacomo won the Belmont...I mean Derby." Ritchey's Freudian slip before the Belmont that fortunately amounted to nothing
"Sometimes, I wake up and go, 'Damn, I had it!' But maybe it's better this way. You hear about these people who hit the lottery, then go broke in four years, so maybe it's better I don't get a big head by winning the Kentucky Derby." -- Kiaran McLaughlin trying to come to terms with just getting beat in the Derby
"I've seen enough of Giacomo. I'm going back to the barn." – McLaughlin after watching Closing Argument gallop at Pimlico and Giacomo about to begin his gallop
"Hell, he's as good as the rest of them." – Lukas on Going Wild before the Preakness
"I'm a slow learner." -- Lukas, three weeks later before running the colt in the seven-furlong Riva Ridge (gr. II)
"I'm going to ask him to hire me to help saddle his horses." – Bob Baffert on Zito's five starters in the Derby
"Wow, was that something? Zito, Zito, Zito. Jesus, that guy's got more horses. It's scary. That's quite a feat." – Craig Dollase after Bellamy Road's 17-length victory in the Wood Memorial (gr. I)
"We didn't even see our horse getting hit. My brother and I were saying, 'Where is he? Wait a minute, is that us? I think that's him. No, it's not.' Then, all of a sudden, the next we know, the race is over. You're better off watching it on television." – Noble Causeway's owner Len Riggio on watching his first Derby live
"He put the groom down in the paddock and stepped on him. Then the jock (Jamie Spencer) tried to hit him with the whip and he kicked him in the stomach and sent him to the hospital. He plays by biting you, but he plays too rough. If you don't understand him he's gonna hurt you. But he's my favorite horse." – Hotwalker Louie Gonzalez on Bandini
"I'm rooting against Afleet Alex, because if he wins, all my owners are gonna want me to train their horses twice a day." --Baffert before the Preakness