Steve Haskin's Triple Crown Wrap-up

Steve Haskin's Triple Crown Wrap-up
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Two-year old champ Lookin At Lucky is still ranked at the top of the division following the Triple Crown.
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OK, the naysayers have been heard, so we’re all aware that this year’s Triple Crown had little star appeal and slow times, and that this crop of 3-year-olds is mediocre at best.

Maybe it will turn out to be a weak crop; maybe it won’t. It’s only June.

Following the 1987 Kentucky Derby (gr. I), the consensus was that it was a weak race and a weak crop, based on Alysheba’s time of 2:03 2/5 on a fast track, and that he was able to win despite stumbling badly in the stretch. The Preakness also was slow (1:55 4/5), and then Alysheba got crushed in the Belmont by Bet Twice, the horse he defeated in the Derby and Preakness.

By the end of 1987, and especially in 1988, most people were saying this was one of the best crops of 3-year-olds ever – Alysheba went on to prove his greatness and Bet Twice also proved to be a top-class horse. In addition, you had Gulch, Lost Code, Java Gold, Gone West, Cryptoclearance, Polish Navy, and Afleet.

Yes, it was sad we lost Eskendereya  , who as it turned out could have had a legitimate shot at sweeping the Triple Crown, assuming he handled that sloppy mess in the Derby.

But let’s give these horses a break and not judge them based on the first five months of their 3-year-old campaign. Let’s not be so quick to scoff at the time of the Belmont, which was run on a deep, tiring track that even extensive watering couldn’t tighten up. You can’t compare times at six furlongs to 1 1/2 miles on a track like that, where horses begin to labor the farther they run.

Who was Summer Bird before last year’s Belmont? Did anyone really think he would go on to win the Travers (gr. I) and Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I)? Thunder Gulch   ran a slower time in the Belmont (2:32), and less than four months later he was being considered the only threat to Cigar after having won the Swaps (gr. II), Travers (gr. I), and Kentucky Cup Classic. You didn’t like the three-quarters in 1:14 in this year’s Belmont? Well, they went in 1:15 1/5 in Thunder Gulch’s Belmont.

It could very well be that this year’s 3-year-old crop is not a strong one, but why the rush to declare that with so many big races still to come? And did anyone happen to catch the allowance victories last week by Miner's Reserve and Trappe Shot  ? If you’re looking for potential up-and-coming stars for the second half of the season, try to catch these races.

As for the current group, in the past 25 years, how many 2-year-old champs were still ranked right at the top of the division following the Triple Crown, as Lookin At Lucky   is? Easy Goer was ranked No. 2 by many behind Sunday Silence in 1989, with some polls still having him at the top, and Street Sense   was pretty much rated equal to Curlin   in 2007.

That’s it. So, Lookin At Lucky is one of only three juvenile champions in the past 25 years to have won a Triple Crown race and be ranked at the top of his division at its conclusion, and you can bet the majority of experts will rank him No. 1.

It’s true no one is going to confuse Super Saver   and Drosselmeyer   with Sunday Silence and Curlin, but Super Saver was one of the top-ranked 2-year-olds, placing in a tie for fifth on the Experimental Handicap, meaning this is the only 3-year-old crop since 1992 (A.P. Indy and Pine Bluff) to have two horses in the Top 5 on the Experimental Handicap go on to win Triple Crown events. And to take it one step further, no crop in memory has had the 2-year-old champ and another horse in the Top 5 on the Experimental win Triple Crown events.

Isn’t there something to be said for maintaining top-class form to that extent over such a long period of time, especially when it’s rarely been done at 2 and 3?

 

*****

 

We did see the birth of a potential superstar with the emergence of Martin Garcia, who gave Lookin At Lucky a flawless ride in the Preakness, upset the Acorn Stakes (gr. I) with 39-1 shot Champagne d'Oro on a Belmont track he was totally unfamiliar with, and then gave longshot Game On Dude a terrific ride in the Belmont Stakes, finishing fourth, beaten two lengths. Most jocks take a while to get used to Belmont and its huge turns and often quirky surface, but Garcia rode it like he’d been there for years.

 

Congratulations to his agent, Jim Pegram, one of racing’s true good guys. No agent deserves the success more.

 

*****

 

Everyone has been talking about Uptowncharlybrown  ’s bizarre disqualification for losing an eight-pound weighted saddle pad during the Belmont Stakes and the potentially disastrous consequences had he won, but not many are talking about the horse’s gutsy performance, which actually was pretty remarkable. Not only did he stumble at the start, his pre-made saddle slipped and jockey Rajiv Maragh had to ride the colt while up over his neck for a good portion of the race.

 

Despite the saddle slipping and being down on what looked to be the deepest part of the track, Uptowncharlybrown ran hard the entire way and kept battling through the stretch to be beaten only three lengths. After the wire, Maragh took him well out to the middle of the track and out of everyone’s way. This was a performance and a ride that unfortunately went unnoticed.

 

*****

 

Some of these stats have been mentioned before, but in this year’s Triple Crown we saw:

 

WinStar Farm become the first owner since August Belmont II in 1896 to win two legs of the Triple Crown with two different horses trained by two different trainers.

 

Trainer Nick Zito finish in the money in all three Triple Crown races with three different horses – Ice Box   (second in the Derby), Jackson Bend (third in the Preakness), and Fly Down(second in the Belmont). Fly Down became Zito’s seventh runner-up in the Test of the Champion to go along with his two winners. Dale Romans also finished in the money in all three races, with two different horses – Paddy O'Prado   (third in the Derby) and First Dude   (second in the Preakness and third in the Belmont).

 

Martin Garcia, in his first Triple Crown, ride three different horses, coming away with a win and a fourth.

 

Bob Baffert tie D. Wayne Lukas with his fifth Preakness winner.

 

Maria's Mon, Smart Strike  , and Distorted Humor   become the first stallions since 1921 to sire the winners of the three Triple Crown races (in a single year) having already sired classic winners. Maria’s Mon (Super Saver) sired Derby winner Monarchos  . Smart Strike (Lookin At Lucky) sired Preakness winner Curlin. And Distorted Humor (Drosselmeyer) sired Derby winner Funny Cide.

 

As mentioned earlier, two horses ranked in the Top 5 on the Experimental Handicap -- Lookin At Lucky and Super Saver – win Triple Crown races, something that hadn’t happened in 18 years.

 

Mike Smith complete his own personal Triple Crown, having won the Kentucky Derby on Giacomo  , the Preakness on Prairie Bayou, and now the Belmont Stakes on Drosselmeyer.

 

Eight different horses finish in the money in the three races, with only First Dude finishing in the top three more than once.

 

Does that sound like a dull Triple Crown?

 

*****

 

If in future telecasts ABC uses the Hindenburg shot more often than it did in the Belmont Stakes, the network should at least get Bird’s Eye to sponsor the running of the race. And it looks as if its long-range ground-level shot of the start is here to stay, so don’t count on ever seeing a horse stumble coming out of the gate or breaking slowly.

 

It has reached a point where viewers are going to have to start using binoculars just to watch the race on TV. Also, since ABC loves showing us with graphics how many yards are left in the race, how about if it uses graphics on the outside rail shot to show sign posts on the far turn, so we have an idea where the horses are?

 

*****

 

There has been a great deal of talk recently, as there seems to be every year, about restructuring the Triple Crown. Some suggest the Derby should remain on the First Saturday in May, followed by the Preakness on Memorial Day, and concluding with the Belmont on the Fourth of July.

 

Before supporting this idea, ask yourself the following questions:

 

Following the Derby, will a horse be able to maintain his peak form for the next two months, especially keeping the adrenalin rush of the Derby going that long?

 

With the short attention span of the American public, will the casual racing fan and mainstream America be able to keep their interest going in the Triple Crown for two months?

 

Come Belmont day, regardless of whether there is a horse going for the Triple Crown, how many people are going to give up the traditional traveling, beach-going, picnicking, barbecuing, and family get-togethers that are a major part of July 4th? Even Memorial Day normally is spent doing family activities.

 

Once a horse wins the Derby, isn’t there more likelihood of an injury over a two-month period than there is over a five-week period when, as mentioned earlier, the adrenalin is still pumping?

 

Following the Triple Crown, which culminates a long, hard winter and spring campaign, are trainers, who normally give their horses a rest after the Belmont, going to bring them back in only four weeks for the Haskell and Jim Dandy, and then another four weeks for the Travers? If they do, that means the Triple Crown horses will not have a decent break throughout their entire 3-year-old campaign. That’s not likely to happen in today’s conservative world.

 

Will racing be able to negotiate TV contracts on two of the country’s biggest holidays? Will ABC or NBC be able to maintain an interest level for their viewers for that long?

 

Some people have suggested bringing back the Triple Crown bonus. On the surface, that is a good idea, because it forces trainers and owners to run their horses in all three races. On the other hand, it is not a good idea because it forces trainers and owners to run their horses in all three races.

 

How will anyone know if a horse is physically and mentally up to that chore or if they are being forced to run in all three races against their best interests? If a horse comes out of the Derby and Preakness a little sore or lame or mentally exhausted, how great will the temptation be to try for the $1 million bonus, or whatever the amount would be?

 

For humane reasons and to project the right image to the public, the only way that could work is if each horse who runs in both the Derby and Preakness be put under extensive scrutiny by track veterinarians between the Preakness and Belmont, including having a vet observe each horse train on a regular basis and give a complete check-up on race day.

 

No one wants a repeat of the grim and almost macabre scene that followed the 1993 Belmont when the connections of Sea Hero, who won the Derby and finished up the track in the Preakness and Belmont, were presented with the $1 million bonus check as Preakness winner and Derby runner-up Prairie Bayou was about to be euthanized after breaking down on the backstretch. Prairie Bayou’s fatal injury meant Sea Hero had only to finish the race to win the bonus.

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