One year ago, in the days leading up to the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1), all hell broke loose at the barn of Brian Lynch.
Summoned to a meeting with New York racing officials, Lynch was informed that he tested positive for marijuana. Rather than having his trainer's license suspended, the trainer voluntarily surrendered it for several weeks until he was able to go through a counseling protocol and test clean. In the meantime, Private Zone, a top graded stakes-winning sprinter, was prohibited from starting in the True North Stakes (G2) because he had already been entered under Lynch's name.
Lynch's situation a year ago certainly inconvenienced Rene Douglas and his Good Friends Stable, owners of Private Zone; and the trainer's other clients. But instead of criticizing the Australian native, every one of Lynch's owners stood stoutly in back of him, decrying the system and supporting the man.
And a year later, everything is humming at Barn 19 at Belmont Park, marked on its wall by the logo of a green kangaroo ready to jump. Lynch is back and stronger than ever, with Meantime ready to run in the main event June 10, Noholdingback Bear competing in the June 9 True North that Private Zone had to skip a year ago, Lightstream in the June 9 Bed o' Roses Invitational Stakes (G3), and Turbo Street and Hockey School running in allowance contests June 9 and 10.
Oh, and Oscar Performance, winner of the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1T), returned to his winning ways June 3 in an impressive romp in the Pennine Ridge Stakes (G3T) at Belmont.
"We've got action," the personable Lynch said June 7 at his Belmont barn. "Everything's good. We've regrouped and moved on and we have a nice stable of horses we're working with. I'm looking forward to this Belmont weekend as opposed to last year's when we were watching from the other side of the fence."
Lynch's list of owners includes John and Jerry Amerman (Oscar Performance), who know Lynch from his days assisting Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel; Jim and Susan Hill; Leonard Zenith; Terry Hamilton, who has the top turf runner Heart to Heart with Lynch; Silverton Hill Farm, which has Meantime; and a growing coterie of others. It is a measure of the man that Lynch lost no owners after his well publicized problem a year ago. Not only is Lynch increasingly winning big races, he is the living embodiment of having a good time at the races.
"I've always been a stand-up guy with everybody," Lynch said while explaining how grateful he is to those who stuck with him. "I was the first to get on the phone and tell all the owners what went down. Jim Hill's quote was, 'You sound a lot more worried about this than I am.' I knew I had good owners who had been with me for a lot of years, and if we were going to part terms over what happened then it was meant to be. Good Friends Stable and Rene Douglas really stood behind me and were supportive, and they were the most affected by it, so I really have a soft spot for those guys."
Winning a Breeders' Cup race signaled Lynch's ascension back from the dark shadow placed on him by New York regulators. Now having a Belmont Stakes contender brings the possibility of one great turnaround story. What a difference a year makes.
Meantime, who broke his maiden going nine furlongs over a muddy track at Keeneland April 22, is an improving colt by classic winner Shackleford . He finished second behind Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) starter Patch in his first race, and most recently ran a respectable second in the May 13 Peter Pan Stakes (G3) at Belmont.
"After he broke his maiden at 1 1/8 miles I had no intentions of going to the Peter Pan," said Lynch. "I wanted an allowance race for him, but he seemed to be doing well in his training and we figured we'd get a gauging run on him here at Belmont, and he ran very credibly.
"I've always felt the Peter Pan was a good steppingstone to the Belmont, and he's training very well. I felt if there was no speed, he could be an effective horse. We’ve got Mike Smith to ride, and now it's a question of whether his pedigree (out of a Mt. Livermore mare) can get the mile and a half. He's in the best shape possible and he may dictate terms on the front end."
With Oscar Performance pointing for the July 8, $1.2 million Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes (G1T), Lynch could conceivably transition from "boogieman" to the toast of the town in a New York minute. And any potential celebration, in the interests of remaining clean, will be coming from the business end of a tequila decanter.