Some random observations on this year’s run for the Triple Crown:
- It takes a great horse to win the Triple Crown: I picked California Chrome to win each of the three legs and said he is the best and most-accomplished three-year old, an opinion I still have. But that does not mean he is a great horse. There is a reason the TC is so difficult to win – you have to be great to do it. I do not think anyone would dispute applying that label to the last three winners – Affirmed, Seattle Slew and Secretariat.
- Let’s drop the foolishness about changing the scheduling of the races: There has been some discussion about changing the spacing of the races so that there are not three tough events over a five-week period. That’s actually why winning the Crown is the sport’s ultimate achievement. So what if it hasn’t been won since 1978? No one has hit .400 in baseball or hit in 56 straight games since 1941. That’s why Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio are rightly viewed as icons of the game – of course, they had a bunch of other accomplishments as well. Making the Triple Crown easier to win is akin to allowing walks to count as hits so we can have another .400 season or hitting streak. The sport is not diminished because signal accomplishments are difficult – that’s why they are signal accomplishments. Is there anyone who really regrets that neither Funny Cide nor War Emblem failed in their bids to join the ranks of Citation and Secretariat?
- It’s time for Steve Coburn to move on: I was willing to give to give California Chrome’s part-owner Steve Coburn a pass for his remarks following the Belmont. Fortunately for the rest of us, our intemperate and stupid comments are not broadcast live on national TV. But then he came back a day later and made even more intemperate and stupid statements to back-up his initial ones. As for the substance – only horses that compete in the Derby and Preakness could contest the Belmont – we would have had a three-horse field in which one of the three was eased because he bled.
- That was a great card of racing: The decision by the New York Racing Association to card ten stakes, including nine graded and six Grade I’s, produced some tremendous races and handicapping opportunities – not that I realized any personal benefit from the latter. There was only one six-horse field, but the Ogden Phipps had one of the most exciting finishes, including a long shot running third. Only one favorite won a stake – last year’s Belmont winner – and four of the stakes had winners paying at least $20. The outstanding card came at the expense of stripping the traditional Memorial Day card of its three Grade I’s, and I do not think many people came to Belmont on Saturday for those six Grade I’s who would not have come if “just” a Triple Crown was on the line. I guess we won’t know that answer until we see a Belmont without the Crown a factor.
- It’s time for Chris Kay to move on: NYRA’s CEO can’t stop promoting the “sparkling” musical entertainment during Saturday’s program, even after the day is over. When he proclaimed the Belmont would be the “greatest ever” before the race was even run, I thought he was continuing the relentless self-promotion that has been evident ever since he took over as CEO. No one came to Belmont on Saturday to hear Frank Sinatra, Jr. sing one of his father’s songs, although I admit he was better than I anticipated. Instead of being preoccupied with the music program, Kay may want to pay more attention to the “guest experience.” I have heard from one reader that it was pretty bad, although that is obviously not a scientific sample. There was also a touch of Steve Coburn in Kay’s complaining that the all-time attendance record of 120,000 for the Smarty Jones bid was inflated (not the first time that thought has been uttered). As much as Kay wanted a new record, even if the 2004 number was below 100,000, this year’s Belmont attendance of 102,199 is still only the second-highest – which is nothing to be ashamed of.
- “Enhanced security protocols” were not exactly airtight: NYRA and the Gaming Commission established enhanced security protocols covering all the horses entered in the four $1 million stakes to be run on Saturday. The essence of the procedures is that all entrants were to be on the grounds by noon on the preceding Wednesday, and monitored from then until the race, including the administration of any veterinary treatments. Two Belmont entrants, however, were exempted from the Wednesday deadline. Apparently on their belated flight to New York, the connections of Medal Count and General a Rod developed some testiness. When General a Rod failed to make it to the pre-race assembly barn on time, Medal Count’s trainer Dale Romans objected rather forcefully. He then engaged in a heated discussion with Mike Maker, the trainer of the tardy colt, according to David Grening in drf.com. DRF reported that Romans said General a Rod did not arrive at the assembly barn until 5 minutes before the field was to move to the paddock.
Martin Panza, NYRA’s senior vice president for racing, was quoted in bloodhorse.com: “As far as I know, there is no rule that the horse must be at the barn at a certain time as long as they undergo all of the testing.” That would be, of course, except for the rule published by NYRA and the Gaming Commission on May 21 stating that horses “will be required to be in the Assembly barn between 45 minutes to 1 hour before post time for TCO2 testing.” TCO2 testing is for the purpose of identifying “milk shaking,” an illegal pre-race procedure on a horse. Despite Panza’s uninformed clearing of Maker from any wrongdoing, the stewards are conducting an inquiry.
Now we can return to the obscure niche racing occupies on the American sporting calendar for 47 weeks of the year.
Some random observations following the Preakness and preceding the Belmont Stakes:
- New York gets it right on nasal strips: A nascent Belmont Stakes controversy became not so controversial when New York’s racing stewards allowed California Chrome (and any other horse) to wear a nasal strip similar to those worn by some human athletes.. Chrome has been six-for-six since adding the adhesive strip – and jockey Victor Espinoza. In 2012, the stewards did not permit I’ll Have Another to wear one in his bid for the Triple Crown. What’s the difference between then and now? One factor may have been Doug O’Neill, the trainer of the 2012 colt, who engendered his own controversy with his record of drug infractions. This came only four years after persistent drug scofflaw Rick Dutrow was also going for the Crown with Big Brown. (Interestingly, Big Brown did not finish and I’ll Have Another scratched before the race.) I think the real difference, however, is Dr. Scott Palmer, who is the newly appointed Equine Medical Director for New York, the first such person to hold the position. Palmer concluded there was no evidence that the nasal strip has an effect on performance, and may even reduce the chance of pulmonary bleeding. His opinion convinced the three stewards, who are appointed by The Jockey Club, New York’s Gaming Commission and the New York Racing Association. It’s nice to have a decision based on facts and not politics or emotion, and one that was made quickly.
- Rosie is having a tough Triple Crown: After winning her second Kentucky Oaks in three years, jockey Rosie Napravnik has yet to finish in front of a colt in either the Derby or the Preakness, despite having different mounts. While she did finish in front of the filly Ria Antonia in the Preakness, the filly’s chances of winning that race were only marginally better than mine. Napravnik is not only a top rider but a great ambassador for the sport, so we can hope she has a better Belmont should she pick up a mount.
- Will a Chrome Crown save racing? People in the industry hold out the hope that a Triple Crown after a drought going back to Affirmed in 1978 will restore the sport to the prominence it once had on the sporting scene. I do not think we can discount the impact a Triple Crown will have on the general public. I watched the Preakness at the bar of a wedding reception. It was a mixed marriage – the bride’s side were Red Sox fans (excepting three aberrant Yankee supporters) and the groom’s side were Cardinal fans. There were not many racing fans in the group, but the place erupted when California Chrome held on to win. I was astonished at the reaction. I suspect, however, that the interest in racing will dissipate after the Belmont, even if Chrome wins, and resurface only when he races again.
- NYRA loses its Belmont Stakes bet: When a Triple Crown is on the line, the New York Racing Association does not have to worry about attendance on Belmont Stakes day – it will be in six figures. As a hedge against different horses winning the Derby and Preakness, NYRA decided to eviscerate one of the best racing days in America by moving three Grade I stakes from Memorial Day to the Belmont undercard. So the Met Mile – one of the top races in the country – is now a warm-up act for the Belmont. The Acorn, a Grade I for three-year old fillies that may well attract the exciting Untapable, is similarly playing second fiddle. The premise of the “experiment,” according to NYRA’s CEO Chris Kay, is to attract casual fans to Belmont Park. Well, they will be coming, with or without the added Grade I events. I would hazard a guess that most of those in attendance will be there because of the possibility of a Triple Crown winner, and do not know the difference between a state-bred maiden claiming race and a Grade I. Marketing the Met Mile and the Acorn on a Memorial Day card would present an additional opportunity to attract new fans, as well as to educate them, but that is now not going to happen. It’s like spreading in a Pick 3 only to have the favorites win. You cash, but end up losing money.
Some random observations on this year’s Kentucky Derby:
- This is one of the best “feel good” stories in a while. We have the oldest winning trainer in Derby history, who was last at the Derby when he accompanied Swaps on the train from California in 1955. Then there are the owners who turned down $6 million for a partial interest in California Chrome before the race. If that is not enough, I learned in a Teresa Genaro article in Forbes.com that jockey Victor Espinoza donates ten per cent of all his earnings to fight cancer in children. The reason? He visited a pediatric cancer facility and could not go back because he would just cry.
- Can Chrome capture the Crown? That is always the single question of those who do not follow the sport closely. I thought he was the best three-year old colt before the race, and he was clearly the best afterwards. I thought the last four Derby winners could do it, and before Mine That Bird, I thought the preceding three could. That makes me 1 for 8 on that prediction, so I am not going to jinx this one.
- Will a Triple Crown winner save racing? This is one of those saws that I think is totally devoid of merit. A Triple Crown winner will undoubtedly result in an uptick in interest whenever he races, but that is about it. But that general topic is for another day.
- How has this guy never seen a horse race? I saw a friend from Boston the other day who watched his first Derby ever. He is a sports nut, 50 years old, and had never seen a Derby. We have known each other for years, he knows of my interest, yet he had never seen a horse race. (It’s not to my credit, by the way, that I never thought to encourage him.)
- Dallas Stewart ties Todd Pletcher for second-place finishers in Derby. I have lost track of how many horses Pletcher has started in the Derby – I think it is 41, but only two seconds to go with a single win. Stewart has had bombers finish in the place spot the last two years. Last year it was Golden Soul at 35-1, followed by Commanding Curves at 38-1. How has Golden Soul fared since then? His highest placing has been a fifth in a six-horse field, beaten by 24 1/4 lengths. His closest finish was a 7-length loss in an allowance race.
- The public was remarkably accurate in assessing the merits of Derby entrants. Only five of the 19-horse field finished in a position significantly different from their betting odds: Commanding Curve, second at 38-1; Intense Holiday, twelfth at 14-1; Candy Boy, thirteenth at 9-1; Wildcat Red, eighteenth at 19-1 and Vicar’s in Trouble, last at 20-1.
- Why are only two Derby horses considering the Preakness? California Chrome was impressive, but it wasn’t exactly Secretariat’s Belmont. He got an absolutely perfect trip, running just where he wanted to be, and did not even sniff trouble. I cannot recall a year, particularly in this day of 20-horse fields, when only two were willing to return at Pimlico. It is, after all, a Classic. It says a lot about the way horses are now trained – or, perhaps, it is a function of how they are bred. One of the reasons I liked Chrome in the Derby is precisely because he was not lightly raced. His ten starts were the highest of any entrant.
- How does a cat handicap the Derby better than I do? For those not familiar with my Blue Ribbon analysis of the Triple Crown races (on the Horse Racing page), I have been doing it for over 20 years now. One of my cats is named Barton, after the first Triple Crown winner. (The other is named Fager.) One year, Barton grabbed a bunch of losing tickets from atop my dresser and scattered them across the bed, as though he were rebuking my handicapping prowess. As I started working on the year’s Derby analysis, he began knocking a “New York-bred” refrigerator magnet down. So I decided to add a segment on the cat’s selection. That was the year Funny Cide won. He continued knocking the magnet down before the Preakness. He hasn’t done it since. In subsequent years, I would note when he would display interest in a particular horse about whom I would be writing. While he has had some success since Funny Cide, nothing came close to this year. He climbed up on my lap and purring loudly as I wrote about California Chrome and Commanding Curve, an exacta that returned $340. Of the thirty or so public handicappers I surveyed, not a single one had Commanding Curve among the top selections.