by John Furgele
Three races–five weeks–three different winners. The Triple Crown is over and for the 35th straight year, there was no Triple Crown winner. And, guess what? That’s okay. Despite the cries from many that a Triple Crown winner will save horse racing, those that know the sport know better. Sure, it would have been nice, a slip of attention for a few days, but no more than that. But, if you watched the races, you saw a little bit of everything and now that the trilogy is over, the suspense and intrigue is just beginning.
What can we take away from the spring that was? And, moreover, what will take place as we move forward? The summer is shaping up to be quite a season of racing. It’s amazing what can happen in just five weeks time. Let’s go beyond the headlines.
The Super Horse Who Wasn’t: After Orb galloped through the slop to win the Kentucky Derby, many anointed him as the next Triple Crown winner. Unfortunately this happens far too often. The Derby winner looks good, and everybody fills up with hope thinking that this could be the year. It happened in 2004 (Smarty Jones) it happened in 2006 (Barbaro) and again in 2008 (Big Brown) and 2012 (I”ll Have Another) and it certainly happened again this year.
Orb could only disappoint, and that’s what happened in the Preakness, when he finished a dull fourth. Forget the fact that the other horses ran better than the Shug McGaughey trained colt, everybody scratched their head wondering what happened to the great Orb. What happened was as simple as can be—-Orb is a good horse, not a great horse.
The Rodney Dangerfield Effect: For those who remember, the old comedian claimed he “didn’t get no respect,” and that can certainly be said for Oxbow, trained by the coach D. Wayne Lukas and ridden by Hall of Famer Gary Stevens. A longshot in the Derby, Oxbow stayed on the blistering pace and finished a more than respectable sixth. When Stevens gushed about how much fight the dark bay colt had, nobody respected or cared about what he said. A 15-1 shot at Pimlico, Oxbow took the lead, cut “easy as pie” fractions and waltzed to victory in a somewhat pedestrian 1:57.54, but waltzed to victory he did. Afterwards, everybody was wondering what happened to Orb, but that answer was found in the above paragraph.
Even after Oxbow’s win, he was only 9-1 for the Belmont Stakes before going on to finish a very game second, proving, at least so far that he is the best three year old in a solid but unspectacular crop of colts. It also proved that the game and big stage have not passed the old dog, aka D. Wayne Lukas by.
The Blinkers: Is it that simple?: In the Derby, Palice Malice had the blinkers on and when the gates opened he ran like there were 12 fillies waiting for him at the bar. He set blazing fractions—-22.65, 45.33 and 1:09.80, before giving way and finishing 12th. The Todd Pletcher formula of skipping the Preakness went into effect and a rested and blinker free Palice Malice showed up at Big Sandy and in that race, he looked like a totally different horse. He rated, stalked nicely and when the race was up for grabs at the top of the stretch he seized command. Sure, he ran out of gas like the the others, but did cross the line first, and that puts him the discussion for horse of the year—of course.
Don’t Worry About the Time: The first six furlongs of the Belmont were run in approximately 1:11, meaning the next six were contested in a “walk the pooch” 1:19 and the winning time of 2:30.70 was the slowest since 1970. We know that horses are bred differently and we know they are trained and raced much differently, but don’t worry about the slow time. The truth is that no horse today really can get the distance of 1 1/2 miles anymore. Trainers, owners and breeders want speed and deep down the trainers are hoping that their colt, gelding, or filly can hang on and do something productive over the 1.5 mile distance. Pletcher all but admitted this when he stated that he was concerned that filly Unlimited Budget could get the distance. Years ago, if that was the case, the colt/filly wouldn’t get near the post, but today, why not? Secretariat’s 2:24 might never be threatened, and even the 2:26 run by Easy Goer (the second fastest) in 1989 looks pretty safe as well.
The good thing about the Belmont this year is that there were 14 horses entered, indicating that distance be damned, a classic is still a classic. I used to get worried about the time, hoping it was good, but it was comforting to see that even though the trainers were worried about the distance, they went ahead and entered their horses in the big event.
Down the Road: The big question that lies ahead is if these horses can rest and rebound for the summer and fall seasons. The Triple Crown is a grind, and Oxbow and Orb have to be tired after running in all three races. They will rest, but can they regain their sharpness, that focus that they possessed over those five weeks? The Travers winner could be a horse that we haven’t heard of yet and some trainers (see: Mott, Bill) hold their cards until the fall, so we’ll have to see if the old or new re-emerges or emerges as we move forward in 2013.
My nod for best in the crown is Oxbow, with Orb second and Palice Malice third. Revolutionary looks like he still has something in him, and maybe a horse like Freedom Child can rebound over the next six months.
The Triple Crown is over, but the fun has just begun.