The Triple Crown is over and for many, it didn’t have the proper ending, as California Chrome failed to become the 12th horse to capture the trilogy and become part of horse racing immortality. But, that was three weeks ago, and horse racing is back to its niche status. Think about this: had Chrome won, would people still be talking about the sport? The answer is probably not, and most of you know that, but it was a great ride made even greater by the comments made by Steve Coburn that only the 20 horses that run in the Kentucky Derby should be allowed to participate in the Preakness and the Belmont.
Coburn’s comments didn’t surprise me, and as much as I loathed him during his five weeks of fame, I was quick to forgive him when he apologized the Tuesday after the Belmont. He was emotional, upset and hurt. This was the ride of his life and he wanted it to last forever which would have happened had Chrome won the Belmont. His pride was also hurt as he boldly predicted that Chrome was going to win the Belmont and the Triple Crown, so, as Chrome came up empty in the stretch drive, he had to be thinking of what he was going to say and rather than be humble, he lashed out. What stunned me is that much of America was in his corner with the belief that new shooters shouldn’t be allowed in races like the Preakness and Belmont if they didn’t run in the Derby.
People tend to link the three races together like they’re run by the same body, which of course, they’re not. Each race is its own entity and while they serve as the Triple Crown races, each race has to do what it takes to get the strongest field possible. There have always been new shooters in both the Preakness and the Belmont and that’s never going to change and truth be told, both the Preakness and Belmont fields would shrink considerably if that were the case. Tonalist was nominated for the Triple Crown—as were 10,000 other horses—but he got sick and then hurt in the winter of 2014. Should he be punished for being injured? That’s like LeBron James being told he can’t play in the NBA playoffs because he missed the regular season. I do sympathize with Tom Chuckas, who runs the Preakness Stakes, because that field is always compromised because it’s only two weeks after the Derby. If a horse doesn’t win in Louisville, it makes more sense to pass on the Preakness unless you really think your horse can win. Horses just don’t race as much as they used to and that’s not changing anytime soon. But, the Preakness usually gets the Derby winner, something that the Belmont doesn’t. These are horses, owned by wealthy people, and trained by elite horsemen and women; they will do what’s best for them and the animal, and three races in a five week span is usually not what’s best.
Lastly, winning the Triple Crown is and always should be a difficult task. Unfortunately, we have become a little soft in this society. We want everything now and most think it’s about time for another Triple Crown winner, so let’s make it easier for that to happen. Simply, California Chrome was just not good enough. He’s a great horse, but super horse? No. That’s the bottom line. If he were super, he would have found a way on June 7, just like Affirmed did in 1978 and of course, the others. Tonalist emerged victorious but we know that other factors came into play. The three in five grind, the fact that fresher horses were in the mix, the 1 ½ mile distance and of course Big Sandy, aka Belmont Park. Once again, the track did what it usually does, swallowing up whole another Triple Crown wannabe. Belmont Park, as I’ve said way too many times is such a different race course and to me, unless you get your horse a race over the big oval, I’m not sure the Belmont Stakes can be won. For most, that means getting your two year old there for a race, and that’s tough to do and it should be of no shock that both Tonalist and runner-up Commissioner ran in the May 10 Peter Pan at 1 1/8 miles at Belmont. They seemed very comfortable during the race and the 1-2 finish demonstrated that.
Will we see another Triple Crown? I believe we will because there will be another superhorse who will get it done. Horses are horses. The times haven’t changed in 40 years even though the training has, and the Belmont distance will always be a concern as six and seven furlong and one mile races have become the norm, but trust me, it will happen someday. It shouldn’t be easy and the format shouldn’t be compromised. Seattle Slew did, so surely, another horse will do it too.
Odds and Ends: The Breeder’s Cup made a terrific decision to go to Keeneland in 2015 and that decision quickly proved that Keeneland’s decision to tear up the polytrack and go back to dirt paid off. Most agree that Keeneland, along with Saratoga, Santa Anita and Del Mar are the most scenic of all the race courses, so selecting Keeneland was a no-brainer. The question is will New York ever get another Breeder’s Cup? The last time New York hosted was in 2005 at Belmont, under 30 degree temperatures. There was a movement to make Santa Anita the permanent home, but it’s wise not to do that. Like the Super Bowl and the Final Four, the Breeder’s Cup needs to move around.
-NYRA raised admission prices for the 2014 Saratoga season $2 across the board, which certainly won’t put a major dent into one’s wallet, but to me, it was a move that shouldn’t have happened. As I stated in a previous column, it’s not a big deal at first, but what about the family of five and what about that family of five coming multiple times? That said the proof will be in the pudding. Let’s see the attendance figures and go from there.
-I know he’s early into his tenure, but I like Martin Panza, the racing director for NYRA. He worked in California for 20 years and he has been bold, innovative and decisive. The Belmont Stakes undercard was nothing short of magnificent with eight stakes races and nearly $10 million in purses. Americans like events (see Soccer, World Cup) and while at Finger Lakes on Belmont Stakes Day, the crowds around the TVs swelled when the Acorn Stakes was run. People know stars and people like big events and special days (see July 4) and Panza knows what sells. Remember, he is from California, where stars are made and he is now in New York, another place for stars, so he gets it. The other thing he did was cut the number of races on the usual Saratoga card. Making money through handle is how tracks survive, but 12 races on Wednesday doesn’t make a lot of sense. As Panza said, you don’t need to spend seven hours at a race track and as they say less is more.
The other thing Panza did was to try and keep Belmont Park relevant after the Belmont Stakes, which is not easy to do. Next Saturday, there is the Stars and Stripes Festival, featuring five stakes races, highlighted by the venerable Suburban Handicap. There was also a Food Truck Festival and 12,000 in attendance on Father’s Day. Panza has three children to tend to with Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct and that’s no simple task. But, he appears to be the right guy for the job. The Saratoga meet is shaping up to be sensational, and I’m sure the Belmont Fall meet will be equally compelling.
-Tom Durkin will retire after the Saratoga meet and though he will be missed and missed severely, good for him to retire on his terms. At 63, why not get out and travel and enjoy life? Durkin loves the sport, but he has toiled on weekends and holidays for decades, so this is his time to see what else is out there. I’m sure at first, he won’t know what to do with every Saturday and Sunday to himself, but he’ll figure it out. While Durkin is still sharp as a tack calling races, he hinted that you don’t want to be a guy who sticks around too long. Here’s hoping he will call races on a part-time basis, but if it ends at Saratoga, may he have the happiest of retirements.
The list of candidates to replace him will be lengthy, and I would like to see John Imbriale be promoted. He already is the voice of the Aqueduct winter meet and has served as Durkin’s “backup,” many times, although to me, he’s first class all the way. Vic Stauffer, the former voice of the now closed Hollywood Park might be considered, but would he leave California for New York? A longshot would be Finger Lakes caller Tony Calo. Most don’t know who he is, but he has a great voice, great diction along with some humor, but he is indeed a long shot. Larry Collmus probably would have been the easy pick, but he just started at Churchill Downs and also calls Gulfstream in the winter, so the timing might not be right for him. I’m confident that they’ll get a top quality person, but Durkin was a one in a million talent.
-As June ends, the list of major stakes races for Saturday, June 28, 2014 is impressive. There are 12 excellent races to view, highlighted by the $500,000 Gold Cup at Santa Anita. Game on Dude, trained by Bob Baffert is looking for a threepeat in this race, which will be broadcast on NBCSN at 7 pm EST. The other races:
Mother Goose, Belmont
New York Stakes, Belmont
Firecracker Stakes, Churchill
Bashford Manor, Churchill
Royal Heroine, Santa Anita
Triple Bend, Santa Anita
Senorita Stakes, Santa Anita
It’s also showcase day at Prairie Meadows in Iowa with the Cornhusker Handicap, Iowa Derby and Iowa Oaks being contested. Horse racing is prominent for five weeks during the Triple Crown, but it really hits its peak in summer and fall, when most across the great land aren’t really paying attention. These races and the ones that follow will go a long way to determine the fields for the Breeder’s Cup races, set for the end of October at Santa Anita.
-Palace Malice is the best horse in training right now, although Wise Dan just started back after being out with an injury. On Belmont Stakes Day, the Todd Pletcher trained colt won the Metropolitan Handicap, affectionately known as the Met Mile impressively and joined select company by winning both the Belmont Stakes and the Met Mile. Conquistador Cielo still remains the only horse to win both in the same year, turning the trick as a three year old in 1982, when Woody Stephens entered him in the Belmont Stakes just five days after winning the Met, something that will never likely happen again.
Panza did get some criticism from some for moving the Met from its traditional Memorial Day spot to Belmont day, something that I believe he may revisit for the future. Why not keep the Met Mile on Memorial Day and move another race, or create another stakes race? Of course, does having the Met Mile on Memorial Day bring more fans to the track? That will go into the thought process for sure. Nevertheless, what Palice Malice did was nothing short of brilliant. This is a horse that can go long and short and right now, you’d have to think that the Breeder’s Cup Classic is the aiming point.
-Saratoga is just three weeks away. Enjoy Independence Day and of course, all the great races that are coming up.