It is over. Thethree races in five weeks Triple Crown has ended, and for the first time since 2013, we had three races with three different winners. Some will say that isn’t a good thing, but it did remind us that what American Pharoah did last year was extraordinary. What did we learn over five weeks?
For starters, the press has to stop falling in love with one horse. NBC does an outstanding job of covering the trilogy, but they like to shower one horse with too much attention. As soon as Nyquist crossed the finish line at the Kentucky Derby, thoughts of Triple Crown were running through their minds. When the Preakness came, they appeared to be shocked when Nyquist didn’t win. With three weeks before the Belmont, they had their story line and that was the rematch between Nyquist and the Preakness winner, Exaggerator at the Belmont, which dubs itself “The Test of the Champion.”
Days after, Nyquist spiked a fever and was removed from Belmont consideration and from then on, it was all Exaggerator, all the time. Part of the attention was deserved; after all, he won the Preakness, and was headed to New York as the favorite, but too often, the other angles–and horses–are ignored. In horse racing, there are the so-called “wise guys,” and these are handicappers who never bet the favorite because, naturally, the pay off will be relatively small. As much attention as Exaggerator received, all the NBC experts picked against him in the 148th running of the Belmont Stakes.
Of the three races, the Belmont certainly had the most drama. Gettysburg did his job, cutting decent fractions and was gamely trying to hold on at the top of the stretch. He would eventually fade to eighth, but he did beat five others horses, which is often not the case as many frontrunners drop to last. Gettysburg’s effort set up a stellar final 440 yards. It looked like Destin was destined to win and Lani, the temperamental Japan-based colt started picking off horses and looked like he might roll to the win. In the end, Creator was the only one who had the final surge in him and that was enough to get the narrow victory. It was a well earned win and the final time of 2:28.40 was not great, but not bad either (American Pharoah ran 2:26.56 last year).
I picked Lani to win both the Preakness and the Belmont and still feel he is sitting on a big race. What we found out with Lani is that he has one gear. When he got near Destin and Creator, he could never quicken; for him to win those in front have to decelerate at an even faster pace than we saw last Saturday. Some day that could happen, but it depends if Lani stays stateside or heads back to the Far East. I hope he sticks around, because I’d like to see him win one here rather than oversees.
No one can blame the networks for being disappointed when a Triple Crown is not on the line. It means millions when it is for the obvious reasons. There’s a reason why ratings for the NBA Finals, Stanley Cup payoffs, World Series are down; Americans simply don’t have the time to invest anymore. One-time events like the Super Bowl, Kentucky Derby and at times, the Belmont Stakes don’t take up two weeks of time, so they can draw huge numbers and will continue to do so. We all know the stranglehold that football has in this country and the major reason is that it is one day per week.
Personally, I like it when three different horses win the American classics. Going forward, it truly is a crapshoot as the sport heads to the Breeder’s Cup. Where does Nyquist go? What about Exaggerator? Lani? Creator? Throw in Frosted, who absolutely dominated the $1.25 million Met Mile at age four, and the second half of the year sets up very nicely. American Pharoah was a much-needed boost for the sport last year, but after he won the Belmont and kept running, it was hard to root against him. That is not the case this year. There are plenty of stories, angles and horses for the public to contemplate for the rest of 2016.
Mohaymen was a leading contender, but after losing in the Florida Derby to Nyquist and then finishing fourth in the Kentucky Derby, he fell off everybody’s radar. He will be back and I believe will run well again; the question is where? Those who live in the Capital Region of New York are hoping that all the top contenders will be heading to Saratoga, but that remains to be seen. We know that Creator, under the training of Steve Assmussen will be at the Spa. It’s the summer home for the 50-year old trainer and oh-by-the-way; he is being inducted in the Hall of Fame in August. Keith Desmoreaux has indicated that he will keep Exaggerator at Belmont Park and then ship him up to Saratoga with a Jim Dandy-Travers double possibly on the docket.
As for the three-year-olds, they will scatter all over now. Some will run in the West Virginia Derby; others the Haskell, Jim Dandy and Travers. For a horse like Gettysburg, why not the Ohio Derby at 1 1/8 miles? He is probably a cut below the top three-year-olds, but the Ohio Derby is certainly in his wheelhouse and a nice–very nice–race to win with a $500,000 purse. Last year, D. Wayne Lukas sent the speedster Mr. Z to the Preakness and then won the Ohio Derby. Gettysburg, to me, fits the same profile. The question is can he wheel back in just two weeks? Probably not, so we might see some Preakness horses head to suburban Cleveland. Horse racing is in an interesting spot in 2016. Some races have $200,000 purses and are labeled as a graded stakes, while others such as the Ohio Derby offer a $500,000 purse but are classified as ungraded. If you own/train a horse, where do you go: for the money or for a chance to win a graded stakes race?
Over the next few months, you will hear the term “win and you’re in,” in reference to the Breeder’s Cup. These are races where the winner gets an all-expenses paid trip to the Breeder’s Cup this fall. And, this year, the Breeder’s Cup Classic has increased its purse from $5 million to $6 million; not bad for a sport that many think teeters on the brink of extinction. The first post-Triple Crown win-and-you’re-in event takes place at historic Churchill Downs when the Stephen Foster Handicap takes place at 1 1/8 miles on the dirt. Last year’s Classic runner-up, Effinex, is expected to be the favorite. The Foster is one of five stakes races on a “Downs after Dark,” card where first post occurs at 6 pm. The other stakes races are the Fleur de Lis, Wise Dan, Matt Winn and Regret.