LOUISVILLE, KY (MAY 21, 2017) – It became abundantly clear on Saturday, in the dreary weather and even drearier confines of Pimlico Race Course, that this crop of 3-year-old colts may not rank as some of the best to ever step foot on the Triple Crown trail.
The winner, after all, had only won one race before making his debut in a Grade 1 Stakes race. He was still eligible for a “non other-than” allowance race, and had been distanced twice when trying stakes company beforehand, including the recently demoted Wood Memorial.
The Preakness runner-up, after all, was supposed to make amends and take his rightful perch atop the 3-year-old group after being robbed at gunpoint in the Kentucky Derby. Or so we were led to believe by his connections, who did more crying after the Derby than a queen on prom night.
And, the Derby winner, after all, didn’t take kindly to the audacity of another jockey and horse challenging him for the lead. He must have been so offended that he decided to pack his horseshoes and go home midway round the final turn.
So, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if the winner of the Belmont Stakes — in less than three weeks now — will be an altogether different looking and named horse; another jockey, wearing a different set of silks; and a different bunch of owners than the ones that grabbed the gold and the glory of either the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness Stakes.
Not that there is anything wrong with that, mind you.
The more people that win major stakes races and celebrate the fun and fantasy of Thoroughbred racing, the more people you may have coming back to purchase more yearlings; the more syndicates put together to buy more 2 year-olds in training; and more groups hoping to chase the dream of a lifetime.
The more times you have a 12-to-1 shot win a major stakes race televised around the civilized world, the more unpredictable the predictable becomes; the more dream-chasers chase; the more horses-lovers love – to root for the underhorse; the more prognosticators scramble for an excuse or for another race to come along.
And, the more handicappers you run into, say, “I had it.”
After all, there can’t be a Triple Crown winner every year. Or even the chase for a Triple Crown, as sad as it may be for those of us who want to see greatness and witness horse history.
There is a reason why there have been only 12 great 3-year-olds in the history of the greatest game on earth. And, there’s a reason why there was 37 years between the great Affirmed and the equally-as-great American Pharoah.
But after Saturday’s performances, it does beg a number of questions about how deep and wide this crop of 3-year-olds truly is, and, more importantly, how good are they today going into the Belmont Stakes in three weeks. As well, how good are they tomorrow as we head faster and faster to the big races where 3-year-olds are invited/begged to race against older colts and geldings.
At this point, there doesn’t appear to be any of them that can come close to being able to challenge Arrogate for any of the major stakes races later this year – including the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
At this point, they don’t look good enough to even challenge any of the “other” older colts, like Gun Runner, Shaman Ghost (who won this weekend), or, perhaps, Connect – who made his debut on May 6 by winning the G3 Westchester Stakes at Belmont Park for trainer Chad Brown.
Might be interesting to ask Chad Brown which horse he likes better at this point. Connect, whom he trains, or Preakness winner Cloud Computing, whom he also trains.
As it stands now, this batch of colts don’t even look good enough to beat the best older fillies – like Songbird or Stellar Wind – or even the 3-year-old fillies of Unique Bella, Abel Tasman, or, perhaps, Paradise Woods.
But before you give up all hope, remember this..
Just a year ago, the undefeated Nyquist captured the Kentucky Derby and dreams of another Triple Crown winner began to dance in the heads. Two weeks later, Exaggerator turned the tables on his long-time rival and finally beat him in the Preakness. Just three weeks after that, Nyquist was at home; Exaggerator struggled home 11th in a field of 13 and the new winner’s circle belonged to Creator.
By the end of September 2016 and after the little known Pennsylvania Derby, none of the trio was even around the racetrack or even part of the discussion of who might be able to take on and take out the unconquerable California Chrome.
Out of nowhere, though, came a stampede of interest all wrapped in the legs of one horse – Arrogate. After finishing third in his first start, back in April 2016, Arrogate finally made the winner’s circle for the first time on June 5 at Santa Anita – just six days before the Belmont Stakes – the final leg of the Triple Crown.
Nineteen days later, Arrogate found the winner’s circle again at Santa Anita. In August, he won at Del Mar. Then, on Aug. 27, Arrogate announced himself to the world – in one of the most impressive, astounding, convincing and rousing victories in racehorse history. He won the Grade 1 Travers Stakes in an eye-popping 1:59.36.
The world had its’ next great racehorse. Maybe a racehorse for all-time’s sake. Arrogate’s numbers and wins now rival some of the best to ever stride from gate to wire – including Spectacular Bid, Seattle Slew, and, we dare write, Secretariat. Heresy? Let the records stand on their merit.
And, last year’s 3-year-old crop had its’ own champion to carry the mantle of greatness.
As we now head into the final leg of this year’s Triple Crown, we are now left waiting and wanting again. Waiting for a 3-year-old colt to emerge from the mud of mediocrity. And, wanting something close to another Arrogate to appear on either the horizon or the scene.
Take nothing away from Always Dreaming. Maybe it just wasn’t his day on Saturday after he was eye-balled by Classic Empire. Take nothing away from Classic Empire, who was a heck of a lot more game in defeat than his trainer on Derby Day. Take nothing away from Cloud Computing, who may go on to be this year’s standout. They all three are good horses.
But my guess is that we have another 3-year-old show up in three weeks and stake a claim to this year’s crown jewels. And, we will be left until the summer to sift through all the races; all the barns; all the shed rows – still looking and waiting.
Will one emerge?
Who knows. But that’s why we always keep coming back to the racetrack. With program, form, stopwatch, hope and faith all in hand. We all want to be there when the next superstar comes to town. And, there is always one coming. As former trainer and long-time racetracker Herb Stevens once told me at the Keeneland track kitchen a long time ago:
“Nobody ever committed suicide if they had a good horse in the barn,” said Stevens, who passed away in February, 2013 at the ripe old age of 96.
My guess is that Herb, who saddled Derby favorite Rockhill Native for the Run for the Roses in 1980, always kept looking for his next good horse. And, we should, too.
Gunnevera, who ended up fifth in the Preakness Stakes, looks like a tired horse, to me. He started the year with two impressive races, running second to Irish War Cry in the Holy Bull, and then turning the tables to capture the Fountain of Youth – both at Gulfstream Park.
But since then he has run third in the Florida Derby and seventh in the Kentucky Derby – both with excuses — before this Saturday – where there was no issue to fault.
New rider Mike Smith gave his horse every chance in the world, saving ground throughout and then dropping to the rail in the stretch to make a move at the front-runners.
But just when Cloud Computing was gearing up, and Senior Investment came flying, Gunnevera was grinding down. So much so that Lookin’ at Lee edged him for fourth.
May be time for some time.
Javier Castellano, who recently was elected to the Racing Hall of Fame and drew accolades for his ride in the Preakness Stakes, should be getting a phone call soon from the Maryland racing stewards for his erratic, problematic, and what could have been dangerous ride aboard Hedge Fund in the LARC Sir Barton Stakes at Pimlico on Saturday’s undercard.
In short, it was not a Hall of Fame ride or anything close to what racing fans expect and the horse’s owners (WinStar Farm and the China Horse Club) deserve from one of the game’s top riders.
Here is how the Equibase chart read, as it pertained to Hedge Fund – the even-money favorite:
“HEDGE FUND rated close up while saving ground, was under pressure after six furlongs, eased out for room entering the lane, came in a bit leaving the three sixteenths, shifted back out slightly, corrected and finished with good energy. ..Following a stewards’ inquiry and objection by the rider of Society Beau (Corey Lanerie), HEDGE FUND was disqualified from fourth and placed sixth for interference in upper stretch.”
Quite honestly, after watching the race replay several times, the comment line could have been far more critical.
Going into and through the first turn, Castellano checked Hedge Fund on a number of occasions, as True Timber and Time to Travel both edged in front of him. As the threesome straightend up on the backstretch of the 11/16-mile race, Castellano seemed to point his horse towards a hole on the rail that simply wasn’t there and had to back away from the fray again.
As they finally came out of the final turn for the stretch run, Castellano steered his horse off the rail erratically and it appeared he jammed into Lanerie and Society Beau before over-correcting and veering back to the inside.
On a muddy track, it looked as if Castellano and Hedge Fund were both totally out of control. And, the game demands that riders stay both in control and under control.
It probably won’t amount to anything. Top riders get the benefit of the doubt, if not outright amnesty in big races. But the China Horse Club recently demanded that Abel Tasman – the winner of the Kentucky Oaks – be shifted from the barn of trainer Simon Callaghan to trainer Bob Baffert after a mix-up with the silks. Maybe they should demand the same high degree of perfection from a rider of one of their horses.
We talked to trainer Kenny McPeek by phone just a few days before the 142nd running of the Preakness Stakes. We talked about how his 3-year-old colt Senior Investment – who won the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland in a huge, swooping move — looked and the way he was acting leading up to his first Grade 1 race.
“He’s doing great,” said McPeek, in our exclusive Podcast. “I think he will run great. I really do.”
In fact, Senior Investment – who was a bit fractious in the unusual saddling area that doubles as the turf course — ran just like his trainer hoped and projected. Far back early, the son of Discreetly Mine made a 6-wide, sweeping move that caught the eye and attention, as he fired from last to third. He was beaten less than five lengths for it all.
I don’t know if McPeek will rush Senior Investment back into the fray of the Belmont Stakes or not. And, considering that stalkers seem to do much better in the 11/2-mile final leg of the Triple Crown than do deep closers, it may be better to wait for another day. But this colt certainly appears to have a bright future.
A very bright future.