Observations & Thoughts of the 2017 Belmont Stakes, Triple Crown & Stakes

​A lot of the glitz was gone from Thoroughbred racing’s biggest Broadway Show on Saturday, when the Belmont Stakes was held for the 149th time at the Big Sandy.

​Gone was the Kentucky Derby winner, Always Dreaming, who was found wanting and near the rear of the pack in the Preakness Stakes. He was in his stall on the backside of Belmont as Frank Sinatra’s version of “New York, New York” blared out to a sun-baked crowd of nearly 60,000.

​Gone was the Preakness winner, Cloud Computing, who likes time between starts and starts between a lot of down time. He was in his stall on the backside of Belmont as his trainer opted to start a New York-bred with virtually no shot, instead.

​Gone was Classic Empire, the hard-luck fourth-place finisher in the Derby and the tough-luck runner-up in the Preakness. He was in his stall on the backside of Belmont cooling his heels, and, actually, icing a sore foot due to a hoof abscess. A third strike of bad luck and he was out.

​Gone, too, was the Japanese novelty horse, Epicharis. Belmont officials so wanted this horse that they offered a $1 million bonus to any 3-year-old from Japan that could qualify for the third leg of the Triple Crown. Had nothing to do with the fact that the Japanese people bet a little more on horse racing than the people of New York, mind you. Just wanted that international flavor in the city so nice they named it twice. Yet, the track veterinarian did the wise thing in advising the stewards to scratch the colt when he was still lame in his right front foot on Saturday morning. So, Epicharis, too, was in his stall when the Belmont Stakes was run – with an All American group of colts.

​Gone was any chance for a Triple Crown. Gone was any chance for a showdown between the three top 3-year-olds to emerge this spring. Gone was the hype in a New York minute.

​So, when you awoke for the 149th running of the Belmont Stakes, one was right to wonder, “why even run it, right?

​Wrong.

​All the while the vast majority of the headlines and circumstances were playing out in respective stalls and backside banter, something strange happened over on the racetrack.

​A damn good race broke out. Maybe not a classic. Only time will tell us how good these will turn out to be. But a damn good horse race.

​Tapwrit, a grey glittering son of Tapit who was sold for a whopping $1.2 million at the Fasig-Tipton Select Yearling Sale in 2015, returned the faith of his owners and returned a huge paycheck on their investment when he rallied in the final 100 years to inch past the pesky Irish War Cry and win the Test of the Champion.

​Rallying to be third was Pletcher’s other Belmont starter, the one-eyed wonder, Patch. A good story all through the Triple Crown circus circuit, Patch got to end the journey on a feel-good note, too.

​Tapwrit gave his trainer, Todd Pletcher, his second victory out of the three Triple Crown races. Pletcher also saddled Always Dreaming in the paddock of Churchill Downs and then removed the roses in the winner’s circle of the Kentucky Derby.

​And, unlike both Derby Day and Preakness Day, the sun shined bright on both a rousing crowd and a glorious day of racing held on Long Island.

​Maybe Saturday’s conclusion of this year’s Triple Crown isn’t the glamour shot that all racing fans want when we start a Triple Crown season. Every year, we hope for another Secretariat. We look for another Seattle Slew or Affirmed. We even got a chance to taste the sweet water of champagne just a few short months ago, when American Pharoah reminded us just how special each Spring is and how hope is, without a doubt, eternal.

​But maybe that is the way it is supposed to be, too. A reminder that those kinds of horses don’t come along very often and we should cherish them with all our hearts when they do. And, a reminder that every leg of the this year’s Triple Crown became a chance for three separate groups of owners to grab trophies and their significant others in a group hug that makes all of us that own horses go to the sales with a renewed sense of wanting to find that needle in a bale of alfalfa.

​And, it was definitely a reminder, too, that no matter what happens on the backside – and who is back there in those stalls – it is what happens over on the dirt and grass of the race course that settles all scores.

​So, today, we celebrate not what might have been. Not who could have won, if…Not what might have happened, if…Not what hoof is wolfing and not what country is howling.

​Like all those horses and hype, those memories are gone. And, we are left with the sight of two beautiful colts coming to grips with guts and glory in a final, furious fight to a finish line. And, we are left with a memory of Tapwrit showing exactly why all of us love the sport, as he DROVE to a win in the Belmont Stakes.

​More than that, we are left with an industry that is so resilient that we now look forward to the mid-summer classics and the great challenges to come. We look forward to the next great race; the next great challenge; the next great fight.

​It is what we do, horses and fans alike. It is what we do.

Rodeo II

On Derby Day, we all were sidetracked – even if it was just for a brief spat of time – as we watched November Snow buck and squeal his way out of the starting gate in the Run for the Roses.

We all held our collective breath to see if he was ok, or just losing it.

Thank goodness, he just lost it. Both the race, and, temporarily, his mind. He was so good, in fact, that the Snowman has already returned to racing – on his native grass – back in England.

On Saturday, we got our second dose of rodeo racing. Going into the first turn of the 11/2-mile Belmont Stakes, jockey Florent Geroux looked as if both he and his horse were going to clip the heels of several colts that had managed to cut them off. As Geroux struggled to move Hollywood Handsome out of the fray, he lost his balance, and then, ultimately, his irons.

What transpired looked to be something out of a episode of Gunsmoke, with long-legged Festus riding his steady mule. Geroux, with legs dangling down the side and just a few feet from the ground, and Hollywood Handsome looped around the outside of the field, and appeared, for an extended period of time, that they actually may contend for the lead in one of the most bizarre scenes in Triple Crown history.

Thankfully, Geroux was able to steer his colt clear of the other 10 and to the outside rail where they were gathered up by an outrider. Safely kept, the race went on as scheduled and Hollywood Handsome – who sustained some cuts behind his left knee – was OK.

Trainer Dallas Stewart, from Louisville, and owner Mark Stanley, from Lexington, probably were not OK, though. After all, they had gone to some great length and expense to get their colt ready for such a thrilling event, only to suddenly become an oddity.

But the good news is that all of them will live to fight another day. And, like Patch – the one-eyed horse. And, like Classic Empire, who has overcome abscesses before. And, like November Snow. And, today, like Tapwrit, there will be other races to come. And, perhaps, conquer.

Mike Smith Proves, Yet Again, Who is the Best

Mike Smith returned to New York on Saturday to ride six races. Today, he is back in California. A little bit richer. And, a lot more respected as the best rider in the free world and the Thoroughbred industry.

After all, the mild-manner Smith – who doesn’t have to dismount a horse like Frankie Dettori to make his name and game or signal to the heavens each time he crosses the finish line first – won five times; five STAKES RACES. His only setback was on the long-shot Meantime, who set the pace but tired in the Belmont.

Smith won the Grade 2 Woody Stephens on the Bob Baffert-trained American Anthem. He won the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap on Baffert’s Mor Spirit. He won the Easy Goer Stakes with another Baffert starter, West Coast. He won the Grade 1 Acorn Stakes, with yet another Baffert horse, Abel Tasman. And, of course, Smith was aboard the marvelous Songbird, who captured the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps Stakes in her first start of the year. She now has 13 victories in 14 lifetime starts, with a nose-hair loss to the great Beholder in last year’s thrilling Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

What a day. Yet, what a rider. The best in the game today. Perhaps, “Big Time Mike” should be considered with the Shoemakers, Pincays, Hartacks and others as one of the best of all time.

Perhaps?

No doubt. Saturday just showed you, once again, why he is the best in the game

The horse broke well today,” Gaffalione said. “I had the horse inside, Dunph, going to the lead and then (Gun It) showed a little bit of speed. When I saw they were intent on going I just tried to get him back and got him to relax. He came back to me nicely and settled well down the backside. Got a little keen going into the far turn and wanted to move a little early. But I didn’t want to take too much away from him so I tried to sit as long as I could. He was waiting on horses down the lane but I kept him at task and there was plenty of horse there.”

“Mark (Casse, the trainer) and his team have done a great job,” Gaffalione said. “They’ve had a ton of confidence in this horse the whole way. It’s just an honor to be able to ride the horse. He’s just so professional, trains great and he’s a pleasure to be around.”

Tyler Gaffalione, Rode of War of Will to victory in the G2 Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds
  • Gene McLean

    Gene McLean

    Gene McLean began his professional career in 1977 as a sportswriter and columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky., and was recognized as one of the state’s best writers, winning the prestigious “Sportswriter of the Year” honor in 1985. Now the President and Publisher of The Pressbox, McLean sets ...

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