OPINION: Thoughts About the Belmont Stakes, Breeders’ Cup, Mark Hennig, Tom Amoss, Dale Romans & Other Stuff

We are just a day away from the 151st running of the prestigious Belmont Stakes, and the final leg of this year’s Triple Crown season. And, just like much of the Thoroughbred racing world these days, the greatest series of races in the entire world has been a whirlwind, roller coaster, souped-up mixer of emotions, controversy, allegations, and hysteria.

Most of all, though, it has been a season of sadness. Not the jubilation that we expect. Not the celebration of the sport and horse, like we want. Not the exhilaration of watching, cheering, rushing. Not the party, that we demand.

After all, just consider:

Just days before the lynchpin, the Kentucky Derby, the fan favorite and potential racing superstar Omaha Beach was declared from the race when it was discovered that he was suffering from an entrapped epiglottis.

Dashed was the hope and dreams of Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella, who was poised to try and win his first “Run for the Roses.”

Sad.

Just minutes into the running of the Derby itself, jockey Luis Saez and his steed Maximum Security nearly wiped out a quarter of the field coming out of the final turn, sending visions of mayhem dancing through many a head and sending the world’s greatest race into hysteria.

Dashed were the hopes and dreams of the connections of War of Will, Long Range Toddy, Bodexpress, and, perhaps, others. Never to be known whether or not they could have mustered a rally to win the garland of roses, and the most prestigious trophy in all of horse racing.

Sad.

For nearly 22 minutes after the Kentucky Derby, and objections from several key players in the Derby, the racing stewards at Churchill Downs reviewed, watched, poured over, and dissected race replays from any and all angles. Excruciatingly, they contemplated and discussed. Watched. Talked. Watched some more. And, then rendered a historic decision.

For the first time in the history of the Kentucky Derby, there would be a racing disqualification for interference.

The right call and decision, no doubt. Still, a call no one wanted to make — even if they must.

Dashed were the hopes and dreams of owners Gary and Mary West, who had bred and raised Maximum Security from infancy to potential superstardom. Dashed were the hopes and dreams of trainer Jason Servis, who would have joined his brother, John, as having both trained winners of the Derby. John Servis winning the Derby previously with Smarty Jones.

Sad. No doubt.

Would have been sadder if the Wests would have demonstrated just a tad of sportsmanship and a mint julep worth of class afterwards instead of issuing demands, lawsuits, and false claims.

But still?

Sad.

Two weeks later, it didn’t take nearly as long before something strange and unfortunate to happen in the Preakness Stakes — the second jewel of the Triple Crown. Just as the gates opened, the chances of Bodexpress closed.

Leaving the starting gate, he stumbled a bit. Bucked a bit more. And, less than a stride into the race, catapulted Hall of Fame Jockey John Velazquez into free space. The rider hit with a thud. The horse ran the entire race without a pilot, competing all the time for a prize that he could not win.

Sad.

Now, we have the Belmont Stakes. The final jewel. The last chance.

There may not be a rematch between Maximum Security and some of his adversaries — like the fans want. The Wests — now known more for their temper tantrums than their sportsmanship — have taken their horse and gone home.

There may not be a Triple Crown on the line, spiking the fever pitch.

There may not be a “Horse of the Year” candidate in this group. Much less, one of the decade. Not yet, any way.

But there is a chance for a heck of a horse race.

There are storylines and stories to tell.

There is drama to unfold, and, let’s hope, to be told and retold. There are horses, riders, owners, and trainers that can elevate their game and their names.

There is still a chance to celebrate.

Here’s hoping that the 11/2-mile Belmont — the “Test of the Champion” — will produce one. A championship fight. A championship event. And, perhaps, a championship horse.

War of Will?

Tacitus?

Someone else?

Sad no more.

Glad tomorrow is Belmont Stakes day.

(Do we reuse this logo for 2019?)

Breeders’ Cup Must Move / No Other Choice:

Back in the early part of the year, when the stubborn winds of Winter had yet to relinquish its’ grip on our soul and hearts and after 23 horses had suffered catastrophic injuries at what is supposed to be called “The Great Race Place,” I called for a stoppage of racing at Santa Anita until such time that the track was replaced.

We talked to our sources. We dug deeper into the track issues than those that are supposed to keep it safe. We did our due diligence, and we discovered that there were many people seriously concerned about the condition of the track. And, the drainage issues that lie underneath.

We implored all to call it quits. Dig up the track. Down to the root. And, replace it with a totally new racing surface.

As you know by now, Santa Anita did the absolute opposite. They refused to acknowledge that there was and is anything wrong with the racetrack.

Instead, they pointed fingers.

Had to be the breeders back in Kentucky. They were using drugs to build bigger bones and muscle.

Had to be the trainers. They were using drugs to cover up injuries and mask issues.

Had to be the veterinarians. They refused to give over their records.

Had to be the jockeys. After all, we all know that the use of the new and improved whips were causing horses to suffer injuries.

After the latest terrible news this week, we all know now what we all should have known back then.

It’s time to stop.

Instead of pointing fingers, now, it is time for the Breeders’ Cup to pound a fist. The Breeders’ Cup — which is scheduled to be held at Santa Anita in November — cannot afford to hold the game’s Championship Event on a track like this. Simply cannot.

The Breeders’ Cup board is scheduled to meet before the end of June. It is time to make other arrangements. Now.

News and Notes:

(Bourbon War / Photo Courtesy of Mark Hennig’s Facebook Page)

Bourbon War: Chatted with trainer Mark Hennig via text on Thursday. Just wanted to check in on him and his horse Bourbon War, who will be running in the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.

He tells me that all things are well in his camp. And, the Tapit colt is doing great going into the race.

The blinkers, put on for the Preakness Stakes, are long gone. The horse may be, too. Gone to the top of his class.

Mark Hennig is one great ambassador for the sport. Here’s wishing him and his connections luck.

(Serengeti Empress winning the KY Oaks / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

Serengeti Empress: Traded text messages on Thursday with trainer Tom Amoss, too. His fine filly, who captured the Kentucky Oaks, will run next in the G1 Acorn Stakes at Belmont Park on Saturday.

When asked, Tom replied: “All good.”

Another talented young man in our industry. Deserves the best.

Dale Romans
(Dale Romans, with Gene McLean)

Everfast: Without a doubt, and he would be the first to tell you, trainer Dale Romans has had a difficult Spring. Instead of getting his top 3YOs ready for the Triple Crown, he has struggled just find the key to the winner’s circle. Period.

But Romans will be in the Belmont Park paddock on Saturday, putting the saddle on Everfast — runner-up in both the Preakness Stakes and the Holy Bull (earlier this year) at huge odds.  And, I will be rooting for the big guy.

Chatted with him this week, and Dale said this:

“This horse has never had a bad day. He just loves what he does.”

Same thing can be said for Dale Romans. At least on the surface.

Never once have I asked a favor of Dale Romans that he has refused.

Every time I have asked Dale Romans to speak to a group of people, he has agreed.

Never once has he offered an excuse.

Every time, he has stepped up.

Dale Romans is a great ambassador for a sport he loves to the core.

And, it would be fun to see him have some fun. Again. On Saturday. On National TV. On the world’s racing stage.

That would be fun.

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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