The Triple Crown Hype is On

by John Furgele

Two are out of the way.  Just one more to go, one more to immortality for Big Brown, jockey Kent Desormeaux and trainer Rick Dutrow.  That’s it.  One more race and a horse racing legend will be crowned. 

We’ve been down here before.  We have seen three year old colts win the Kentucky Derby, then take the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, only to see them come up short at horse racing’s graveyard—Belmont Park and the Belmont Stakes.  Some came agonizingly close, some were routed. 

After seeing Big Brown win the Kentucky Derby with ease, he simply toyed with the field at the Preakness Stakes.  Because of that, most feel that he saved plenty for the Belmont and will be relatively fresh come June 7.

If only it were that easy.

The Belmont Stakes, held in Elmont, NY just over the Queens/ Long Island border in Nassau County is called “The Test of the Champion,” and that moniker is appropriate.  The Derby is 1 1/4 miles; the Preakness, 1 3/16.  Come June 7, if Big Brown wants to stamp/cement his legacy he will have to go 1 1/2 miles, a distance that, unless he starts racing on turf, will never contest again. 

There are several obstacles that could prevent Big Brown from winning this race.  First, is the track.  Unlike most race courses, where horses start and pass the home stretch/finish line twice, they only do that once at Belmont Park, which is 1 1/2 miles around.  It’s a big track, an enormous track and if the horse isn’t used to it, it could cause problems.  For Big Brown, that shouldn’t be a problem, because it is trainer Rick Dutrow’s home base, but training on the track and racing on it are vastly different.  When horses turn for home, both the jockey and horse can see the finish line and they can gauge accordingly.  At Belmont Park, they turn for home and the finish line is nowhere in sight.  As a result, sometimes the jockey makes his move too early and disaster awaits.

Next, the distance.  This is the only time a horse will be asked to run 1 1/2 miles on dirt.  The richest race in North America, the $5 million Breeder’s Cup Classic is 1 1/4 miles.  It took Big Brown 2:01 and change to win the Derby; 1:55 and change to win the Preakness.  If he is to win the Belmont, he will have to run at least 25 seconds more than the Derby, roughly 2:26 to 2:28.  The Belmont Stakes (and world record for 1 1/2 miles) is 2:24.00 and that was run by the legend:  Secretariat, in 1973. 

Up next is the grueling schedule.  In order to win the Triple Crown, Big Brown is being asked to run three races in five weeks, and at some point, he will hit the wall.  The horse racing industry and their fans are hoping Big Brown hits the wall on June 8, but in recent years, the wall usually comes with about a furlong to go.  Brown will face some horses that ran in the Derby, then skipped the Preakness to get rest and to get ready.  Denis of Cork rallied from 20th (last) to finish third at Louisville, and Take of Ekati rallied to fourth.  If they both run, they will be fresh and both have styles suited to make a late charge and ruin everybody’s hope for immortality.

Currently, the horse players are raving about Japan’s Casino Drive.  He has only raced twice, but like Big Brown, he won an allowance race with ease, then, toyed with the field in the $200,000 Peter Pan Stakes, a 1 1/8 mile race that was won by 5 1/4 lengths.  And, just for nice the race was contested at Belmont Park.  Whether the Peter Pan is comparable to the Derby and the Preakness remains to be seen, but Casino Drive will be fresher than Big Brown.

Finally, is the competition.  The other trainers want to play the game and playing the game means being the trainer who trains the horse that ruins a Triple Crown bid.  They will strategize and they may even band together to make sure things don’t go easy for Big Brown. 

In 2004, we saw that happen to Smarty Jones.  Everybody had already written the Smarty Jones story, but the field all took runs at Smarty and forced the horse to cover every move.  Jockey Stewart Elliott panicked and simply couldn’t take the game of cat-and-mouse anymore.  After covering the moves, he pushed Smarty to the lead while Birdstone sat back and waited.  Down the stretch, Smarty Jones ran out of gas and was passed by Birdstone.  “It’s been 26 years, it’s just one furlong to go, but Birdstone is an upset threat…..Birdstone surges past….Birdstone wins the Belmont Stakes.”  The words came from track announcer Tom Durkin and with them, a collective groan from the 119,000 who were there in person.

This will be the 11th time since 1978 that a horse comes to the Belmont Stakes with a chance to grab the Triple Crown, and since Affirmed in 1978, the record is 0-10.  It started in 1979, when Spectacular Bid moved too soon, tired and finished third.  In 1981, Pleasant Colony could only muster third.  In 1987, the son of 1978 Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes runner up Alydar, Alysheba tired badly and finished fourth. 

The 1989 series saw two classic duals between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer.  After winning the Derby, Sunday Silence and Easy Goer hooked up in a classic stretch drive dual in the Preakness with Sunday Silence winning by a nose.  Easy Goer came to the Belmont and with five furlongs to go, buried Sunday Silence to spoil the dream. 

After eight uneventful years, the end of the 1990s saw three consecutive dreams die at the Belmont.  In 1997, Silver Charm was passed right near the finish and finished second.  The next year, the same trainer (Bob Baffert), tried to win with Real Quiet and this would be the closest we would come, as Victory Gallop edged Real Quiet at the tape.  The next year (1999), Charismatic would fade, injure himself and finish third.  Are you feeling the pain yet?

This will be the fourth time in the 2000s that a Triple Crown can be won on the dirt at Belmont Park.  War Emblem would finish third in 2002.  In 2003, America’s favorite gelding, Funny Cide, a $75,000 purchase would be gunned down by Empire Maker and finish a well-beaten third.  And, of course, the one that got away, the Smarty Jones saga of 2004.

So, we all need to take it easy and slow down a bit.  Right now, Big Brown looks like he can’t be beaten.  His trainer certainly thinks so, but “The Test of the Champion” awaits.

And, it is quite the test.

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