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It’s that time of the year. Again. When everyone is asking, asking... pondering on the possibility, probability, or perhaps one should say ’improbability’ of seeing a winner of the US Triple Crown.
As a reader of this web site you need no explanation as to what that exactly is, nor a reminder of the fact that the Triple Crown has not been won since Affirmed carried Steve Cauthen to wins in all three legs back in 1978.
To some of us, ’78 seems like yesterday. Yours truly remembers a bit of that decade, as he just scraped in a ’child of the fifties’ – when born on the same day the legendary Petite Etoile won the Oaks at Epsom Downs. I had my first sigh of relief just when the fantastic filly was walking around in the paddock at the famous racecourse outside London. I had my most recent, when Street Sense powered past Hard Spun at Churchill Downs. Plenty of water has passed under the bridge between these two sighs.
More or less ’halfway between’ them we find the year 1978. What else happened that year? How significant is a near 30-year period without a Triple Crown winner, in sporting terms? Well, let’s take the first one first; 1978 was also a year taken by storm by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John (or was it the other way round?) in the film Grease. Steve Cauthen was nowhere near as well known, by the way. That same year was also when the first test tube baby was born, it was the year when Charlie Chaplin’s coffin was found buried 10 miles from his original grave, and it was the year the Atlantic was first crossed by balloon. So, does it seem a long time ago? Yes it does.
In sporting terms? 29 years without an ultimate achievement being reached is a long time, in most sports. Though it is not extreme. Take a look at England’s national soccer team. They won the World Cup in 1966, and some cynics say they will never win it again. Would that be significant? Oh, yeah, you bet – would be a bit like the Superbowl not being staged one year.
Back to the horses. Remember, winning the Triple Crown is so much about luck or no luck. Yes, we have been waiting a while for the next one to join Affirmed in the history books, but we have seen quite a few near misses. When your horse loses a race by a nose, it is bad luck. He did not lose because he was not good enough, it was just a question of being in the right stride passing the post, of sticking the neck down and forward at that crucial split second. Ask Bob Baffert and Mike Pegram. They have forgotten more big race celebrations than most players have had such parties in this game. Yet, they will probably never, never forget the 1988 Belmont Stakes. They had Real Quiet, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness ready for one more big run. And run big he did. It all looked rosy, until Victory Gallop crushed the hope by just a nose in the final jump. I think we can say that Real Quiet, who had beaten Victory Gallop by half a length at Churchill Downs, proved that ’it can still be done’.
Baffert came back with what seemed an even better chance six years ago, with the outstanding colt Point Given. This time, the Triple Crown dream turned into a nightmare in phase one, when jockey Gary Stevens sat much too close to a ridiculously fast early pace. In fact, that Triple Crown may have been lost some six months earlier, when Stevens lost a photo finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile – having been way too far back on Point Given, who made up a tremendous amount of ground to lose by just a head to Macho Uno. That race was also at Churchill. It seemed that Stevens had decided not to make the same mistake twice when he came back on the first Saturday in May. He didn’t. He made the opposite error of pace judgement. Victory went to Monarchos, who had been way back in thirteenth at the half-mile pole, and Point Given checked in fifth. He probably had the hardest race of the two, yet bounced back to a flashy win in the Preakness and a sensational romp in the Belmont. I think we can say that Point Given, who clearly was a better horse than Monarchos, proved that ’it can still be done’.
So many factors play their part, and absolutely nothing must go wrong, for a horse to lift the Triple Crown. Yes, the races are coming up in a relatively short space of time. Which is also why you can’t win this with ’just a world class horse’. You need a 3-year-old with the talent of Affirmed, Point Given, and the toughness of, shall we say, Cigar, Tiznow perhaps? These sorts do not come along too often. And when toughness like those two showed develops, it seldom, very seldom, happens by the first weekend of June in their classic season. In Street Sense, is seems to have. He is a most unusual horse. Experienced, yet fresh, he has one heck of a chance of emulating Affirmed. Particularly since he will stay the Belmont trip.
Then we have the trainer / jockey factors. It’s not just the horse that needs to be good / brilliant / tough enough to win all three legs. The human connections need to be up to scratch also. And herein could lie a couple of serious stumbling blocks. In our top races, the Kentucky Derby, the Epsom Derby, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, some trainers – and several jockeys – have a lot of experience with winning, or at least nearly winning.
When it comes to the Triple Crown, no trainer currently active, no rider currently active, has experienced winning it. Sure, as just described, Baffert knows what it’s like to come close, as does John Servis, who handled Smarty Jones. I for one, feel that he should have been a Triple Crown winner. He was readily beaten by Birdstone at Belmont, but that after a bunch of jockeys had ’ganged up on him’ early in the race, and jockey Stewart Elliott decided to go much too fast too soon - kicking on around the home turn. I don’t like to criticise jockeys. Have ridden thoroughbreds myself, so, I happen to know it’s different to driving a car. And don’t forget, Elliott played a crucial role in Smarty Jones’s successes at Churchill and Pimlico. It’s just that the big occasion in the Belmont seemed to influence his judgement, in a negative way. I can understand that – and I would probably have gone sooner – out of the side door on the clubhouse turn.
What are we learning here? I think it is quite obvious. On the jockey’s side, you need a rider who is either so young, that he does not quite understand that he is on the verge of greatness if riding a Derby / Preakness winner in the Belmont, or one that has been there before – and therefore not quite as fazed by the task at hand. We need a tough, calm and collected colt, with speed and stamina, whose trainer has ’been there’ and has the qualities of a man who plots his own plan, and sticks to it without feeling any pressure, and whose rider has experience – or the ignorant youth – on his side, to take him through the series without a sleepless night. In addition, we need three races where that horse gets a good draw, a clean trip, gets the right pace in all three races, stays sound and happy and – oh, almost forgot, is superior on class. Street Sense sis such a horse. He has won the first leg, he has the class to win the second and he has the stamina to take the third. Provide all else is well. Remember, class wins championship races, and class can only be created by a first rate team. It’s not just the horse that matters – but if he’s top class, it sure helps. And he is. Just like Nafzger, just like Borel.
Will it be won this year, I hear you ask, that TC thing? Yes, why not. I think Street Sense has a serious shot at it. On my Globeform ratings, he was the best juvenile since Arazi and he is just a sgood – if not better – at three. The Kentucky Derby is not always won by the best horse, but he was by far the best this year end deservedly won. The Preakness should be within his reach, and – in the Belmont – he will outstay them all to win by daylight. I can assure you of that. I just pray luck is on his side at Pimlico. For I have backed him to emulate Affirmed.
Optimistic as I am!
Published: 2007-05-18 06:18:39
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