Monday, May 17, 2010
No Belmont excitement
By Paul Moran Special to ESPN.com
Nothing ignites the racing community in New York like the arrival of a 3-year-old at Belmont Park with the opportunity to sweep the Triple Crown. The anticipation is invigorating. The suspense builds toward the day like a gathering wave. While no American under the age of 40 or so remembers the 1970s, when Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed galloped toward immortality around the world's only 12-furlong dirt racetrack, the excitement of a horse on the chase remains familiar. Big Brown, the youngest of 11 failures since Affirmed, was a 3-year-old in 2008.
All Belmont Stakes records are safe in 2010, and in the absence of both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners, none is safer than the record attendance: 120,139, which in 2004 witnessed the failed Triple Crown attempt by Smarty Jones. Seldom, however, has the historical inconsequence of a Belmont Stakes felt more appropriate.
Before he won the Derby, Super Saver gave the impression of being a front-running miler. Before May 1, he had passed a horse during a race only once, when he advanced from fourth to finish second behind Discreetly Mine in his career debut in August at Saratoga. At the five-sixteenths pole at Pimlico, with Calvin Borel aboard -- head down in a drive more appropriate to the final yards of a close finish -- the opportunistic, mud-loving hero of a sodden afternoon at Churchill Downs turned back the clock a fortnight and looked, well, like a front-running miler in whose behalf fate and providence conspired May 1.
In the absence of the injured and retired Eskendereya, Lookin At Lucky is probably the best of this generation of 3-year-olds. Considering the nightmare he endured in the Kentucky Derby, his arrival at the wire in sixth behind Super Saver was an acquittal of his ability, vis-à-vis a group that day by day appears more and more mundane. Lookin At Lucky left the impression -- all things being equal, a reasonable number of runners on a fast track -- that he is a better horse than the Derby winner. But in hindsight, Super Saver's Derby victory may well have defined the 3-year-olds of 2010.
If Lookin At Lucky's victory in Baltimore is viewed as redemptive, it must be judged within the context of the others who entered the final and decisive sixteenth-mile in position to win the Preakness. First Dude, Super Saver's tormentor while setting a suicidal pace, was beaten by less than a length at the end of 1 3/16 miles. All things considered, either his effort was tremendous or Lookin At Lucky -- who prevailed in a battle that spanned three-sixteenths of a mile run in 44.25 seconds -- was equally tired. Jackson Bend, a factor at no point in the Derby, was delayed when the spent Caracortado stopped in his path but finished third, no more than a length behind the winner. Yawanna Twist, who had no credentials appropriate to the second leg of the Triple Crown, threatened at the furlong pole then flattened out, but completed a $1 superfecta that paid $17,126. There are good horses in this group, but none of top class.
Perhaps -- were it not for the unfortunate luck of the Derby draw, which put him at a severe disadvantage at the outset, the weather, a hard bump at the break and another that slammed him into the rail long before he reached the first turn -- Lookin At Lucky would be positioned to sweep the Triple Crown next month in New York. But the Derby produced more trouble calls than there were runners, the draw for starting position is as unpredictable as any lottery and racing is a game played outdoors, sometimes in bad weather. Lookin At Lucky, with nothing to gain in New York and the need to recover from a pair of testing races in May, will be at Santa Anita Park on Belmont Day. Super Saver will be at Belmont, trainer Todd Pletcher's summer headquarters, but his name will not be found in the program June 5.
As the Preakness field was loaded into the starting gate, Donna Brothers mentioned to NBC viewers that Super Saver appeared a bit drawn, that he has lost a perceptible amount of weight since the Derby. He was ridden Saturday as though Borel thought he was on the 2009 version of Rachel Alexandra, who was not finished five-sixteenths of a mile early in her historic Preakness victory a year ago. Though Pletcher said the Derby winner came out of the Preakness without apparent mishap or distress, Super Saver is due for a rest.
At the moment, it appears that First Dude will start in the Belmont, which is destined to pit the Derby and Preakness runners-up. Ice Box, a fast-closing second in Louisville, was withheld from the Preakness by trainer Nick Zito to await the Belmont. Zito, who trains Jackson Bend, said it is unlikely that the third fisher in the Preakness would make the Belmont, but he also has Fly Down, recent winner of the Dwyer Stakes, pointed to the final leg of the Triple Crown. Fly Down has twice defeated First Dude.
"I think he's going to move forward again," trainer Dale Romans said of First Dude. "The mile and a half suits him, and we're excited to go up there. I think it's a great race to win regardless. I think it's going to end up being a pretty good field of horses. With horses like Ice Box, Fly Down and my horse, it'll be a good race."
Romans is probably right. The Derby was a good race. The Preakness was exciting. The Belmont could end with a half-dozen horses stretched across the racetrack at the sixteenth pole who hit the wire noses apart. But the significance that makes the Belmont the "Test of the Champion" will most certainly be no less absent as the Derby and Preakness winners.
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He has also been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.