Andy Serling has been playing the horses for almost his entire life, and is currently the co-host of NYRA Live. To follow Andy on Twitter, click here.
Saturday’s historic day of racing at Belmont Park includes six Grade 1 races, including the 146th Belmont Stakes, as well as four other Stakes. Jason Blewitt and I covered the Grade 1 races, as well as the Woody Stephens Stakes, on this week’s edition of the National Racing Report.
Every year that we have a Triple Crown hopeful heading into the Belmont Stakes, we also hear a lot of chatter about how a Triple Crown winner will save the game, or some such talk. While a superstar, horses like Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, do capture people’s attention, to me it is rivalries that ultimately can do the most for the game.
The prospect of supremely talented horses squaring off in repeated, and important, races generates excitement like little else ( besides betting ) in this game. People still talk of Affirmed and Alydar or Sunday Silence and Easy Goer. However, given the modest race schedules of today’s horses, seeing these kinds of rivalries play out on the racetrack has become all too rare.
This will not be the case on the sensational Belmont Stakes undercard, as the Ogden Phipps features the kind of matchup that racing fans can usually only dream about.
When Beholder and Princess of Sylmar met in the 2013 KY Oaks, Beholder was the much more heralded runner, having won a pair of Grade 1s over the winter to add to her BC Juvenile Fillies crown. Princess of Sylmar, a Pennsylvania bred, had dominated lesser foes on the inner track at Aqueduct before finishing second to Close Hatches in the Gazelle on the Wood Memorial undercard.
When the gates opened for the KY Oaks, it was actually Close Hatches, the then undefeated Juddmonte runner that was the shortest price at 7:1, with Beholder 9:1, and Princess of Sylmar dismissed at 38:1. When they hit the wire, it was Princess of Sylmar, who overcame a troublesome start, one that stymied strong favorite Dreaming of Julia, that ran down Beholder, who just missed surviving a blistering pace involving second choice Midnight Lucky. Close Hatches was an ineffective 7th after a wide trip.
Subsequent to that, these three fillies went their separate ways, with Princess of Sylmar dominating the summer landscape, reeling off victories in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks, Grade 1 Alabama, and finally the Grade 1 Beldame over reigning two time champion Royal Delta. Close Hatches proved no slouch either, running 2nd in the Grade 1 Acorn, and then annexing the Grade 1 Mother Goose in June as well as the Grade 1 Cotillion in September. However, it was ultimately Beholder that earned the 3YO Eclipse, as after a four month respite she reeled off two big late season victories, the first in the Grade 1 Zenyatta, and the much bigger one in the Breeder’s Cup Distaff, easily handling both Close Hatches and Princess of Sylmar, though the Princess clearly did not run her race in finishing a well beaten last.
All three of these fillies have not disappointed since returning in 2014, with Beholder winning the ungraded Santa Lucia in a gallop at Santa Anita, and Princess of Sylmar looking similarly impressive in the Cat Cay at Aqueduct. However, Close Hatches has been the most accomplished runner so far in 2014, winning two graded stakes at Oaklawn, including the Grade 1 Apple Blossom. However, the best is yet to come, as fortunately these three fillies will get to settle things on the racetrack in the $1,000,000 Grade 1 Ogden Phipps on Belmont Stakes Day at Belmont Park.
Will either Princess of Sylmar or Beholder take a 2-1 lead in their rivalry, or will Close Hatches make it one apiece? These are questions that normally, at best, seem to only get answered in either the BC late in the year, or worse, only in the dreams of horseplayers. Fortunately, this will not be the case this year.
While there is little doubt that the focus of the afternoon will be whether or not California Chrome can become the first Triple Crown winner in 36 years, there is also little doubt that the action will be fast and furious throughout the day, with no less than five Grade 1 Stakes besides the Belmont, and over $8 million in purses up for grabs. There is also little doubt that no race has been anticipated for longer than the Ogden Phipps, as this matchup has been on people’s minds for many months. No matter who wins, it’s going to be a great race, on a sensational day. Racing the way it’s supposed to be.
*Stakes Nomination Past Performances for the Ogden Phipps Stakes (.pdf)
Will thirteen finally be the lucky number? Since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, 12 horses have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, only to fail to win the Belmont Stakes. Included in that list is Spectacular Bid, arguably one of the best thoroughbreds to ever compete, along with other tremendous talents like Alysheba, Sunday Silence, and the extremely popular Smarty Jones. Yet, for a variety of reasons, none of these have been successful, despite each being a favorite, some very heavy favorites, in the Belmont Stakes. Every hopeful has been greeted with the omnipresent question of whether or not it is worthy of racing immortality. Even Spectacular Bid’s attempt was met with questions of whether or not the Triple Crown had become too easy, given that there were two straight winners, and three over the prior six years. While I have heavily debated in the past about the relative “worthiness” of each hopeful, and perhaps I am just getting soft in my advancing years, but I now believe that we have reached a point where any horse that is somehow able to grab this elusive brass ring has proven his deserving inclusion in an exclusive group that includes the likes of Count Fleet, Secretariat, Citation, Seattle Slew, Gallant Fox, and Affirmed.
While I saw Slew and Affirmed race, and yes they were true greats in an era where that word is bandied about far too easily, I was neither around for any of the others, nor can I confirm the true overall talents of any of them. Many cynics were not overly impressed with Seattle Slew’s talents when he was winning the three Triple Crown races, and it was only in the Fall of his 4YO season that some felt we saw his true greatness. Obviously all of these horses, the Triple Crown winners, were not of equal value. I imagine a gathering of racing historians would create some interesting arguments about their relative talents. However, it has become abundantly clear ( at least to me ) that to achieve this goal, especially in modern times, has become such an improbable feat, that to deny a winner deserving racing immortality would be, at best, an unfair criticism.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not willing to attach immediate greatness to a horse simply ( OK, maybe simply isn’t the right word ) because he ( or she ) wins the Triple Crown. However, I am now ready to concede that time has proven that the difficulty in winning all three races in five weeks is so extreme that even some greats have been unable to do it, and by that very fact, any horse that does achieve the feat, belongs alongside the other immortal winners of this series. Thus begs the question, will California Chrome add his name to a list that includes Citation, Secretariat, and Count Fleet…..or is he only good enough to belong with Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, Silver Charm, and Sunday Silence?
This year’s Triple Crown races, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, were virtual polar opposites of each other, which unsurprisingly offered two very different results. Ultimately, they were great examples of how race dynamics, i.e. the manner in which the races were run, not just affected, but actually dictated the results. To me, this is the single most fascinating thing about horse racing, and one of the biggest keys to unlocking potential future paydays, as these kinds of occurrences can produce results that are far from obvious based on the past performances. Unfortunately, I don’t believe this was explained well to the public, and by missing this opportunity, we failed to take advantage of a great opportunity to educate potential, and current, fans.
The Kentucky Derby was a classic meltdown. In other words, it was a race where the farther back you were early, the better your ultimate chances were to succeed, and conversely, the closer you were to the pace, the worse you could be expected to finish. It was not unlike the 2010 BC Classic, only perhaps even more exaggerated. This is not to say that Orb was not one of the best, if not the best, horses in the race, but it does help explain why he looked as good as he did, and subsequently, why he was not nearly as effective in the Preakness….but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Golden Soul and Revolutionary both benefited from ground saving rides, and more importantly their early positions, 15th and 18th respectively. The reason for this collapse was the unreasonably fast early pace set by Palace Malice. Because of this, horses either close to the early pace, or early movers, were negatively impacted. The most obvious example of this was Normandy Invasion, whose early move, and subsequent close finish, drew the most attention. The second best example of this was Oxbow, from where he was placed early, to when he moved, and finally to where he finished. While I am not suggesting that Oxbow ran as well as Orb, I am saying that if you reversed the dynamics from one that favored closers to one that favored speed horses, a reversal of finish becomes hardly surprising.
It did not necessarily seem, as we headed to Baltimore, that this reversal of dynamics was likely. One of the main reasons for this was the entry of Titletown Five, a horse with significant early speed, and one also trained by Oxbow’s trainer D Wayne Lukas. However, Mr. Lukas said before the race that he intended to rate Titletown Five, and certainly employing Julian Leparoux, a rider renowned for his patient handling of horses, made it even more possible that this was more than just trainerspeak. Still, given the presence of Goldencents and Itsmyluckyday, along with Oxbow, a fair pace seemed all but assured….and a fair pace is exactly what we got. However, there is a substantial difference between a fair pace and a supersonic ( see the Kentucky Derby ) pace. With the fair pace, the speeds were not compromised, and the talents of the closers, notably Orb, were not exaggerated.
Now, I am not trying to suggest that the Preakness result was easy to predict beforehand. Orb had already demonstrated, with his definitive Florida Derby victory ( over Itsmyluckyday ), that he did not need a fast pace in order to be successful, as that day he sat much closer to a moderate pace, and still had a powerful late kick. What I am saying is that the very different results are far from inexplicable. To me, this is an important concept that needs to be conveyed to the many people that view the Triple Crown races annually. The worst thing we can do is anoint a horse a superhorse, and very possible Triple Crown winner, after just the first leg, especially when that victory is achieved under very favorable circumstances. This can have two very negative results with novices. First, it can lead to disappointment and disillusionment towards the supposed Superstar, and secondly it lends more credence to the concept that horse racing is random. We, as an industry, have an obligation to explain why the latter is not true. This is also something that is not really that hard to do.
The NFL, arguably beginning with John Madden, has done a sensational job explaining a very complicated game to the masses. This was done by appealing to people’s intellect, most notably through the use of an on-screen Telestrator. The same can also be said for the NBA, which has the powerful duo of Charles Barkley and the more Telestrator oriented Kenny Smith, to explain basketball to the masses on a regular basis. Fans interest can only be encouraged by increasing their understanding of any sport, and thus unlocking its various mysteries. We, as a sport, will only benefit from doing the same. Imagine the fan that was exposed to the prior discussion of the Kentucky Derby, and then the pre-Preakness suggestions that horses close to the Kentucky Derby’s early pace were the likeliest possible upsetters. This would have had two very positive results. First, it would have led to a more reasonable understanding of why Orb did not perform as well in Baltimore as he had in Louisville, and thus less overall dissatisfaction and disappointment. Secondly, while the fan may well not have bet Oxbow, he/she may well have said to themselves after the race “ I didn’t have him today….but I’ll have him next year “ and that is exactly how we can create fans….and in my opinion, it is how we MUST create fans.