They’re waiting for you at Belleview, with their oxygen masks – Manfred Mann
Ten years ago, Smarty Jones turned for home in the Belmont Stakes with a dwindling three-length lead and Triple Crown immortality on the line. In his previous eight races, he had never been passed. He had just run the first mile and a quarter of the Belmont in a time that would have won all but three Kentucky Derby’s, but he was still a quarter mile from home.
Birdstone was looming.
“Find more” I pleaded, as Tom Durkin’s voice in the background shouted “It’s been twenty-six years, it’s just one furlong away!!” But Birdstone kept coming, and history shows that Smarty Jones was denied the Crown by the 36-1 longshot in the final hundred yards. Yes, it hurt. When it’s meaningful to you, it’s supposed to hurt.
There have been a few others. The 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic comes to mind, as Zenyatta trailed the field for much of the race before starting her electrifying run around the far turn. Turning for home, the Queen blew by Lookin’ at Lucky and had Blame in her sights. Trevor Denman’s call of the final fifty yards had a desperate, hopeful, heartbreaking tone. “Zenyatta… Zenyatta…Zen-YATTA…B-lame”. The world keeps spinning…
Which brings us to last Saturday’s Belmont Stakes. My contender group included four runners: California Chrome, Wicked Strong, General A Rod, and Tonalist. I estimated that California Chrome’s chances of success were about a coin flip, and that there was probably sound logic involved in wagering against that outcome. But this was one of those races where I just couldn’t. We all have our favorites, and ‘Chrome had become one of mine. The emotional payoff would be enough.
So there I stood in front of the television as I had done a decade earlier, watching the race unfold and whispering under my breath for ‘Chrome to find a bit more at the 16th pole, while at the same time understanding once again that disappointment would be my dessert.
Two lengths short.
It hurts, as it’s supposed to, but I’m not an advocate of changing the Triple Crown. The post-race interview with California Chrome’s owner Steve Coburn was sour, and it turned a feel-good story into a post-Belmont fiasco. Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail down the road.
The Triple Crown is hard to win, as it should be. To be the best you have to beat the best, and that includes taking on horses that are rested and ready for the final leg. We have seen the best of the breed succeed in similar circumstances, and their names are etched in the history books.
It will happen again.
Congratulations to the 2014 Road to Kentucky champion Steve Hennen, who prevailed over runner-up Richard Carlson by more than 800 points after posting a final week score of 1,452 points. Mr. Hennen was strong in this contest from start to finish, posting a 2nd place finish in Week 3, a 4th place finish in Week 4, and another 2nd place finish in Week 11. His overall score of 13,282 is consistent with previous years’ winning scores, and underscores the necessity to average 1,000 points per week for the duration of the contest. As previously noted, there weren’t a lot of longshot winners during this year’s contest, so Mr. Hennen’s scores speak to the consistency of his selections. Congratulations again on a job well done!
The Week 14 winner was Ricardo Dabu, who drew away from the field with a score of 2,582 to win by over 400 points. His score almost certainly included the weekly contest “must have” horse Commanding Curve, whose second place finish at 37-1 in the Kentucky Derby was worth 1,416 points due to the triple bonus. Nicely played!
And while Commanding Curve may have been the horse to play for Road to Kentucky purposes, California Chrome wears the Roses. He was the most dominant horse in the Derby preps, and he parlayed a sweet stalking trip into an insurmountable five length lead at the 16th pole. The 140th edition was roughly run, as Vicars in Trouble was badly squeezed on the rail the first time past the stands, and Candy Boy was nearly dropped as they hit the first turn. But likely none of it mattered as California Chrome seemed to handle the track okay and kicked clear turning for home. His detractors are holding onto the low 97 Beyer speed figure he earned, but he looked much the best on this day to my eyes. If you’re still not convinced that ‘Chrome has the goods, the opportunity will be there to play against him at a very short price on Preakness Day, and perhaps the Belmont if he is alive for a piece of History.
As for my effort in the Road to Kentucky contest this year, I found my best stride in the final six weeks to pass tired handicappers. I saved my best for last, finishing 9th overall in Week 14. My effort reminded me of trainer Nick Zito’s comment about his horse Dialed In after he finished eighth in the Kentucky Derby in 2011:
“It was a very unusual race. He ran great in defeat. Let’s sum it up this way – it was the best eighth-place finish in the history of the Kentucky Derby. Right or wrong?”
Indeed, Nick. Indeed.
The Oracle is a two-time winner of Canterbury Park’s Handicapper of the Year award and frequent contributor to CanterburyLive.com .