The Belmont: Gone in Strides

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At least he wasn’t going for the Triple Crown. That’s the only thought I had when Animal Kingdom bobbled, strides out of the gate in the Belmont Stakes Saturday, as I watched John Velazquez catapult up and nearly out of the tack, as I watched Graham Motion throw up his hands and melt in his chair. The Belmont Stakes was over in a matter of strides for Animal Kingdom.

I read in a blog or a Twitter or some instant message that Animal Kingdom wasn’t a factor in the Belmont. Not sure what race they were watching.

Animal Kingdom bumped with Mucho Macho Man at the start, Velazquez lost his left iron and struggled to regain it as the mile and half of the Belmont suddenly seemed too short. Watching it, you wanted to blow the whistle and ask for a do-over. Animal Kingdom clawed his way back to contention, circling wide on the turn, prodding the Motion crew to almost believe the unbelievable and then flattened out to wind up sixth. It might have been his best effort of the whole Triple Crown.

All the while, the 1-2 finishers, Ruler On Ice and Stay Thirsty sat cozily near the lead, tracking Preakness winner Shackleford. The latter finally came to the end of his tether, winding up fifth. Ruler On Ice, trained by Kelly Breen, shocked the world, going from a horse who couldn’t win the Federico Tesio at Pimlico to the 143rd winner of the Belmont Stakes.

The Triple Crown goes unthreatened. Its wake goes everywhere.

After the race, I asked two stupid questions (if they could even be considered questions). I got three words.

“It couldn’t have gone worse, Johnny?”

“No.”

“This is your biggest moment, Kelly?”

“By far.”

The highs and lows of our game, summed up in three words. Kelly Breen, the man in the hat, had his greatest day. Velazquez had one of his worst.

It’s in these moments when I truly love our game; simply for the sheer lunacy, the infinite variables, the complete and utter unknowing of the outcome. Horses have good days, bad days, off days and sick days; if you catch them on a good day, they still need racing luck, a clean trip, a smart jockey, a surface they can handle and an off day by others. All the planning, the talking, the wondering, the pondering over the Belmont Stakes and then it plays out in chaotic staccato.

I don’t bet enough to get jaded or mad or jilted. I bet enough to make it fun, to keep it entertaining and light. I think I lost 40 bucks on the Belmont, combining Brilliant Speed with Animal Kingdom and a few others. No problem. I sensed others lost more, when they slagged the sport, like it did something to them.

If you want something easy, predictable, simple, look elsewhere. This is Thoroughbred racing where anything can happen and will happen. It’s for you or it’s not for you. Don’t kid yourself, don’t force it – you’re in or you’re out.

Worth Repeating:

“What you see is what we’ve got.”
Trainer Allen Jerkens when asked about his Saratoga roster

“Hard. And wet.”
Exercise rider Barry Downs, when asked how the track felt on Belmont Stakes morning (Downs had just hit the ground)

“This is an incredible accomplishment.”
Trainer Christophe Clement, about Blythe Miller Davies return to the saddle to win the Maryland Hunt Cup

“No drama.”
Trainer Graham Motion about his goal for Animal Kingdom’s training the day before the Belmont Stakes

“Now you can go full time to the track.”
Trainer Dale Romans’ note to high school graduate Ryan Clancy

“To me, there are three races, the Breeders’ Cup is nice and everything but there is nothing like the Triple Crown, these are the classics. This is what the whole game has been built around, to try and get to these three races.”
Romans after winning the Preakness with Shackleford

“There’s something to write about in the Special.”
Shouted to a Saratoga Special reporter after Ruler On Ice won the Belmont

“Where I come from, having a $2,000 horse is big.”
Trainer Bill Mott about learning his trade on the South Dakota circuit

“The race I wanted to run in didn’t go.”
Trainer Pat Kelly after Yield Bogey finished second in the Poker at Belmont

“I had faith.”
Owner/trainer Naipaul Chatterpaul, after upsetting the Manhattan with Mission Approved, who returned from a year layoff

“New York. New York.”
Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, when asked to explain It’s Tricky’s upset of the Acorn (she’s for 4-for-4 in New York, 0-for-1 elsewhere)