Two things stand out from this year’s three-week gap between the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. Well, a lot of things stand out, but two are a little higher on the noticeable scale and both get me a little riled up.
No, it’s not the weather forecast. Nothing can be done about that. Too passé to complain about that anyway.
And no, it’s not what has become an annual argument between me and my better half about whether or not the Triple Crown is fair because new shooters are allowed to run against the Derby winner in the Preakness, or the Derby and Preakness winner in the Belmont. She thinks it’s wrong. I think it makes for good competition. Secretariat faced new shooters. So did Seattle Slew, War Admiral, Gallant Fox. All those guys.
None of those, or any of the other typical rallying cries that seem to come out this time of year.
The two things are actually related and they always come this time of year from the grump-bellies (I honestly believe I made that phrase up a few weeks ago). The first usually comes about a week after the Preakness, when you start to hear people closely associated with racing say things like, “Well, the undercard will be good” when talking about the Belmont Stakes. Really? The undercard?
The others usually come the week of the Belmont Stakes, typically from news outlets who either aren’t familiar with racing, don’t like racing, don’t follow racing, or are simply grump-bellies. It’s always a sportswriter at a newspaper with a big readership.
Both are said, or written, when the Derby winner loses the Preakness. No Triple Crown on the line for the Belmont. It’s almost as if they think the race should be canceled.
This year it came from a paper I used to read, which, along with another New York tabloid, but now see on the newsstand and wonder why anyone does. And I’ve been friends with the paper’s Turf writer for nearly two decades.
The headline said the race lacked storylines. Really? Ten of the race’s 14 entrants are the same horses who were written about ad infinitum in Louisville. It’s funny how tastes can change in five weeks.
The piece went on to say how “Ever since Affirmed captured the Triple Crown a full 35 years ago, this once grand race on a picturesque track has been cursed with anticlimactic fields, with lousy weather, and with lame horses.”
The lame horses argument is tough to get around, with breakdowns of El Cubanaso, Prairie Bayou and Charismatic still lingering, and of course last year’s I’ll Have Another deal. I’ll concede that one. Those four are four too many. Emphasis on four, and thank goodness Charismatic lived. Big Brown doesn’t count. That was too bizarre and I’d still like some good answers on that one.
Certainly there’s been fields that lacked a superstar, but let’s remember it’s still a race that attracts the one of the largest television audiences, the biggest handle, and the most interest of the year.
The weather-oh that again-shows only six track conditions worse than good or fast since 1978.
So what are we to do? Call it off because the Triple Crown isn’t on the line?
Because the weather isn’t going to be perfect?
Because there’s no storylines?
There’s plenty of storylines, but they can’t be found on the path that’s been worn away by too many from the press parking to the press box to the press box buffet line. Isn’t there a boring third-of-the-way-through-the-season baseball game or commercial laden made-for-the-mindless basketball or hockey game, or football draft on somewhere?
Ok, deep breath. It won’t be called off and many are thankful for that.
Good thing it wasn’t called off in 1920, when Man o’ War won and there was no Triple Crown on the line.
How about 1953? When Native Dancer added the Belmont to his Preakness victory following his loss in the Derby.
Or 1955? When Nashua blasted the field by nine with a guy named Arcaro getting a leg up on a horse trained by another guy named Fitzsimmons.
What of 1967? When Damascus rolled by pulled off the same feat as Native Dancer, with a jockey named Shoemaker and a trainer named Whiteley.
Maybe 1982 to 1986? A guy named Stephens tightened the girth on each of those winners, none with a Triple Crown sweep on the line and nobody seemed to mind, then or now.
Need a more recent reference? Everyone seems to these days in this all-consuming what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world.
Talk to D. Wayne Lukas about 1995. He sent out Thunder Gulch to win the day after he had to scratch Preakness winner Timber Country. I remember hearing about that driving down from Saratoga, not thinking a thing of it that the Derby and Preakness winners weren’t going to square off.
What about 2001? A guy named Baffert would be more than happy, and anyone who was there that day for that matter, to talk about Point Given. Tom Durkin called it “powerful” and “compelling” and it was so much more.
Then there’s 2007. Curlin, Rags to Riches. Rags to Riches, Curlin. Finally, Rags to Riches, Curlin. A filly beats the boys. No Triple Crown on the line. Plenty of drama.
Finally we get to 2012. Union Rags, probably the best of his generation, comes up the fence to win over Paynter, a colt we now know isn’t the easiest to chop down.
The fact is the Belmont Stakes stands on its own and has since it was first run June 19, 1867. Sure it’s in a tough spot, now run three weeks after the Preakness and possibly contested when there isn’t a Triple Crown sweep on the line.
I’m no NYRA apologist or spokesman, in fact I’d be the first to tell the track’s president if they had one that the old Belmont plant is looking just that and could have used a bit more sprucing up this close to the big day.
But the big day will go on and it’s a safe bet that it will be the big race-not the undercard-that people will remember the most.