The Penalty Box

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“I’m in the penalty box.”

That’s how a friend of mine describes when his stable goes in a slump.

The first time he said it, I said, “What?”

He threw his hands in the air.

“You know, they just put you in the penalty box, you can’t get out, you don’t know how long you’re in there, you don’t even know how you got in there, you’re just in there. Then they let you out and you can play again. That’s just how the game goes.”

Once he explained it, I understood. Like a brick to the head, “Oh, I got it. I got it.”

Thoroughbred racing was in the penalty box from 1978 to 2014, out with Affirmed and out again with American Pharoah. And, evidently, still out. Justify rightfully became the 13th Triple Crown winner Saturday with another tour de force. A stunning horse with a potent combination of speed and stamina, the undefeated colt ripped through the Triple Crown. He handled a sloppy track and 19 rivals in the Kentucky Derby. He brushed away champion Good Magic and staved off Bravazo and Tenfold, again on a sloppy track, in the Preakness. The Belmont Stakes, it was a romp as he powered around Belmont Park with consummate ease, a crescendo of brilliance.

Mike Smith won the Belmont in the Preakness when he put his 30+ years of experience to use, judging how fast Justify was getting to the wire and how fast the closers were closing to score by a half-length. Smith walked the high wire, downshifting in the final furlong of the second leg of the Triple Crown in preparation for the third leg. Over the years, I’ve seen so many Belmonts fade away in the Preakness, not this time, not on Smith’s watch.

“Yeah, I was thinking ahead of time. I didn’t want him to do any more than he had to do especially on that track,” Smith said, two weeks after the Preakness. “I felt we had the race under control, although Bravazo did finish strong, he certainly surprised me a little bit. I wouldn’t have geared him down if I didn’t think we were OK. When I say geared down, I rode him hard to get out and away from Good Magic and then I was like, ‘Stay like this. Stay like this.’ I looked under my arm a couple of times to make sure.”

Smith made sure, preserving the fuel for the big one. Watching the Preakness through the fog at Pimlico, I thought Justify had a hard race, just because of the flow of the race, the enormity of the race and the dynamics of the finish – no jockey has the aplomb to gear down a horse in the final furlong of the Preakness when the closers are closing. No way. No jockey could have that kind of composure…right? Then I came home, watched the replay and recognized Mike Smith’s drape-flick-wave-save I’ve seen so many times before. Smith had the composure, the coolness learned on his journey from a horse-crazy kid in Roswell, New Mexico, to the Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York. Those are the lessons you learn on the back of Holy Bull, Zenyatta, Azeri, Arrogate and so many other legends in the hottest heat of the racetrack.

Smith has been in the penalty box – broken back, slumps, lack of business and all the other reasons – enduring the agony of spectating. He’s been on the ice – the gun at his temple – braving the nerves of involvement. He knows the difference.

As for Riverdee/Clancy Bloodstock, Gotham Gala finished third in her career debut at Laurel Friday, solid effort, she should improve from the experience. Mythmaker ran like a jumper, one speed, finishing fourth at Suffolk Downs Saturday, but it should set him up for a return to his favorite haunt, Presque Isle Downs. Sunday, Lemonade Thursday won his turf debut, drawing off to win a maiden special at Laurel. Arnaud Delacour and his team had the bay colt ready to deliver off of an eight-month layoff. I loved this son of Lemon Drop Kid at Saratoga in 2016 and still catch myself saying, “I love this horse,” out loud whenever I see him. I said it as he walked into the paddock Sunday and yelled it a few times when he streaked past the wire, the penalty box was nowhere in sight.