Excitement turned into disappointment at Belmont Park early Friday morning when I'll Have Another's attempt to claim thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown was dashed by a lower leg injury. Critics of the Triple Crown trail will be quick to blame the injury on the short timing between the three classic races and will be calling for longer periods in between the races and an overhaul to the entire Triple Crown campaign.
The purists will argue that winning the Triple Crown is a difficult road for a thoroughbred to maneuver and thus the challenge of achieving racing immortality. Three races in five weeks, at three different distances, at three different tracks, culminating in the Test of the Champion, a 1 1/2 -mile marathon around Big Sandy makes the feat all the more difficult. I'm in the camp with the purists as we've seen 11 tries (almost 12) since Affirmed last won the Triple Crown, 34 years ago. This is a sign that the thoroughbred can still handle the grind of the trail, based on the near misses and the percentage of horses winning the first two legs since then.
For racing fans, while disappointment will radiate first and foremost, the possibility of a breakdown if the connections continued on despite the injury, would have been devastating to both the industry and to the millions watching at Belmont and on national television. The sport is just starting to recover from the catastrophic breakdown of Eight Belles in the 2008 Kentucky Derby and excitement was reaching a high not seen since the Smarty Jones attempt of 2004.
Thoroughbred racing is a sport that can have the highest of highs and the lowest of lows whether you're an owner, a fan or a horseplayer. From the exhilaration that Team I'll Have Another and his backers experienced in Louisville and Baltimore to the heartbreak of a career-ending injury and a lost chance at racing's immortality, the last five weeks have seen it all.
The Belmont Stakes itself now takes on a much different character this afternoon. The remaining 11 horses in the race will be running for a victory that will be somewhat tainted with the sudden departure of the Derby and Preakness champion. Television ratings will dive from an expected 10-12 range to 4-5. The crowd, once expected at over 100,000 will surely be much less than that. Tickets on sites such as StubHub were going at premium dollars will fall faster than Enron.
But there still will be a big race here at Big Sandy today. As last year's winning trainer Kelly Breen, who has My Adonis (15-1) entered, said "I'm sure that the fans will be disappointed, but the Belmont's the Belmont. It's still a Triple Crown race."
The new morning line favorite is Dullahan (9-5), who skipped the Preakness after finishing a late closing third in the Kentucky Derby. He broke badly in the Derby and was caught nine wide on the final turn, having too much ground to make up on the eventual winner. Trainer Dale Romans reflected on the Derby, "I told (jockey Kent Desormeaux) to get out in the clear, and he came running. He had to go a lot wider than he wanted to, but he finished strong. It was just an unlucky break." He also made a jockey change from Desormeaux to Javier Castellano, after recent off-track issues.
Pedigree doesn't appear to be an issue for Dullahan. His dam, Mining My Own, is the unraced daughter of Smart Strike, who was the dam of Curlin, who won the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Classic, the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I), and the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes, all at 10 furlongs. He also lost by a head to Rags to Riches in the 2006 Belmont Stakes. He is a definite win threat.
Romans is not exactly giddy about inheriting the favorite role.
"It's devastating," he said. "I really wanted him [I'll Have Another] to compete. This was going to be a special race, one of the biggest races of our time."
Another colt that is just starting to mature and come into his own is Street Life (8-1). The Street Sense colt drew the rail for Mechanicville, N.Y. based trainer Chad Brown. "I talked to my jockey the other day, Jose Lezcano, and I asked him, "Where do you want to be?' and he said, "I like to be inside." You can't get any more inside than that. He got his wish. That's where he wants to be."
He has a win at Belmont in the Grade 2 Peter Pan last month and seems to be an improving colt according to Brown. "He's getting more mature. He's getting sharper every day I see him training out there, said Brown. "I think that he's going to evolve into a more versatile horse, you're going to see. Whether it's Saturday or not, I don't know, but as he matures, he will."
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert had a bad case of seconditis in the first two jewels of the Triple Crown and enters a very interesting horse named Paynter (7-2), who also shares the same connections as Bodemeister. Paynter posted a huge speed figure winning a 1 1/1 6-mile allowance race on the Preakness undercard that caught this turf writer's eye. Bodemeister's jockey, Mike Smith, also gets the nod after riding him in Baltimore for the first time.
Owner Ahmed Zayat says he listens to Baffert and that he recently shared some interesting thoughts about his "other" classic horse. "If you asked me personally, I always thought Bodemeister is a very nice colt," said Zayat. "Bob Baffert, [from] day 1, thought Paynter was the better horse. He thinks he's a really, really nice horse." He should be up front on the early pace with Unstoppable U, and while I don't think he's a win threat, I do believe he has a great shot to hit the board.
My main play will be to box Dullahan and Street Life in an exacta and will play a trifecta with those two on top and in the second spot with Paynter and Atigun sprinkled in for good measure.
Post Time outlook: 1 - Dullahan; 2 Street Life; 3 - Paynter; 4- Atigun
Gene Kershner is a Buffalo-based turf writer and handicapper who blogs at equispace.blogspot.com. He will be live blogging from Belmont Park today on the Sports, Ink blog and can be found on Twitter (@EquiSpace).