ELMONT – Trainer Todd Pletcher’s 2017 Triple Crown season can best be described with the legendary lyrics of the American musician Meat Loaf.
Two out of three ain’t bad.
After securing his second career Kentucky Derby with Always Dreaming and losing the Preakness two weeks later, the super-trainer had two entries in the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes.
Tapwrit, who went off at odds of 5-1, crossed the wire first as the late afternoon shadows sprawled across the track known as Big Sandy. Patch, his stablemate, gave Pletcher two-thirds of the trifecta by finishing a late closing third.
In winning his third career Belmont Stakes Pletcher captured two of the three jewels of this year’s Triple Crown. It was the eighth time a trainer has won Triple Crown races in the same year with two different horses.
Jockey Jose Ortiz captured the first Classic victory of his young career. “It’s an unbelievable feeling that I can’t explain,” said Ortiz. “I’m happy for the owners and for Todd for giving me the opportunity.” His brother Irad captured last year’s Belmont Stakes aboard Creator.
For the second year in a row, a son of Tapit made a late driving move to win the final leg of the Triple Crown series at Belmont Park. The Tampa Bay winner caught front running favorite Irish War Cry at the sixteenth pole before a raucous crowd of 57,729 race fans in the 149th Belmont.
Tapwrit returned $12.60 to his backers for the win, $6.50 to place and $5 for show. Irish War Cry paid $4.70 to place and $3.90 for third. Patch, the one-eyed horse, paid $6.50 to show. The $2 exacta came back $45.20 and the $2 trifecta returned $624.
Tapwrit completed the mile-and-a-half journey in 2:30.02, a full second and a half slower than Creator’s 2016 Belmont. It was over three seconds slower than American Pharoah’s Triple Crown triumph two years ago.
But the time was good enough to put away a talented Irish War Cry, who led most of the way after being pressed early by Mike Smith aboard Meantime. Trainer Graham Motion didn’t plan on having the favorite on the lead so jockey Rajiv Maragh was forced into Plan B.
“We were hoping we might get a little bit of a stalking trip, but we had to go to Plan B and Rajiv did a great job,” said Motion. “Turning for home I thought we might have it but it’s a long way home.”
At the eighth pole Tapwrit turned on the gas and had plenty left in the tank as he sped past the son of Curlin and cruised home winning by two lengths. Ironically, 10 years ago in the Belmont, Curlin was caught in deep stretch by Pletcher’s first Belmont winner, the filly Rags to Riches.
In a sport where history tends to repeat itself, a Pletcher horse got another dream trip, just as he did in Louisville with Always Dreaming on the First Saturday in May. “Tapwrit was getting a beautiful trip,” said Pletcher. “We were hoping he had enough when it came to crunch time. It looked like Irish War Cry had a little something left, but the last sixteenth, he dug down deep,” said Pletcher.
Pletcher is quietly building his Triple Crown race resume, which now is up to five wins for a trainer who will turn 50 in less than three weeks. By contrast, his mentor D. Wayne Lukas, 81, has 14 and Bob Baffert, 64 has 12 Triple Crown race wins. Pletcher has yet to win the Preakness.
For Ortiz, who finished the day tied with his brother Irad for wins and atop of the jockey earnings at the current Belmont Park meet, the win was the biggest in his young career. He has steadily been gaining more notoriety, riding mostly on the NYRA circuit. He was a finalist in last year’s Eclipse voting for top jockey.
Patch ran a big race finishing third overtaking a tiring Gormley in the stretch. Hall of Famer John Velazquez preached his virtues after the race having to start from the outside post as he did in the Kentucky Derby. “He ran a very good race,” said Velazquez. “He finished up really well. He can run with a good kick.”
Patch’s breeding suggested that the distance wouldn’t be an issue. His sire Union Rags won the Belmont in 2012 after I’ll Have Another scratched the day before his Triple Crown attempt.
In a Triple Crown season that saw its share of rain, the weather on Long Island afternoon was glorious. A dynamite card of nine graded stakes was highlighted by five wins by Hall of Famer Mike Smith (four for Bob Baffert). One of Smith’s wins was aboard the 4-year-old superstar filly Songbird in the Ogden Phipps earlier in the card.
Next up is summer racing for this 3-year-old crop that once again presented three different winners in the Triple Crown races. The nine horses that hit the board in the Triple Crown were by nine different stallions.
The Haskell at Monmouth, and the Jim Dandy and Travers at Saratoga will loom large in deciding this year’s 3-year-old champion once again.
Last year’s 3-year-old champion, Arrogate, is currently the best horse in the world and his first graded stake was in last year’s Travers, so anything can happen as we head into the summer months.
While there was no Triple Crown chance this year, the series delivered three quality races with exciting finishes to each.
It remains to be seen which 3-year-old will emerge, but it sets up the summer to be something special.
Pletcher will most likely be part of it, one way or another.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.