06/06/2010 5:31PM

Bizarro World Belmont Day


I woke up slowly this morning, shaking off a night of weird dreams about the upcoming Belmont Stakes Day, a cracked kaleidoscope of impossible images that included an encounter with Sarah Palin; being alive 8x6x5 in the last three legs of a pick-six and missing all three races; spending a day at a racetrack that seemed  mobbed on the outside and almost completely empty on the inside; hearing "Empire State of Mind" sung, and sung badly, as a new racetrack anthem; watching the slow-motion finish of a Belmont Stakes run in 2:31 and change, after which a horse was disqualified from 5th to 12th because a lead weight fell out of his saddle pad...

Crazy, crazy dreams. Maybe I need a vacation or to cut out the spicy food before bedtime. In any case, Happy Belmont Day! Time to get ready to go to the --

But wait: It all really happened. And then some.

Bizarroworld2 I didn't start the 5.1-mile drive to Belmont until 11 a.m. and was expecting to sit in at least half an hour of traffic on Hempstead Turnpike, but I flew through the gates as if I had gotten the date wrong and first post was still almost two hours away. Not a promising sign for business, but an unexpected score on the not-sitting-in-traffic department. I even got to see the first race at 11:30, that non-winners of two lifetime for $15,000 statebred claimers. The 9-10 favorite, a layover on the figs being inexplicably dropped with a "For Sale" sign on his back despite having all his rich statebred allowance conditions in front of him, dueled early and then faded badly to sixth and was indeed claimed. Good luck to his new connections. Sport of Kings.

The first race of the day for non-claiming winners was the 4th, and who knew at the time that the N1x allowance would provide what may well have been the best performance of the day by a 3-year-old? Trappe Shot, a Tapit-Shopping colt emerging from a pair of double-digit romps against Florida-breds, won the seven-furlong race in 1:22.18 by four lengths over the well-regarded Godolphin gelding Tahitian Warrior. The time was nearly half a second faster than D'Funnybone's winning the G2 Woody Stephens three races later, and earned a 105 Beyer, better than the Stephens (100), Acorn (95) or Belmont (94). Trappe Shot, an $850,000 2-year-old purchase last year by the resurgent Mill House stable (out of the breeding business but buying again), is being pointed for the Long Branch Stakes July 10 by trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, and may take on the Triple Crown crew in the Haskell if he continues to thrive at longer distances.

By now the track was starting to fill up a little, but on the strangest way: The baking backyard of the grandstand and the track apron were swarmed, but inside the building it almost looked like any given Saturday -- no lines at the concession stands or mutuel windows. Even though it was oppressively humid outside, everyone seemed to want to be out in the sun.

The stakes action and the $1 million guaranteed Pick-6 began with the 6th race, and after the first three legs I was feeling pretty smug about how my final tickets had worked out. The four horses I had thought about leaning heavily on as lone A's were Proviso, Bribon, Gio Ponti and Ice Box, and the two I had finally designated as lynchpins were the first two. So my A's were a mere 2x1x1 in the first three legs -- D'Funnybone and Discreetly Mine, with Proviso, with Bribon.

I was mildly annoyed that Javier Castellano sent the better-priced Discreetly Mine into an insane early duel with EIghtyfiveinafifty that gave him no chance while setting the table for D'Funnybone, but after Proviso and Bribon came through, I thought I was sitting pretty: 6x6x4 on the big ticket, and with three other backups alive, covering in some fashion 9 of the 12 in the Acorn, 8 of the 11 in the Manhattan and 7 of the 12 in the Belmont -- 24 of the 35 entrants in the three upcoming Grade 1 races. My 11 omissions, of course, included Champagne d'Oro, Winchester and Drosselmeyer.

When you whiff that badly, at least you don't have any second thoughts.Three horses I didn't like, couldn't imagine, and still can't make a case for a day later. It happens. The game will keep you humble. Turn the page and move on.

Or, I could blame it on the Curse of the Palins.

I'm sitting in the DRF box minding my own business when suddenly in the aisle in front of me is John Hendrickson, the Alaska native and husband of Marylou Whitney, introducing a vaguely familiar-looking bearded guy to the people in the box section. He turns to me and asks me if the Racing Form likes First Dude's chances in the Belmont and introduces me to the First Dude himself, Todd Palin. I say sure he has a chance and shake hands and wish him luck with his namesake while marvelling at how much smaller he is in person -- from television, I'd through he was a big strapping lumberjack-looking dude. Then a moment later there's an equally smaller-than-expected and familiar-looking woman and suddenly I'm shaking hands with the former Governor of Alaska. I can report that she's got a strong grip.

I'm sure it is a complete coincidence that from that precise moment on, a day of orderly results turned into an astounding parade of longshots.

The Acorn: Champagne d'Oro had her head handed to her in the BC Juvenile Fillies (12th and last at 80-1) and the Kentucky Oaks (11th of 14 at 36-1). She was an okay second in the Fair Grounds Oaks, but the nine fillies who had run back since that race had all lost their next start. She looked to me like an easy elimination, but Martin Garcia put her on an uncontested lead through slow fractions, and she kept going when the field finally tried to come to her. I think Tanda was probably best, rallying ridiculously wide from far back, but Champagne d'Oro just ran a lot better than I expected.

The Manhattan: Winchester? Liked him in the Secretariat two years ago when he aired on yielding ground, but since then he'd slipped until he found a home in G3 turf marathons. He appeared to have been entered only as a backup in case it rained heavily or something went wrong with fellow Clement trainee Gio Ponti, and I don;t think I even knew he was still in the race until I said "Who's the 4 horse who just beat Gio Ponti?" but  even if I'd realized he was running...I still couldn't have made a case for him. As for Gio Ponti, he had some traffic trouble, but even though you can make reasonable excuses for every one of them, last year's champion older male and champion grass horse has now lost five straight starts dating back to last October.

The Song: I have no objection to racing's trying new things if they are quickly discarded when they clearly fail. So I don't blame NYRA for experimenting with a new anthem of the Belmont Stakes...so long as it was a one-time thing (like the disastrous Road Atlas giveaway I approved as a NYRA marketing executive in 1995.) People tell me that "Empire State of Mind," worked well as a performance piece at the World Series, but it is none of the things that a pre-race singalong should be (simple, singable, rhythmic, coherent.) The bewildered crowd just stared at the offkey singer who struggled through it from the winner's circle, and the air just went out of the place as the lugubrious, meandering song droned on endlessly.

The Belmont: This morning I went back and watched the Risen Star, the Louisiana Derby and the Dwyer again, looking for what I must have missed when earlier viewings of those races had led me to conclude that Drosselmeyer was an overhyped, one-paced grinder who could only win the race if it completely fell apart. I honestly didn't find anything. 

The best 3-year-olds are still the best 3-year-olds, and those who win classic races always deserve a basic level of respect for doing so and for being better than 99.9 % of their classmates. But by any objective standard -- raw times, anyone's speed figures, consistency, overall records -- the 2010 Triple Crown races were not exactly beacons of excellence. It's pretty hard to put any lipstick on a Belmont run in 2:31.57 on a fast track. Belmont was playing much slower on the day that Thunder Gulch went 2:32.02 in 1995 than it was yesterday, and you have to go back to 1970 and 1944 to find slower ones.

They're allowed to get better as the year goes on, especially in this age of such light racing schedules, and it may well be entertaining to watch this completely chaotic division sort itself out in the Haskell and Travers. (I suppose you'd have to put Lookin at Lucky at the head of the class by a whisker right now as the only classic winner to have won another stakes race this year.) At the moment, though, it doesn't seem as if this group will be posing much of a threat to Quality Road and Zenyatta later this year.

The first four finishers in the Belmont were all horses who did not run in this year's Kentucky Derby, which is turning into an extraordinarily negative-key race. I can't think of a Derby where the first four finishers combined to produce a next-out slate like this: Super Saver (1st) was 8th as the Preakness favorite; Ice Box (2nd) was 9th as the Belmont favorite; Paddy O'Prado (3rd) was 6th in the Preakness, and Make Music For Me (4th) was 10th in the Belmont.

Oh, and...carryover! Even after Champagne d'Oro and Winchester, 6 of the 12 horses in the Belmont were covered on the 15 pick-6 combos still alive into the main event: five to Ice Box ($182k), four to Fly Down ($232k), two each to Interactif and Stately Victor ($465k) and one each to Make Music For Me and First Dude ($930k) -- but none to Drosselmeyer. So there's a $930k carryover that should attract at least another $2 million on Wednesday when racing resumes at Belmont. The pp's are already available online, but I wouldn't blame anyone for joining me in waiting another day to recover before starting to look.

But only a day.