06/01/2012 1:34PM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 22 - June 1, 2012


Countdown to the Crown returns for a seventh season online as one of the most comprehensive handicapper’s scouting reports of the 3-year-old scene. Posted each Friday at DRF.com from Jan. 6 through the Belmont Stakes, Countdown keeps you apprised of the rising stars of the 3-year-old class from the maiden ranks through the Grade 1 stakes. You can access daily updates and interactive features at Countdowntothecrown.com as well.

3 things you won’t read anywhere else

Opinions are like the rules being invented by the New York Racing and Wagering Board daily. If you don’t like them, wait a day. They’re likely to change.

1. The 24-hour surveillance and detention barn at Belmont for the big dance is a noble idea, but don’t you just get the feeling that it’s about as structured as Dean Wormer putting the Delta house on “double-secret probation?” (See “Animal House” if you don’t get that one.)

2. Anyone else find it amusing that the principal owners in this year’s Triple Crown drama are a lender (J. Paul Reddam) under fire for his loan practices and a borrower (Ahmed Zayat) with a history of bad debts? You’d think these two guys could work something out if they just put their heads together.

3. Jockeys have played a crucial role in past Belmont Stakes successes and failures, and you have to like what you’ve seen from Mario Gutierrez (I’LL HAVE ANOTHER) so far this Triple Crown season. But could UNION RAGS and DULLAHAN possibly have done any better upgrading in that department than landing John Velazquez and Javier Castellano on their home surface? If nothing else, perhaps it tightens the margin between the top contenders.

This Week’s Fearless Forecast

With a week before the Belmont, we’ll put in perspective I’LL HAVE ANOTHER’s place in Triple Crown pursuit history. Here’s how I see I’LL HAVE ANOTHER matching up with previously unsuccessful bidders for history. This is not a comparison of who is the better horse, but rather who has/had the better chance of completing the sweep at Belmont.

I’ll Have Another vs. Big Brown (2008)

The Belmont was only Big Brown’s sixth career start; I’ll Have Another will be making his eighth start. Obviously, I’ll Have Another hasn’t had the foot issues that Big Brown had going into the Belmont, making him a stronger proposition to win than even Big Brown, despite Big Brown being bet to 30 cents on the dollar. There was very little of substance in Big Brown’s 2008 field, a race in which one-hit wonder Da’ Tara somehow wired them, and the clear-cut second choice in the betting was Denis of Cork, a horse who made a grand total of six career starts. I’ll Have Another faces a tougher field than that. This might be a bit of revisionist history as we saw the impact of the bad hoof play out for Big Brown, but there’s no doubt it played a significant role along with a plethora of other conspiracy theories. But given the foot issues with Big Brown, the edge goes to I’ll Have Another as the more likely horse to finish the series unblemished.

I’ll Have Another vs. Smarty Jones (2004)

Smarty Jones probably had the biggest chance of sweeping the Triple Crown of any horse since Affirmed. He didn’t have a Bet Twice, Easy Goer, or bad foot to deal with along the way to Elmont. Sure, the 2004 sophomore class was strong – Rock Hard Ten and Eddington later would prove to be serious handicap division winners, and Purge turned out to be a Grade 1-winning miler – but Smarty Jones already had demolished all three of those rivals before the Belmont, and also dismantled Birdstone in the Derby. Sure, he was light on pedigree, but that same pedigree got him within 50 yards of immortality. The fields the two face in the Belmont look similar to me on paper at the time of the Belmont, but the dominant manner in which Smarty Jones took care of business in Baltimore made him more likely to win the Triple Crown than I’ll Have Another.

I’ll Have Another vs. Funny Cide (2003)

This one’s pretty easy. Going into the Belmont, there was strong debate that Empire Maker was the better horse matching up with Funny Cide, having beaten him in the Wood Memorial and running within 1 3/4 lengths on Derby Day with a much tougher trip than Funny Cide. There’s no such debate going into this year’s Belmont. While some handicappers obviously will swing against I’ll Have Another, there’s not a horse on paper whom you can point to as being better than the Derby-Preakness winner. In 2003, Empire Maker was every bit Funny Cide’s equal, if not superior. That alone makes I’ll Have Another a much stronger Triple Crown-sweeping candidate than Funny Cide.

I’ll Have Another vs. War Emblem (2002)

War Emblem was a flash in the pan who got hot out of nowhere in a Sportman’s Park allowance race, romped in the Illinois Derby, and suddenly became Bob Baffert’s newest toy in the days leading up to the 2002 Derby. While his wins at Churchill and Pimlico were genuine enough with fair paces, he was beating horses like Proud Citizen and Magic Weisner, who were far short on class for classic-type distances. Medaglia d’Oro and Perfect Drift rested up from the Derby, and we know they turned out to be quality animals. This field in 2012 looks very similar to the 2002 cast that War Emblem faced, with a shoddy group of new shooters and a few quality Derby leftovers off the bench. The difference between I’ll Have Another and War Emblem is the versatility in running style. I'll Have Another can make his own trip; War Emblem was toast from the start of the Belmont after stumbling and being taken out of his front-running form. That pace versatility makes I’ll Have Another a solidly stronger Triple Crown candidate than War Emblem.

I’ll Have Another vs. Charismatic (1999)

Charismatic was a lot like War Emblem in the way he went from early prep also-ran to instant star in the Lexington at Keeneland just before the Derby. He maintained his form onto Baltimore, where he bested the Derby runner-up, Menifee. The new faces in the Belmont included the brilliant Kentucky Oaks-winning filly Silverbulletday, as well as the regally bred Lemon Drop Kid, who skipped the Preakness for the local Peter Pan Stakes following a modest effort in the Derby. Unlike 2012 when Bodemeister said “no mas” after chasing in Louisville and Baltimore, Menifee continued on to the final jewel. Charismatic faced a much tougher field, and I’ll Have Another had a more extended body of successful work going into the Belmont. Those factors give I’ll Have Another the edge in this debate.

I’ll Have Another vs. Real Quiet (1998)

Real Quiet was considered the second- or third-best horse in California during his spring preps, certainly behind stablemate Indian Charlie, who handled him in the Santa Anita Derby. He exacted revenge on his barnmate in the Derby and managed to beat Derby/Preakness runner-up Victory Gallop twice, by a half-length and 2 -1/4 lengths. The rest of the Belmont lineup was marginal at best, chocked full of filler in an 11-horse field. Grand Slam, a horse who turned out to be a seven-furlong/miler type, was a clearcut third choice, which tells you what you need to know about the field's depth. Essentially, Real Quiet had one horse to beat in the Belmont and a fair amount of stamina in his pedigree to get home. Because he increased his win margin over Victory Gallop from the Derby to the Preakness, he looked strong in his pursuit at history and had a four-length lead in midstretch to finish the deal. I’ll Have Another, also from California, had a stronger prep season than Real Quiet, and his closest pursuer, Bodemeister, is not moving on to the final step. But I think I’ll Have Another faces a few more challengers this season than Real Quiet in terms of depth. This is a tough call, but I’ll lean slightly to Real Quiet because he was a 50-50 deal against one horse to win it all, and darn near did.

I’ll Have Another vs Silver Charm (1997)

These two horses are wonderfully comparable. Similar running styles, guts, past performances, and prep races. Silver Charm’s 1997 sophomore class was one of the best in decades, featuring Captain Bodgit, Free House, Pulpit, Crypto Star, Wild Rush, et al. It was so good it scared the field away in the Kentucky Derby to only 11 horses. You won’t see that again for a long, long time. By the time the Belmont came around, Silver Charm had won two slugfests in Louisville and Baltimore, and the Preakness featured one of the great Triple Crown finishes among four horses that you’ll ever see. The Belmont field still included Touch Gold, Free House, and Crypto Star, and Wild Rush was a new shooter who eventually became a Grade 1 winner. Silver Charm wound up second to Touch Gold’s late surge, and there’s no doubt in my mind that he had one of the most challenging and rigorous Triple Crowns I’ve seen in my lifetime. I’ll Have Another has a Belmont cakewalk compared to what Silver Charm had to go through.

I’ll Have Another vs Sunday Silence (1989)

The 1989 Triple Crown was a two-horse show, but, oh, what a show Sunday Silence and Easy Goer performed! They were every bit Secretariat and Sham, Affirmed and Alydar. The 1989 Preakness was a veritable match race that lived up to every ounce of drama and hype – think I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister from two weeks ago. But while Easy Goer would exact revenge on Sunday Silence in the Belmont, I’ll Have Another’s chief rival will not take part. The 1989 Belmont also included foreign influence with the French raider La Voyageur, who ran third, and the return of Derby third-place finisher Awe Inspiring. The 1989 field matches decently in depth with the 2012 cast I’ll Have Another will face, but the big, glaring difference is the presence of an Easy Goer-type to challenge the headliner. Unless you think Union Rags or Dullahan are headed to the Hall of Fame, you have to think I’ll Have Another’s task is measurably easier than Sunday Silence’s challenge of 1989.

I’ll Have Another vs Alysheba (1987)

Alysheba and Bet Twice threw down two spirited races in the Derby and Preakness, both decided by three-quarters of a length or less. When they arrived at Belmont, it could have been construed a two-horse race. But this nine-horse affair also had stellar runners Cryptoclearance, Gulch, and Gone West in the field at single-digit odds. The depth of the 1987 Belmont was strong, and Alysheba going to New York and not being permitted to race on Lasix was the 1,000-pound gorilla in the handicapping room. Nothing about I’ll Have Another’s nasal strip brouhaha compares, nor does the quality of competition in the 2012 class. Bet Twice went on to win the Belmont by 14. I dare anyone to predict someone wins this year’s race by 14 and will beat two future Breeders’ Cup champions in the process. I’ll Have Another clearly has the easier path to the Crown.

I’ll Have Another vs Pleasant Colony (1981)

I can tell you I was entrenched in Triple Crown history through Alysheba, but my age precludes me from having the same grasp on the final two horses on this list. I certainly remember watching them run and remember their bids at history, but not with the same depth that I do the 1986-present debates. But as a Triple Crown historian who has read and watched as much as I could over the last two decades in the business, we can make some dots connect. Pleasant Colony faced both the Derby and Preakness runner-ups in the Belmont, namely Woodchopper and Bold Ego. In fact, he faced five common opponents from the Preakness three weeks prior, a race he won by a length. The new faces to the mix included Summing, who was coming off a 36-1 upset in the Pennsylvania Derby and got hot at the right time, and Tap Shoes, one of New York’s finest juveniles of 1980 who tanked in the Derby, but then righted the ship by winning the Peter Pan in his final prep. In terms of quality, I’d say the 2012 field holds up well to this one. Pleasant Colony’s worst career performance came in his debut over the Belmont surface the only previous time he ran on it, so I’ll Have Another’s inexperience at Belmont might actually be a better situation than Pleasant Colony’s. I’d give I’ll Have Another every bit the chance to win the Triple Crown as Pleasant Colony boasted, and a photo-finish decision in this debate in his favor.

I’ll Have Another vs Spectacular Bid (1979)

Finally, there’s Spectacular Bid, arguably “the greatest horse to ever look through a bridle,” as his trainer Buddy Delp once put it. The Bid faced just seven rivals in his Belmont, bet to 30 cents on the dollar and expected to follow in Seattle Slew and Affirmed’s coronation of Triple Crown wins the previous two seasons. Spectacular Bid won the Derby and Preakness by daylight, more than eight combined lengths, and carried a 12-race winning streak into the Belmont; only once during the streak was the final result even in doubt. The Bid was a stakes winner at Belmont at 2, and little appeared to stand in his way. Red-hot sprinter Coastal stretched out to a route in winning the Peter Pan and parlayed that into a Belmont victory as the 4-1 second choice. None of this year’s new shooters has Coastal’s swagger, though Paynter may be a good comparison. But no matter whom I’ll Have Another faces, it’s difficult to argue he’s a more likely winner than Spectacular Bid was in 1979. The story of him stepping on a safety pin is one of those urban legends in racing you either choose to accept or laugh off, and certainly young rider Ronnie Franklin took plenty of heat for his handling of the pace. In this debate, it’s all Spectacular Bid.

So where does that leave I’ll Have Another in terms of winning the Triple Crown? He’s more likely to me than Pleasant Colony, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Charismatic, War Emblem, Funny Cide, and Big Brown. Those who appeared more likely to finish the Triple Crown than I’ll Have Another would be Smarty Jones, Spectacular Bid, and Real Quiet. Given that balance of power, it appears I’ll Have Another has one of the best shots we’ve seen in the 34 years since Affirmed.