06/14/2006 12:00AM

Critiquing the Triple Crown


In the aftermath of Jazil's second career victory in his eighth career start in the 11th race at Belmont Park on June 10, there are a few things deserving comment after the roller-coaster ride we all went through during the 2006 Triple Crown.

Common sense and hindsight say that Barbaro's easy Derby victory was anything but, given how no 1 1/4-mile race with 20 horses so early in a horse's career is won without expending important energy, either to get good position early, or push clear late as Barbaro did in the first and last quarter-miles.

Sure, he was not all out to win. Sure, he had been prepared beautifully to be ready for a terrific performance by trainer Michael Matz. But it also is true that Matz did not do very much with the colt in the two weeks leading up to the Preakness which suggests that he was trying to replenish his horse rather than push him to a new level of performance.

In the Preakness paddock, in the post parade, and in the warm-ups, Barbaro was tight as a drum, acting out all over the place, looking as if he was pent up with energy once again, ready to run through a brick wall. Unfortunately, Barbaro virtually did that, breaking through the starting gate in what everyone to date says was an unrelated incident to his eventual injury, but who can really say for sure?

Probably not the Pimlico track vets who gave Barbaro an eyeball exam while he was led back into the gate barely one minute after the colt anxiously pushed himself through. While the Pimlico vets did not see anything significant to give greater pause, greater pause for a closer inspection might have been worth another minute or two delay.

As many have said, jockey Edgar Prado's quick thinking and sensitive handling of Barbaro surely saved the colt's life and rekindled memories of the late Chris Antley saving Charismatic's life when that Derby-Preakness winner was injured while finishing a gallant third in the 1999 Belmont.

In this year's Preakness, we also saw a relatively inexperienced horse - Bernardini - ship down from New York to put in a Grade-1 professional performance that left us wondering if a healthy Barbaro could have, or would have, shown us what extra power he had under the hood. While that never will occur, horseplayers and horse lovers everywhere surely will remember the great surgical work and post-op care this wonderful racehorse has been getting at the New Bolton Center. It also is true that Barbaro is alive because of the advanced techniques developed when less fortunate horses were unable to be saved.

As for the suggestions from many quarters that Barbaro's injury and the defection of Preakness winner Bernardini from the Belmont further highlights the need to lessen the stress on Triple Crown horses by adding an extra week between the Derby and Preakness, I have a better suggestion that could have the desired positive impact that an undesirable change in the Triple Crown structure cannot.

As an observer of racing for several decades, it is my belief that extra stress on our rapidly maturing 3-year-olds comes much earlier than the spring classics. It comes during the 2-year-old racing season when so many of the best summer stakes are now run at longer distances than they had been run for most of the 20th Century.

Some racing officials say it is the pressure to prepare horses for the 1 1/16-mile Breeders' Cup in late October or early November that is the reason for the longer distances for the Hopeful, Futurity, and Champagne stakes, to name just a few that have been lengthened in recent years. But that argument does not take into account that 2-year-old races were run at shorter distances to prepare the best prospects in the country for the ultra-rich Garden State Stakes of the 1960's and 1970's, long before the Breeders' Cup came into existence.

The cumulative effect of running 2-year-olds in seven-furlong maiden, allowance, and stakes races in July and August, as well the numerous 2-year-old stakes at one mile and 1 1/16 miles in September and October - before the Breeders' Cup - could be taking more of a physical toll on the immature racehorse than all three Triple Crown races combined.

Suggestion to racing secretaries in New York, California and Kentucky: Reexamine the overall program for 2-year-olds and jointly consider scaling back distances for all summer and early fall 2-year-old races presently listed at seven furlongs or longer. Scale them back a half-furlong each.

As for the call from some quarters to install synthetic racing surfaces at the Triple Crown venues for the overall safety of the Thoroughbred racehorse, that surely is a noble purpose. But, are we certain that these newly developed artificial surfaces will not create severe breathing problems when horses ingest the wax coated particles that may be kicked back into their lungs?

Do we really know if artificial surfaces will play evenly through several seasonal changes or daily shifts in humidity and/or precipitation that occur in different climates throughout the year? Turfway Park, the first track to install Polytrack certainly has had fewer breakdowns, but is it really wise for so many tracks to follow Turfway's lead so quickly without a longer period of observation?

If flaws come to the surface, (pun intended), will responsible track officials have the guts to reverse their decisions?

For the 2006 Belmont Stakes, New York racing officials had a very tough marketing assignment, dealing with the absence of both the Derby and Preakness winners and the general apathy toward the 1 1/2-mile Test of the Champion that afflicts the 138-year-old race whenever no champion possibly can be crowned. Still, they put on a strong card to support the main event and a good crowd of 61,000 did come to the 101-year-old racecourse.

As for the television coverage of the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont, there were many sensitive aspects to the way NBC handled the disturbing Barbaro incident in the Preakness, but the New York Racing Association's decision to sell the Belmont Stakes broadcast rights separately to ABC may have been shortsighted from a promotional point of view and from an immediate loss to viewers who really needed expert follow-up on the Barbaro story beyond the good insights provided by commentators Jerry Bailey and Randy Moss on ABC.

How can racing or NYRA benefit by having the Belmont broadcast outside the scope of the Triple Crown, where the Derby promotes the Preakness and the Preakness promotes the Belmont?

As for the disconnect in the Barbaro follow-up, many viewers would have liked to have seen Prado discuss the prerace warm-up with a reporter while the prerace warm-up tape was playing for his commentary. Prado could have explained to the casual television viewer exactly what he was looking at when he glanced down to the colt's right hind leg three times during the warmup. While it is obvious that Prado would have pointed out anything disturbing to a track vet, his explanation of what he was visually checking accompanied by videotape evidence would have made a powerful point: Jockeys are born to ride, not to die.

As for Belmont stakes winner Jazil, he was quick to move to the tiring leaders on the turn under a creative ride by 18-year-old Fernando Jara. But, like so many other horses on the Belmont Stakes Day card, once Jazil got the jump on Bluegrass Cat turning into the stretch, he was uncatchable on a packed down, extremely fast racing surface that played as if the rest of the field was running uphill.

Going forward, the best 3-year-olds in training are Preakness winner Bernardini and the Dubai Derby winner Discreet Cat, both owned by the Dubai ruling family, who also own Jazil. Next in the rankings is the lightly raced Sunriver who finished a good third in the Belmont and has more upside than Jazil, or Bluegrass Cat. But when championship votes are counted at the end of the year, no one will be surprised if Barbaro did enough on the first Saturday in May to hold them all safe.