06/11/2006 11:00PM

Evidence we're entering a new era

Email

NEW YORK - Jazil's victory in Saturday's Belmont Stakes was in many ways a fitting way to punctuate the end of an American Classic season that did a good job of turning the Triple Crown on its head.

The 2006 Triple Crown series was, of course, thrown into disarray when Barbaro broke down so early into the Preakness Stakes. But even before that, there was already evidence that this Triple Crown season was going to be really different.

As popular a selection as he was in the Kentucky Derby, and as impressive as he was in victory in Louisville, it does not alter the fact that Barbaro became the first horse in 50 years to win the Derby without having raced in five or more weeks. And 50 years of history is nothing to take lightly when you consider that the Derby was run for the 132nd time this year.

After Barbaro suffered his terrible injury in the Preakness, Bernardini went on to win decisively. He did so despite having had only three prior lifetime starts, without having raced at 2, and perhaps most incredibly, without having had a prior race around two turns.

And when Jazil won the Belmont, he did so with only a maiden win to his credit, and with only two published workouts in the five weeks he was off between his dead-heat fourth in the Derby, and the Belmont.

Look at the records of the men who trained the winners of this year's Triple Crown events. Up until this year, Michael Matz, the trainer of Barbaro, had never had a starter in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, or the Belmont Stakes. The same is true of Tom Albertrani, the trainer of Bernardini. And Kiaran McLaughlin, the trainer of Jazil, previously had only one starter in the Derby, two losses in the Preakness, and had never before run a horse in the Belmont.

In recent years, we have seen trainers such as Barclay Tagg (Funny Cide), John Servis (Smarty Jones), and Tim Ritchey (Afleet Alex) have big success as virtual newcomers to the Triple Crown (Ritchey did have one Preakness starter before Afleet Alex). But in their cases, they had horses who were either uncommonly hot, or simply head and shoulders better than their contemporaries. This year was different. Triple Crown inexperience was overcome three times, by three horses, in three different ways, taking this trend to a new level.

The same was mostly true of the winning jockeys in this year's Triple Crown. Edgar Prado, Barbaro's jockey, was, of course, the exception. Although this seasoned veteran was previously 0 for 14 in the Derby and Preakness combined, Prado did have two Belmont Stakes wins to his credit. But Javier Castellano, Bernardini's rider, was unsuccessful in just one prior Derby mount, in only two prior Belmont mounts, and had never even ridden in the Preakness. Jazil's jockey, Fernando Jara, who won't even turn 19 until December, had never previously ridden in any of the Triple Crown races.

Perhaps Barbaro was able to overcome 50 years of Derby history solely because he was a stone cold freak. Maybe Bernardini's unlikely profile proved meaningless because Barbaro's breakdown started a chain of events that caused the Preakness to completely fall apart. It could be that Jazil's Belmont was reduced to a nothing event because of the absence of the Derby and Preakness winners.

Or, perhaps the results of the 2006 Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont marked a turning point in the Triple Crown where the fundamental qualifications for success that always used to apply, simply don't apply anymore. Only time will tell.

Despite the paucity of published workouts since the Derby, McLaughlin deserves a lot of credit for having Jazil fit enough to stay the 1 1/2 miles of the Belmont better than the rest. Despite still being 2 1/2 years away from being legally able to enjoy a celebratory toast for winning the oldest Triple Crown event, Jara, in particular, deserves a lot of credit for an outstanding ride. Jara coolly recovered after momentarily losing his iron when Jazil hit the side of the gate at the start. Jara was smart to ask Jazil to pick up the pace early in the run down the backstretch, and he deftly threaded Jazil through horses when his colt began his rally in earnest.

Jara showed wisdom beyond his years when he angled Jazil to the outside on the far turn to tackle Bluegrass Cat right at the point when Bluegrass Cat was about to take over from the tiring pacesetters. If Jara was a little less aggressive, or if he waited a bit longer to go, Bluegrass Cat would have opened a clear lead, and might have had a moment to relax. Bluegrass Cat was a very tough opponent down the stretch, but he might have been even more formidable if he had had that moment to reset. But Jara and Jazil wouldn't allow it. By not allowing Bluegrass Cat even that one moment of peace, Jara and Jazil took just enough starch out of Bluegrass Cat to enable them to pull away from that opponent in the final furlong.