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Hovdey: Triple Crown remains elusive prize on two continents
By Jay Hovdey
It’s not my fault. Yeah, I know I was there, both at Belmont Park and Doncaster. But so were a few other people I suppose – media types, the odd wandering horseman, aging Triple Crown groupies – and they must share the burden of bearing witness to disappointments of historic proportions. By now I have unpacked from the trip to England, having found no residue of bad karma in the luggage (it wouldn’t have cleared customs anyway). I also reviewed what tumbled from my laptop about Camelot last week, as well as I’ll Have Another earlier this year, and discovered no overt declarations that either colt had this Triple Crown in the bag.
But after winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, I’ll Have Another couldn’t make it a few times around Belmont’s Big Sandy three weeks later without something going “twang!” in a tendon, forcing his removal from the Belmont Stakes – and potential racing posterity – on the eve of the event. These things happen, except never like that before.
Camelot, on the other hand, was given a full two months to recover from the rigors of his wins in the English 2000 Guineas, the Epsom Derby, and the Irish Derby before he was put on a plane in Ireland and flown to northern England the day before his Triple Crown date in the St. Leger. He emerged ready and able to tackle the full circuit of the ancient Doncaster course, only to be defeated three-quarters of a length by an unsung longshot. These things also happen, and they happen all the time.
Why? Go ahead and count the ways. Before the race, Lester Piggott said, “Camelot should kill them over the last furlong and a half.” You hear this kind of talk from racing folk in various forms, from handicappers encouraged to belabor the obvious to the more thoughtful analysts like Andrew Beyer, who wrote last spring, “I’ll be cheering wholeheartedly for I’ll Have Another to win the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.“
Such sentiments are hard to resist and tend to humanize their hosts, although it’s best to cling firmly to the warnings like the one from the great Irish veteran Mick Kinane, now retired, as the St. Leger approached, “There’s no such thing as an unbeatable horse.” So said the rider of the once-beaten superhorse, Sea the Stars.
As for Piggott, his eight victories in the St. Leger gave him the right to wander out on any limb of his choosing, especially since one of those eight came aboard Nijinsky, the last English Triple Crown winner, in 1970.
This is silly, I know, but go ahead if you like and blame it on the color purple, since there are general similarities in the silks flown by I’ll Have Another and Camelot. Paul Reddam’s wide purple hoop is set off by crisp white, while the jacket worn by Joseph O’Brien on Camelot for Derrick Smith and partners Michael Tabor and Susan Magnier is of a purple and white vertical-striped pattern. Probably a coincidence.
Of more significance, at least in terms of racetrack juju, is the possible spell cast by the popular equine artist Jacqiue Jones of Newmarket in her creation of an elaborate “St. Leger Horse” for the charity auction of the Leger Legends Luncheon held at Doncaster on the Wednesday before Camelot’s race. (Full and delighted disclosure – the wife Julie Krone participated in the featured Legends race for retired riders, won by Kinane in a thriller over George Duffield.)
Jones decorated the nearly life-sized creature with the images of a hundred years worth of St. Leger winners. It was a grand gesture, fetching a bid of approximately $10,000 that will go toward the Jack Berry House of Injured Jockeys Fund and the Northern Racing College. Strangely, though, Jones decided to include Camelot as the 2012 St. Leger winner, as if he were home and dry. Fortunately, the real winner Encke is, like Camelot, a bay, and the colors of his owner, Godolphin blue, are at least in the same neighborhood as purple on the pallette.
If nothing else, the Triple Crown disappointments on both sides of the Atlantic this season speak volumes about the difficulty of the task. In fact, the worldly Europeans have pretty much given up even trying for the English version at all – Camelot was the first to attempt the sweep since Nijinsky – while the Americans, bereft of a Crown since 1978, keep beating their heads against the wall, refusing to take no for an answer.
After so much time has passed, it is tempting to ascribe some kind of mystical curse attached to the idea of a single horse winning the three most significant races for their generation, both U.S. and UK. At the same time, and with each failure, there are practical reasons that have nothing to do with fate, only fortune.
Had this or that happened during the course of their Belmonts, the names of Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, and Smarty Jones, at the very least, might have been added to the American list. Likewise for this season, especially in the case of Camelot, for whom the litany of reasons he lost grew daily in the wake of his St. Leger defeat. Most recently, according to jockey Joseph O’Brien, the colt clipped heels early in the race and became agitated.
Well, okay. But then a race like the St. Leger, or the Belmont, is never really one with one grand, sweeping gesture. To succeed in quality races of great distance a horse and jockey must string together a series of little victories along the way. A length here, a free run there, the proper proportion of “whoa” and “go” – they add up, and they make a difference.
Chris McCarron rode perhaps the greatest American classic this reporter has witnessed in the 1997 Belmont Stakes when he had Touch Gold on the lead around the first turn, fourth on the backstretch, and then swung wide on the final turn to power down the middle of the track, ending the Triple Crown dreams of Gary Stevens and Silver Charm by three-quarters of a length.
“They’re not supposed to be able to do that,” said Stevens, in the wake of his most disappointing moment as a rider. “Maybe that’s why I feel so devastated. This was the best race my colt ran in the Triple Crown. It’s just amazing.”
And I can’t wait for the next one.
What about Black Caviar and Frankel? So far they haven't been beaten and Blackie even came all the way to England and still the two dodged each other. Personal Ensign was undefeated although she barely beat a three-year old Winning Colors who had a campaign that would have caused two or three tendon injuries amongst aour tender tendon crop this year.
I thought Jockey O'Brien had a chance to angle Camelot out as they came into the stretch. Leaving himself trapped on the inside made the difference, as he couldn't let his mount run sooner. If they could rerun the race, knowing what they know now, Camelot would win. But that is just one more of the many factors that make racing complicated and equine performances inconsistent. Another thought: Did outstanding horses of the past, such as British and American TC winners, stand out from their peers more than do top horses of today because there was less depth back then? Instead of sulking about the dearth of bright stars today, maybe we should appreciate the depth of quality that horses have to compete against. As great as he was, maybe Citation would not have won sixteen in a row if he were running these days, because he wouldn't just encounter mediocre horses that roll over and cry, "Uncle!" Don't claim to know for sure, just wondering.
I say the British TC is much tougher. How many horses can win 3 races from 1 mile to 1 7/8 miles over 3 month period? That's incredibly hard. They should move the Belmont to 4 weeks after the Preakness. Some very good horses simply got tired in the stretch. Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Smarty Jones, Funny Cide. Not saying they would've won but the race is so demanding that the horse going for the TC needs more time than 3 weeks.
In the absence of each other Sunday Silence and/or Easy Goer win the Triple Crown for fun. Silver Charm ran some huge beyers in his TC races. Something like a 116 for the Derby and a 118 for the Preakness. That was a great year with SC, Captain Bodgit, Free House and Touch Gold.
I don't think the British Triple Crown is all that elusive. It's just that they don't go for it. I think Sea The Stars would have won it but he won the Arc instead. They need to up the St. Leger purse and move the date up so horses can run in both more easily. The Arc is the main goal of most European distance runners. No trainer is going to 'prep' for the Arc in a 1 7/8 mile race 3 weeks prior. And even if they did no horse would be able to win both back-to-back.
Thanks for your wonderful column!
"Triple Crown groupie". Love that one. Count me in
Spot on about McCarron and Touch Gold. Remember thinking he was out of it only to be as stunned as Stevens was when he rallied between horses to win it late. A brilliant ride that denied a worthy horse the Triple.
Thats the name of this game for all of us involved.
Elusive... as it should be.
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